In this page, I listed out the essential Southeast Asia ingredients that are very commonly seen in the kitchen. It is best if you can get the fresh herbs and spices, but they are not always available in that form and hence a lot of time, I use powdered or dried herbs and spices. They are convenient too!
Kaffir Lime Leaves (Daun Jeruk)
These hardy leaves have intense citrus aroma. My mom often asked me to tear the edges of the leaves to release their aromas in cooking. They are usually discarded at the end of cooking, but some recipes asked for the leaves shredded into thin strips and these can be eaten when they are thin enough. Recipes using Kaffir Lime leaves
The curry leaves comes from curry leaves tree. Not related to curry powder that you might have in your kitchen. They are so aromatic and the aroma is hard to describe. Recipes using Curry Leaves
This herb has a citrusy aroma and usually can be used whole or finely chopped to be used in recipe. The stalks are usually bruised with heavy objects to release flavor during cooking
Ginger is one of my favorites to used. They are widely used not just in Southeast Asia, but all over Asia. My mom swears by ginger for many medicinal usage. I used to find big plump nice looking ginger at the grocery store (common sense right?), but mom said the best ginger is the one that is skinny, as it is more intense in taste. She says that Southeast-Asian-grown gingers have a more intense aroma and taste compare to one from China. Living her in the U.S. though, we only get ginger imported from China. Recipes using Ginger
This root is in a ginger family. It tasted and smelled nothing like ginger though if you ask me. Powdered form is available as well. They are usually “weaker” and I usually need to use more. Recipes using Galangal
Guess what…this root is also in a ginger family. Intensely orange in color (it stays for few days too when I got it on my fingers). It also doesn’t taste or smell like ginger. Powder turmeric is also commonly sold this days. I do use the powder too sometimes when I don’t feel like grinding the turmeric into paste (and stain my Vitamix food processor all orange!).
Recipes using Turmeric
Coriander Seeds (Ketumbar)
If you have ever tasted coriander leaves (also known as cilantro leaves), I can tell you that the seeds have completely different taste and aroma altogether. Coriander seeds have more of the sweet lemony aroma that the leaves do not have. They are usually grind into a paste. Powdered form is available as well and I found that the powdered form is a great substitution to the real seeds. Recipes using Coriander Seeds
Star Anise (Bunga Lawang/Pekak)
Star Anise is used often in both native Indonesian and Chinese Indonesian cooking. Mostly used in braised meat dishes and curry dishes. In Hokkian language we call it “pe kak”(8 corners)
Candlenuts have this wax-looking appearance on its outside skin and the oil are used extensively back in the old days for hair and skin care. My grandma used candlenuts as a conditioner. Candlenuts are very commonly used in Indonesian in many cooking. The closest substitution to this is macademia nuts. Candlenuts are called Kukui Nut in Hawaii
Cloves are use extensively in many of the cooking in Indonesia, guess again, curries and meat dishes. When I was little I kept telling my mom that it has that aroma pretty close to cigarettes 🙂 That’s because certain brand of cigarettes in Indonesia use cloves in their products. But don’t you worry about your dishes smelling like cigarettes because it won’t 🙂
Cardamom is one of my favorite spices. They are being used from savory to sweet dishes and anything in between. In Indonesia, mainly in curry dishes. There are several different kinds. I found these bigger and darker ones very aromatic
The more commonly seen used in Indonesian cooking are these white ones
Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce (Kecap Manis)
Kecap manis are mainly added in cooking to give that darker color and also to add sweetness to the dishes you are preparing. These two brands I use often are Kecap Manis Cap Bango and Kecap Manis ABC
Fish sauce is probably one of the indispensable items in Thai, Vietnamese, Laos, and Cambodian kitchen. Fish sauce is very intense in flavor and a little sure goes a long way.
Shrimp Paste (Belacan)
Shrimp paste is commonly used across the Southeast Asian countries. My kids say “it’s stinky mama”. If you are not used to the smell of it, you may think it’s stinky ha..ha..! but they don’t mind eating dishes I made with shrimp paste however. It adds incredible umami flavor to the dish. Each Southeast Asia country has its own version of shrimp paste.
Dried Anchovies (Ikan Teri/Ikan Bilis)
Dried anchovies are very commonly used throughout Asia, not just Southeast Asia. The Japanese and Korean also use lots of dried anchovies in their cooking. They come in different sizes. Recipes using Anchovies
Dried Shrimp (Hebi/Ebi)
Dried shrimp is definitely used very extensively throughout Southeast Asia. It can be used in sambal dishes, to make stocks, stir-fry dishes, etc. It is often said that dried shrimp add that extra depth of flavor. Some say it’s umami. They come in various sizes too. Usually they need to be soaked in water before being used in cooking. Recipes using Dried Shrimp
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