These are items I keep stocked in my pantry throughout the year and use all the time. They are particularly helpful for creating a flavorful meal ready for the table in minutes.
Coconut Oil (unrefined, organic virgin coconut oil): I most often use Trader Joe’s as it is good quality and inexpensive. You can find many different options at Whole Foods but prices can soar up to the high teens. I don’t think there is a need to do that. Coconut oil is the superfood of the moment with many claimed health benefits. I like that it can tolerate high heat for much longer than other oils. It also has a mildly sweet coconut flavor that is a great pairing with salty condiments like soy sauce and fish sauce.
Tamari (Organic soy sauce): There are so many different soy sauces to choose from. I like Tamari because it has a strong flavor so I use less and dilute with water, if needed. I always choose organic. If you are gluten-free, keep an eye on the label as many soy sauces contain gluten. Tamari, a byproduct of the Japanese production of miso, almost never contains wheat.
Toasted Sesame Oil: I adore the aroma and flavor of this nutty brown oil. (Make sure you don’t have plain sesame oil, which is clear yellow. An Asian market or section will usually just offer “toasted” but a supermarket oil section might have the clear plain sesame oil.) Add a small amount to stir-frys, salads, marinades and soups to create a distinctive and special taste.
Rice Vinegar: Sigh….rice vinegar…what’s not to love. It is mildly acidic, sweet and light so it can hit just the right spot in salads, as a dipping sauce with soy sauce and I use all the time for quick pickling vegetables. Also can be labeled as rice wine vinegar. Avoid a label that says, “Seasoned Rice Vinegar.” The plain is best.
Rice Noodles: Rice noodles are gluten-free and can be prepared in minutes needing only a quick soak in boiling water before mixing with a sauce, stir fry or even serving as a salad. They come in many different widths, from rice vermicelli to wide flat noodles. I usually stick to the vermicelli because they cook faster.
Vietnamese Egg Noodles: I love these noodles that are packaged like little noodle nests. They are delicious in soups and under stir-fry vegetables.
Soba Noodles: Most versions of these Japanese buckwheat noodles are gluten-free but check the label. Soba noodles offer much more heft without making you feel heavy, which is quite an accomplishment, I think. They are equally good hot or cold and need only a cold tamari-based broth or are outstanding with a peanut sauce.
Miso: This is fermented soybean paste that is salty and most commonly enjoyed as a soup as the appetizer at Japanese restaurants. My kids love a spoonful whisked together with hot water until a broth forms. Miso also is a common recipe ingredient in dressings and marinades. White miso is mild and likely most familiar in traditional miso soup, while the red miso has a stronger flavor. Try both and decide what you like best. Miso is sold in the refrigerator section of natural food stores (Like Mom’s Organic and Whole Foods). Do not buy dried miso in the canned soup section. It is not the same thing. Recipe for Soba Noodle Miso Soup.
Coconut Milk: I always have two cans in the pantry. Never use low-fat. It won’t work in most recipes and the coconut “fat” is packed with nutrition. Use as a substitute for water when making rice (1 can coconut milk combined with 2 cups water for every 2 cups of rice.) Or you can sauté vegetables, add your favorite curry seasoning then add a can of coconut milk, heat through and serve.)
*Asian/International supermarkets offer the best prices and usually a vast variety of items to choose from, which can be a little overwhelming. Check labels to avoid artificial coloring, preservatives and MSG. As is usually the case, the fewer ingredients, the better.
*When in doubt, I have never been disappointed in products made in Japan, Korea, Thailand or Vietnam, which brings me to….
*In general, I avoid any food products made in China as they have a horrible track record on food safety. Check labels.
*As always, try to get organic, if possible. This is sometimes a little more difficult in an International grocery store but less so now.