Sweet and Savory Asian Flavors Worth Adding to Your Pantry

·5 min read

As a kid (and still to this day), I loved exploring the aisles of an international grocery store in hopes of finding something new and exciting to try. Thanks to my Filipino heritage, I was already drawn to flavors such as ube or pandan over, say, vanilla. But those walks through Asian markets led me to discover all sorts of produce, sauces, and spices that add tons of flavor to all sorts of dishes. You're probably familiar with several Asian flavors (i.e. sriracha, miso, soy sauce), but there's so much more these countries and islands have to offer. Whether you come across an interesting-looking fruit among the produce section or spot a new flavor of ice cream at the market, these are some of the Asian flavors that are worth trying.

Lychee

Grown on a tree native to China, the lychee (pronounced lai-chee) is a small, oval fruit. The outer skin (don't eat this, as it contains toxins that can make you sick) looks almost like a raspberry but peeled reveals a white fleshy fruit around a seed. Lychee has a delicate sweetness that tastes similar to a grape, but with slight floral notes. They're delicious plain, in fresh salads, or cocktails.

Pandan

Pandan (pronounced pan-dn) is a tropical plant that looks like the top of a pineapple. Harvested pandan leaves are usually boiled, steamed, or pounded to release its sweet, slightly nutty aroma into savory and sweet dishes. It's often purchased as an extract and referred to by many as the vanilla of Southeast Asia.

Related: 10 Cookbooks You Should Read for AAPI Heritage Month

Five Spice

Five-spice powder is a blend of the most popular spices (fennel, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and peppercorns) used in Chinese cuisine. These five flavors refer to the five traditional Chinese elements (fire, water, wood, earth, and metal). The flavor is exceptional with meat, veggies, and fruit.

Sambal Oelek

If you're a fan of sriracha, sambal oelek (pronounced saam-baal ow-lek) is the next spicy condiment to consider. Most popular in Southeast Asian countries Indonesia and Malaysia, this is a chile paste that contains ground chiles, salt, and a bit of vinegar. It's often mixed with secondary ingredients such as shrimp paste or garlic. Use it as a condiment or add to sauces and marinades. Try it in our spicy chicken wings.

Calamansi

Calamansi (pronounced call-a-​man-​see) is a tiny citrus fruit that has a sour flavor somewhere between a lime and a kumquat. It's a prominent flavor in many Philippine dishes such as arroz caldo or simply added to soy sauce to drizzle on meats. You can also try it as a unique take on limeade.

Ube

Ube (pronounced oo-beh) is purple yam with origins in Southeast Asia. It's commonly used in staple Filipino desserts such as ube halaya or ice cream (my personal favorite). And while it's mostly found in sugary desserts, the root veggie is actually rich in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.

Tamarind

These little brown pods might look foreign, but there's a good chance you've already had tamarind (pronounced tam-uh-rind) before. This sweet and tangy fruit is commonly found in Indian and Thai dishes but is also found in cuisines around the world (try in in this BBQ chicken). It's even on the ingredient list for most bottles of Worcestershire! Since tamarind fruit contains seeds, your best bet is to find it in a paste or powder.

Buy It: Tamicon Tamarind Concentrate Paste ($7, Walmart)

Taro

Because taro (pronounced tahr-o) is also a starchy tuber, it sometimes gets confused with ube. They are both sweet potatoes, but rather than being entirely purple, taro is white with specks of purple. The color might not be as dark as ube, but can take on a purple hue when boiled (like in this taro bubble tea). Taro has an earthier flavor than ube and is used in both sweet and savory dishes.

Matcha

Matcha (pronounced mah-chuh) is a high-grade green tea ground into a powder. The most common practice for consuming matcha is whisking it into water to form a drink. Matcha tastes earthy and is full of antioxidants. Today, you'll find matcha in lattes and infused in desserts.

Buy It: Kagoshima Ceremonial Grade Organic Matcha ($19, Walmart)

Gochujang

Gochujang (pronounced gow-choo-jang) is a Korean pepper paste that brings a lot of heat, a bit of sweetness, and a little funkiness. This unique flavor comes from fermenting red chile flakes, soybeans, glutinous rice, and salt in Korean earthenware pots called onggi. Enjoy the fiery sauce on meats such as chicken, beef, or fish.

Related: Try Our Quick Take on Gochujang

Durian

If you've ever been around durian (pronounced dur-ee-uhn), you'll never forget it thanks to its distinct, pungent smell. In fact, the spikey fruit's smell is so potent, durian is banned from being eaten in public areas in Singapore. If you can get past the smell, the flavor is sweet and slightly bitter with a soft, creamy texture. Usually eaten raw, you can find it in drinks and desserts as well.

Fish Sauce

To add a rich umami flavor to your dishes, consider fish sauce. The dark briny liquid comes from fermenting fish in salt, resulting in a strong salty, fishy flavor. Expect fish sauce to appear in Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino foods.