The best way to enhance Asian food is to keep your larder well stocked. With help from the experts at Harrods, Fiona Matthias selects some essential ingredients



Variety may be the spice of life, but spices put the variety into Asian cooking. And if the store cupboard is full of them you can hardly go wrong when taking up the wok or the sauté pan. There is passion inherent in using spice: men have died over saffron, the deep orange-red dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus. According to The Dictionary Of Food And Nutrition (OUP, 1995) it takes 1,500 flowers to produce 1g of saffron, and this in turn yields a mere 50mg of extract.

Szechuan peppercorns

Szechuan peppercorns aren't true peppercorns, but rather dried flower buds. You're most likely to encounter them as part of a mixture, such as Chinese five-spice powder, or the Japanese shichimi togarashi. The latter is a seven-spice mixture including red pepper flakes, roughly ground sansho (the seedpods of the Japanese pepper), flakes of mandarin orange peel, black hemp seeds, tiny flakes of green nori and white sesame seeds. The mixture is available in varying strengths.

Bengal garam masala

This is an aromatic blend of dry-roasted and ground warm spices. The classic mixture - although it can vary from region to region - is made up of equal quantities of cloves, cinnamon and green cardamom with a couple of bay leaves, toasted and ground to a fine powder. Most Asian food stores will stock it.

Soy sauce and soya beans

Soy sauce is absolutely essential. It is prepared from fermented soya bean. The bean, which has been cultivated in China for about 5,000 years, is a good source of protein and oil. Soya beans, often mixed with wheat, are fermented with Aspergillus oryzae over one to three years. Modern high-temperature methods of production, however, have now shortened that processing time. Soy sauce is used throughout Asia. The Japanese soy sauce, shoyu, is sweeter and less salty than the Chinese soy sauce. The latter comes in dark and light versions. The light soy sauce has a more delicate flavour. When the colour is not specified, this is the one to use. Dark soy sauce gives food a rich colour and is most often used for "red" cooking: dark stews and meats. Tamari is a wheat-free soy sauce.

Yellow bean and black bean sauce

Yellow bean sauce is made from fermented soya beans and is available in cans or jars. But if you buy it in a can, transfer it to a jar. It can then be stored indefinitely in the fridge. Chinese bean sauce isn't as salty as Thai bean sauce. Black bean sauce is made from fermented black beans. A variation is hot black bean sauce, which has chilli paste added, and black bean sauce with garlic. Oyster sauce can be bought in most large supermarkets and Asian stores.

Chilli peppers

The smaller the Asian chilli the hotter it is. Bird's eye chilli peppers are the smallest and hottest. Dried red chilli peppers can be soaked in hot water to soften them, and if you can't stand the heat, remove the seeds. Dried red Kashmiri chilli peppers are big and broad. These are regarded as the best for making chilli paste for Indian marinades and sauces. Chilli paste is a blend of hot chilli peppers, garlic, oil and salt, and is used throughout Asian cuisine. Green chilli paste in Indian cookery is used where flavour is required rather than heat. Ginger-garlic paste, once pre-pared, can be frozen in an ice-cube tray.

Star anise

Star anise, a star-shaped Chinese fruit made up of eight segments, is used to give a liquorice flavour to savoury dishes, particularly those with pork and poultry. The fruit is sun-dried until hard and brown. Use it sparingly.

Chinese dried mushrooms

Used for flavour and aroma. These mushrooms need to be soaked in warm water for 20 minutes before using. Wood ears, a dried grey-black funghi, should also be soaked in warm water for 20 minutes before using. They have a crunchy texture and mild flavour.


Tofu, dried bean curd, is sold in a cake form. It can be cut into strips or slices, and can be stewed, braised or fried.

Straw mushrooms, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots

These are all staples of the "can" shelf. And noodles of all varieties should also be kept in stock.


Sesame oil is nutty and aromatic. Use sparingly as it has a strong flavour. Sold in jars, it will keep indefinitely. Chilli oil is made by frying small red chillies slowly in oil. The oil is reddish and very hot.


Glutinous rice is used for stuffings and puddings. Black rice is a glutinous and ancient variety of Japanese rice, with a strong flavour.