Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington is a regular at H-Mart, the Korean supermarket that's in 11 states. That's no surprise. Many Asian-restaurant chefs frequent the chain, which, like others of its kind, carries goods from all over the Far East.
What was surprising for Okochi was to run into his friend and fellow restaurateur Michel Richard at the Asian market, the French chef's hands full of groceries. "He had no idea what they were," Okochi told me by phone recently. "He just bought them to experiment."
That anecdote captures the spirit of curious food lovers wishing to enrich their pantry and their cooking vocabulary and being willing to break with convention and rules. Yes, we were all taught which specific ingredient goes into which specific cuisine. Now, it's time to shuffle that around.
And there's no better place to do that than the Asian supermarkets. These establishments provide food adventures (foot-long okra! live snails!) and eye-opening bargains.
The variety of sauces and jarred pastes is truly wondrous, not to mention the entire aisles devoted to dried mushrooms and noodles. Whether imported from China, Korea, Thailand, or Japan, all the Asian goodness on the shelves seems to coexist in perfect harmony.
But it also can be confusing; the following items and ways to use them are just a start. You'll find thousands of other exciting foods on your visits. Do as chef Richard does: Grab a few mystery ingredients and start experimenting.
Fermented bean pastes are popular in East and Southeast Asia. Japanese miso can add a savory, umami-rich flavor to many foods, from soups to salad dressings and chocolate desserts. It comes in a variety of colors - white through yellow to brownish-red - and it can be mild and almost sweet, or salty and strongly flavored. Okochi prefers Marukome, a Japanese brand. Korean miso (doenjang) is chunky, with whole beans in it, and has a more pronounced flavor. Chinese fermented black bean sauce (douchi) is often flavored with ginger, chili pepper, garlic and/or soy sauce, and is excellent in stir-fries and stews.
The white miso is especially versatile, with a nutty flavor that complements dressings and highlights nuts and chocolate even in desserts, as in a hazelnut, chocolate, and miso cake.
When experimenting with miso, add it spoon by spoon, tasting along the way to discover what works for you. Mix a little miso with mayonnaise for a more flavorful sandwich spread. Blend it with butter to brush on fish or vegetables. Use it to glaze chicken, and stir it into mushroom soup or any stew.
Soy sauce. The neat rows of bottles that stretch down a long aisle in an Asian market pose a challenge for novice home cooks: Which one will work best? How many kinds are good to have on hand? Light (regular) soy sauce is well established in America, but it's a good idea to try the Chinese dark soy sauce that's made with caramel or molasses, or the thick soy sauce that has even more sugar and a very intense flavor. Chef Janet Yu of the Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton, Md., prefers the Hong Kong brand Koon Chun, which is hoisin-like.
Japanese soy sauce is mild and has a rounder taste than Chinese-made soy sauce. Okochi prefers the Japanese brand Yamasa. Chef Aulie Bunyarataphan of Mama Rouge Southeast Asian Bistro in Washington recommends using Thai black soy sauce (not to be confused with the Chinese dark sauce), which adds a nice dark color even to quick stir-fry dishes.
Seaweed. You can find it dried, roasted, powdered and, on occasion, fresh. Sprinkle the powdered version over eggs instead of or in addition to salt. Add it to veggie smoothies; it will enhance the flavor the way salt does. Sprinkle roasted, shredded seaweed over salads, or simply snack on it. Hydrate dried seaweed and add it to salads with cucumber and radish. Use the fresh kind to make seaweed salad.
Gluten-free noodles. Among the dozens of types available in Asian supermarkets, fresh and dried, many are gluten-free. Buckwheat noodles, like the Japanese soba and Korean vermicelli, pair well with heavy tomato sauces. Rice noodles, fresh and dried, work well in soups and salads.
For the adventurous palate, there are fresh Chinese tofu noodles, Korean sweet potato noodles, Vietnamese tapioca noodles, and black fern-root noodles (the last is a vegetarian answer to squid ink noodles). All have a delicate texture that will work best in salads and soups or with a light sauce.
Rice cakes. Short logs of rice dough are used just like gnocchi and are another great gluten-free option. They are available in the refrigerated and freezer sections of Korean supermarkets and, just like gnocchi, should be cooked in boiling salted water before serving with your favorite Italian/Korean sauce.
Tofu skin. The skins (sold in sheets) come fresh or dried. They are used for making spring rolls but are easy to adapt for Italian (think lasagna sheets) or Balkan (instead of phyllo dough) cuisine, with the added benefits of extra protein and no carbs.
Japanese rice seasoning. Called furikake, the blend usually contains sesame seeds, shaved dried fish, and seaweed. Wasabi fumi furikake is especially good: a little spicy thanks to the wasabi, and it works well not only with rice but also sprinkled over salads and mixed into mayonnaise for sandwiches and salads. A dash of furikake in scrambled eggs makes them divine; add one teaspoon for every two eggs.
Fruits and vegetables. Besides low prices, the freshness and variety of what you'll find at Asian markets are hard to beat. Look for Thai, Chinese, and Indian eggplants, purple and white yams, long beans, bok choy tips, mustard greens, Chinese broccoli, and lotus root; rambutan, prickly jackfruit, pink and green dragon fruit, litchi, guava, and even reasonably priced prickly pear.
Fresh turmeric root. A member of the ginger family, turmeric root has the same anti-inflammatory powers. It can elevate any dish to the next level, including stews, rice, marinades and veggie smoothies. Grate it into any dish that calls for ground turmeric (one to two inches of the root for every teaspoon of ground turmeric). Don food-safe gloves to handle it, and an apron, and cover the surface you're working on, as the root stains without mercy.
Soybeans. Cook them as you would any beans; you'll be adding more protein to your dish than with other beans. To make soybean hummus: Combine two cups of cooked soybeans, 1/2 cup of their cooking water, 1/2 cup of tahini, 1/2 cup of fresh lemon juice, and three garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor. Mix for five minutes, until very smooth. Season with salt and crushed red pepper flakes.
Licorice root. There is anise-y aroma and a bit of sweetness in shaved dried licorice root, which makes it lovely for stirring into a hot cup of tea.
Hazelnut, Chocolate and Miso Cake
2 cups skin-on hazelnuts
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons white miso
1 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet; roast for 15 minutes, shaking the baking sheet twice during roasting. Let them cool completely. Finely grind the hazelnuts in a food processor or a blender (in pulses). Don't overprocess the hazelnuts, as they will release fat and could turn to hazelnut butter.
3. Generously grease a 5-by-10-inch loaf pan with a little butter, then line it with parchment paper, leaving the two long sides of paper overhanging the edge of the pan. (They will be used to help lift out the cake.)
4. Combine the 8 tablespoons of butter and the sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or a handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for a few minutes, until creamy. Stop to scrape down the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until well blended. Stop to scrape down the bowl. Add the miso; beat briefly on medium speed until incorporated.
5. Combine the ground hazelnuts, flour, baking powder, and cocoa powder on a sheet of wax paper. On low speed, add that mixture to the mixing bowl in three additions, alternating with the heavy cream; start and end with the hazelnut-flour mixture. Pour the batter into the pan, smoothing it evenly. Bake (at 350 degrees) for 60 to 65 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.
6. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then lift out the cake and place it on the rack. Cool completely before serving.
and Washington caterer Vered Guttman
Per serving (based on 16): 320 calories, 5 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Parsnip, Carrot and Turmeric Root Soup With Goat Cheese Dumplings
Makes 8 servings
For the soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 pound carrots, scrubbed well and cut into 1-inch chunks
12 ounces parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
One 4-inch piece fresh turmeric root, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
4 cups water (may substitute vegetable broth or chicken broth)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons toasted cumin seed, for garnish
1/4 cup chopped scallions, green parts only, for garnish
For the dumplings:
5 ounces fresh goat cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
16 to 24 four-inch square wonton wrappers
Salt, for the cooking water
1. For the soup: Combine the tablespoon of oil and the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir to coat; cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the carrots, parsnips, and turmeric root slices; cook for 1 minute, then add the water. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 30 minutes.
2. Stir in the salt, then use an immersion blender to puree the soup until it's smooth and creamy.
3. While the soup is cooking, make the dumplings: Combine the goat cheese and oil in a bowl.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put a small bowl of water next to it, along with a small pastry brush.
5. Lay one wonton wrapper on a clean, dry work surface so that it looks like a diamond, with one point facing you. Put a spoonful of goat cheese at the center. Brush a little water on the wrapper's surface all around the filling. Fold up the bottom point so it covers the filling, then fold the left side and the right side, leaving a pointed/triangle top. Transfer to the baking sheet; repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. Wrap the baking sheet in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.
6. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Just before serving, reduce the heat to medium, and gently cook the dumplings for 2 minutes. While the dumplings are cooking, divide the soup among warmed soup bowls. Top each portion with 2 (16-count total) or 3 (24-count) dumplings.
7. Garnish with a sprinkling of toasted cumin seed and scallion. Drizzle with oil and serve.
Note: To toast cumin seed, heat a small dry skillet over medium heat. Add the seeds and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant. Transfer to a heatproof bowl to cool completely.
Per serving: 280 calories, 9 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 450 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.