Ever tried to describe the complex flavours of Asian cuisine? (Yes, we all know it’s your favourite and you’re going to say that the dishes are absolutely delicious, but what is that signature taste that sets it apart?) Take a moment. The distinctive taste in your favourite sushi or Chinese noodles cannot be just described as sweet, salty, sour or bitter. So what is that one-of-a-kind zing?
Have you always tried to recreate the magic of coveted Asian menus in your own kitchen, but failed time and again to get the right flavour notes? Not able to place exactly what it is that you’re doing wrong? Well, it’s time to put an end to your culinary woes. Let’s get some “umami” on those plates.
Umami is the fifth basic taste and is used to describe the earthy, roasted flavour found in asparagus, tomatoes or fermented meats and grains. And while a lot of western dishes commonly make use of this flavour, it is known to be a characteristic feature in Asian cuisine, imparting a distinctive taste to the various preparations that we just can’t get enough of.
So how should you harness the power of umami to make some tempting Asian dishes or just give a kick to your everyday sandwiches and salads? Different types of seasonings from Asian countries will provide your cooking the distinctive edge that you’ve been looking for. Here are the 7 best Asian condiments (and what cooking methods they’re best suited to) –
Almost every Asian menu boasts a variety of chilli sauces and the three most popular ones being sriracha, chilli-garlic oil and sambal. They’re all slightly different versions of the common concept of grinding chillies into a paste.
Sriracha is used world over on everything from noodles to pizza toppings and sometimes just as a spread on a slice of bread (yes, sriracha addicts are ready to drink it plain too!). It is made from a paste of fresh (or even sun-dried) red chillies, distilled vinegar, garlic and salt. Typically, sugar is also added to it, to tune down its heat and give it a slightly sweet taste.
Sambal is a rustic chilli sauce made by grinding red chillies into a paste using a mortar and pestle and adding salt. Its purest version has no other ingredient but if you like, vinegar, lime juice or some flavouring agents may be added. Word of caution: use it sparingly as a small amount can pull up the heat by several notches.
Chilli garlic oil combines the crunch of roasted garlic with a paste of fresh or dried red chillies, white vinegar, shallots, sugar and sesame oil. The mild, yet dominant flavour of garlic is what sets it apart from other chilli sauces.
You can use chilli sauces on just about anything; from your favourite stews to a pizza topping. You can also use a drop or two to kick up the flavour of cold, chocolate rum balls too.
Referred to as ‘liquid umami’, nothing can notch up your dish better than fish sauce. This brown, pungent sauce is made from fermenting fish like anchovies or squid in sea salt and water, then pressing and straining it. The strong smell may seem to be a warning signal for many, but a few drops of it in your preparation will make it hit all the right notes. It adds a distinct salty and fishy (though, not in an odd way) taste to your dish, so use it a bit at a time until you finally reach the desired level.
You could start off with a dish that already has a strong flavour to ensure that the fish sauce doesn’t overpower the taste. Use about a tablespoon at a time; let the tastes blend together and then you could always add more later.
Commercially, oyster sauce is prepared by adding oyster sauce concentrate(broth) to a base of salt, sugar and cornstarch(for thickness) because the actual process of boiling oysters with their shells on and then processing them till desired consistency is reached is a costly and unviable process. Oyster sauce is very popular for adding a salty-sweet twang to your stir-fries. It has a thick, sticky consistency so it doesn’t have to be thickened with other ingredients or boiled down. Add it to your stir-fries at the last few minutes, when the dish is almost cooked.
It is best used with sesame oil-tossed Chinese noodles or chicken stir-fries.
A gluten-free version of the traditional soy sauce, authentic tamari sauce is 100% soy, making it less sweet than others, with a darker hue and richer flavour. While both tamari and wheat-containing soy sauce are made from fermented soy beans, the former has a more balanced taste, which is less harsh. It can be used in both Asian and non-Asian cooking to add a savoury flavour to your dishes.
You can use this sauce for anything from marinades and stews to vegetables and noodles. It can also be used for soups like French Onion Soup.
Made from fermented soybeans and rice grains, miso paste is a flagship condiment of Asian cuisine and a must-have if you’re looking to concoct that umami flavour. While its preparation requires one to three years of fermentation, the Asian section of any foodstore will have ample of it stocked up for you. This sauce can either be white in colour with a sweet fruity flavour, or red for its more salty, earthy uses. Mixed with some brown sugar and garlic, red miso paste can also be used to make a barbecue sauce.
Apart from typically adding it to the dashi broth which kickstarts every Japanese menu, miso paste can be whisked into some salad dressings or into broth.
RICE VINEGAR SAUCE
Originating in Japan, this clear or yellow sauce essential for the preparation of sushi is popular world over. It is sweeter in comparison to other vinegars and its relatively low acidity level makes it mild enough to be used with raw vegetables or as a dipping sauce. The red and black versions of the unseasoned rice vinegar have stronger and smoky flavours.
Made from the sugars in rice, this sauce is great for stir-fries and fresh green salads. The red and black rice vinegars can be used for noodles and their smoky element makes them great for braised dishes.
One of the most frequently used condiment in Asian Cuisine, mirin is a rice wine that has a lower alcohol content and higher sweetness quotient than other rice wines like sake or even vinegar. It has a light golden colour and thick consistency; the sweet flavour helps it combine well with other savoury sauces like soy or tamari to create miraculously complex flavours and also tone down dishes with a sharp fishy or gamey taste.