The experts assure us that cooking at home is cheaper than takeout, but sometimes that's hard to believe. Especially when you've decided to make an alluring Indonesian stir-fry or Thai curry whose mile-long ingredients list has sent you to three markets for $42 worth of unfamiliar bottles and cans.
Even if the recipe turns out to be a home run, it hardly seems worth the effort or expense of stocking an Asian pantry worthy of Morimoto if you use these ingredients only once or twice a year when you have the time to tackle an exotic all-day cooking project.
But I don't advocate dialing for your dinner. Instead I suggest you make use of that fish sauce and yellow miso paste in your most quotidian cooking. Fortunately, most of these specialty ingredients last a long time in your pantry or in your refrigerator.
And just because you found them in the international foods aisle doesn't mean you can't press them into service for your all-American dinners.
Sriracha - a.k.a. rooster sauce - is probably the most versatile bottle of the bunch. (There's even a volume, The Sriracha Cookbook, dedicated to the concoction, with 50 recipes that call for it.) "What doesn't it go on?" asks Mitch Prensky, chef at Supper, a restaurant that skews Southern, not Asian.
The chili sauce with a cult following brings a certain welcome amount of fire to everything it touches. Sriracha fans apply it as a straight condiment to tacos, pizza, scrambled eggs, and even popcorn.
But the heat alone isn't what makes it a staple in professional kitchens dedicated to all different kinds of cuisine. "It's also a little sour and a little sweet," says Prensky. Supper's deviled eggs rely on it for a little kick and extra layers of flavor.
Fish sauce is another ingredient beloved by Prensky and many chefs. The extraction of fermented anchovies is a close cousin of Worcestershire sauce, and it's becoming so popular among chefs and home cooks that higher-end brands are hitting the market.
Red Boat, a brew described with terms normally applied to olive oil like "extra virgin" and "first pressing," is my own new favorite. I add a few drops of it to many everyday meals. It brings out the meatiness in beef and the mushroomy flavor of roasted or sauteed portobellos. Even local tomatoes seem riper with a micro splash of the stuff.
"I like fish sauce as a marinade for steak: one part fish sauce to two parts water. Let the meat soak overnight," says Prensky. The salty liquid permeates the meat, seasoning it as it sinks in. After it's grilled, there's no fishlike funk, only enhanced meatiness. Prensky also suggests taking nori - those dried sheets of seaweed used to roll sushi - and grinding it to a powder in a spice mill or blender for a quick seasoning that perks up grilled steak, seared fish, or roast chicken.
Many Asian ingredients are flavor freight trains - some combination of pungent, salty, fiery, or sour. But others are more delicate than their European counterparts.
Christopher Kearse, chef at French-leaning Will BYOB, often uses coconut milk instead of the more traditional butter and cream because of its cleaner flavor. "Dairy is heavy - it totally coats your tongue. In a vegetable soup, for example, using coconut milk instead lets something like asparagus really stand out," says Kearse. It's vegetal, bright, and rich at once thanks to special properties of coconut.
Toasted sesame oil can be another subtle way to accent flavors. Rich Landau, chef at Vedge Restaurant in Center City, says that his all-time favorite trick is using a tiny dash of sesame oil along with whatever neutral cooking oil goes into a recipe.
"I learned this by watching Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. He used this trick a lot in the '90s when he was lightening up his cooking," says Landau. "The sesame oil adds an amazing little hint of nuttiness to whatever you're cooking, without having it taste like an Asian dish."
Kearse's recipes have other secret Asian weapons: Surprisingly, he uses homemade dashi - a kelp and fish broth that is available powdered in packets - as the base for an exceptionally flavorful risotto. The result isn't fishy, only noticeably more savory than that made from the usual chicken stock.
It's the same reason that Gregory Vernick, of Rittenhouse Square's Vernick Food and Drink, adds kombu (a dried sea vegetable) to his poultry brine. "It adds a very subtle saline, oysterlike quality that is better than a one-dimensional saltiness," says Vernick. Elsewhere on Vernick's menu, you'll find miso mixed with eggplant to round out the vegetable's mellow flavor, and a tiny bit of ground star anise perking up plain old black pepper.
"The star anise enhances pepper's aromatic properties and complexities without really changing the taste," says Vernick. He recommends using this mixture to season simple roasted salmon or broiled shrimp. Like most of these suggestions for ramping up your everyday cooking while using up your surplus of Asian ingredients, it's a subtle way to make a dish that you would normally season with just salt and pepper a little better, a little more interesting. With these tips and your collection of half-empty bottles, your own weeknight dinners can be a little more exciting, too.