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Often when you're considering trying an ethic recipe, the ingredient list can be intimidating. Asian food is no exception. Nearly everyone's got soy sauce lurking in their fridge these days. But what about other flavors? Here are a few other ingredients that I find essential when cooking Thai and Korean food.

Last week I shared my recipe for Sesame Chicken, and a reader asked about Sriracha sauce. Sriracha is a red-pepper-based paste used in Thai cooking. It has a good amount of heat -- a few drops does nicely to kick up the intensity of a bowl of ramen noodles. But its balanced heat actually does a great job flavoring a variety of food.


I add it to taco soup, chicken fajitas, Thai shrimp soup, and of course, sesame chicken. Most grocery stores carry it these days-- look for the red bottle with a rooster on it. If your grocery store is too small, you can also get it on amazon.com.

Sesame oil is another cooking essential at my house. There are many varieties. In general, the darker the color, the fuller the flavor. The first sesame oil I ever bought came from my regular grocery store and was very pale and bland. Not long after that my husband and I traveled to Korea to adopt our son, and experienced the wonderful heady aroma of real sesame oil. Since then I have begun buying it at my local ethnic grocery store. (Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese grocery stores generally all carry sesame oil.) The varieties sold there tend to be fuller flavored and also more affordable. If I had no ethnic grocery stores in my area, I'd try this brand on amazon. :) Sesame oil adds a wonderful flavor to almost any stir-fry recipe. I generally use it half and half with regular vegetable oil, since it is rather expensive.


Fish sauce is the final ingredient that I consider essential, especially when it comes to Thai or Vietnamese food. The brand pictured on the left is carried in the ethnic food section of many grocery stores, including Wal-Mart. Or there's always amazon.

One bottle will last you quite awhile. Don't panic at your first sniff when you open the bottle. Fish sauce is made from fermented fish and smells a bit odd to the uninitiated. For an easy intro to the flavor, add a little to stir-frying chicken, or to a bowl of ramen noodle soup. Yum-- there's no substitute!

Quick ethnic food hint: the more exotic the lettering on thebottle, the more authentic the taste tends to be. I personally wouldnot buy sesame oil or fish sauce labeled only in English. And I doubt you can even find sriracha with only English writing on the bottle.

I'll be sharing some of my favorite-- and easiest-- Asian recipes in the next weeks. Many of my favorites can also be found in my book Family Feasts for $75 a Week