Stop by your local Asian grocer for pantry heroes that are not your typical tinned beans and tuna.
23 Apr 2020 - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2020 - 11:36 AM

Ever wander down the aisles of your local Asian grocer and stare up in confusion at the myriad of cans and jars of unidentified foods? Well, we’re here to help! These rows of shelf-stable products are actually a treasure trove of finds, and can really up your home-cooking game...if you know what you’re looking for. 

1. Young jackfruit in brine

Jackfruit is a sweet, almost crunchy seasonal fruit from Southeast Asia. It’s almost durian-like in its pods, but much less pungent and well, spiky. Like the banana, however, this versatile fruit can be consumed at all stages of ripeness, with the young, green jackfruit often canned in brine and used in curries and even as a vegan alternative to meat!

Young jackfruit curry

Jackfruit is the largest tree fruit in the world. Depending on maturity of the fruit, it can be cooked in different ways, including this fragrant curry.

Pulled jackfruit rolls

It’s smoky, it’s sweet, it’s spicy – this is like a vegetarian version of pulled pork, in a DIY barbecue sauce.

2. Coconut milk and cream

Coconut milk

Yes, we know this isn’t quite as exotic as you might be expecting, but coconut cream ranks so high on the useful-ness scale that we couldn’t not include it! Whether you’re making a sweet or savoury dish (Nasi lemak, anyone?) having a few cans of this on hand will never go astray. Got a recipe that needs coconut milk, instead? Simply water down your coconut cream and save the rest for later! Pro-tip: Most brands of coconut cream homogenise it to make it easier to use, but true coconut cream will split in the can. If you find this, you can either mix it up to use, or carefully skim off the thick cream off the top, and whip it to replace whipped cream! 

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3. Crab meat (minced crab in spices)

Asia has a reverence for shellfish, and with good reason! The sweet, chunky flesh is not only a delight to eat, but even when used sparingly, it can add an immense depth of flavour to any dish. If you don’t have fresh crab on hand, then pick up a tin of crab meat from your Asian grocer. They sell them both plain and spiced: the latter of which is a key ingredient in the Vietnamese bun rieu.

4. Curry pastes

We’ll let you in on a little secret: as romantic as the idea may be, not every family’s grandma is slaving away making their own curry pastes from scratch. These pastes not only have an ingredient list as long as your arm, but the subsequent pounding, frying and storing of them is enough to induce nightmares. You can find a larger variety of curry pastes at the Asian grocer than chain supermarket, and the secret to capturing the magic of family recipes is often in the brand of the paste you choose.

5. Mushrooms

No no, we’re not just talking about tinned button mushrooms (although there is that, too). We’re talking straw, enoki, shiitake...and all the different types that add not only depth of flavour, but stoically keep their firm texture even with long cooking. Drain and rinse them before using, and then add them to your stir-fry, hot-pot, curries..or wherever you feel like you’re lacking in some mushroom-y goodness!

Mushroom hotpot with seasonal vegetables

This warming hotpot of mushrooms and winter vegetables is a perfect comforting dinner to come home to on a cold winter's night. 

Spicy Asian mushroom stir-fry with Chinese sausage and tomato

If you’re well-organised and confident with a knife, this tasty stir-fry can be on the table in less time than it takes to order take-out. Lup cheong is a dried sausage revered by the Chinese for its sweet, smoky taste. Teamed with delicate mushrooms and chilli, it makes this almost-vegetarian dish the perfect "mid-weeker" for the time-poor.

6. Luncheon meat

Cans of Spam on display

Asia’s love affair with this tinned mystery-meat harks back to colonial days, where meat was prohibitively expensive, and this cheap, shelf-stable alternative was a good, affordable way to feed the family. Yes, it is immensely processed and probably not healthy to consume in large quantities, but we encourage you to find the charm in the endless varieties of luncheon meat, which features as a childhood favourite of many South Asians alike. 

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Korean army stew (budae jjigae)

The dish gets its name, army stew, from harder times, and true to its namesake, it’s loaded up with all things plain but wonderful — instant ramen, salty Spam, chewy rice cakes and silky soft tofu.

7. Water chestnut

Water chestnuts add a pleasant crunch to stir fries and curries.

Not to be confused with traditional roasted chestnuts, water chestnuts have a refreshing, apple-like crunch to them, and are often added to dishes for a subtle texture. Try them drained and and finely chopped as an addition to your dumpling fillings - or enjoy them as a light snack on its own. 

8. Bamboo shoot

Bamboo shoots soak up flavour in curries, noodle dishes and soups.

You can find tinned bamboo in two forms - sliced into strips, or as a conical ‘head’. The canning process cooks it to tenderness for you, which means that you can add it to just about any savoury dish without worrying about cook times! They’re great in everything from spring-roll fillings, to soups and curries. Just make sure to drain and rinse them before using - there’s sometimes a funky smell when you first open the can. 

9. Grass jelly

Also known as herbal jelly and chinchow, this black, glossy jelly should be no stranger to bubble tea fans. Some prize it for its medicinal qualities, but we love its subtle sweetness and refreshing bitterness that makes it the perfect summertime dessert. If you’re not game enough to have it on its own, you can cut it up into smaller pieces and use it in your ais kachang, drinks, or even to top your ice cream! (We suggest coconut if you’ve got it - the pair work amazingly together!)

10. Red bean paste

Red bean has a long history of being used as a dessert ingredient in Asia. Usually sold dried, the tiny beans (also called adzuki in Japan) have to be soaked, slow-cooked and ground into a paste, before being stuffed, sandwiched or rolled into all manner of sweet treats. Thankfully, for the home cook, red bean paste is already sold in convenient cans, making it easy for us to enjoy the fun stuff! 

Green tea dorayaki pancakes

Dorayaki makes a tasty teatime cake rather than after-dinner dessert. However, simply adding matcha to the cake batter – and serving with cream – gives you a smarter-looking dish more appropriate to a dessert course. I’ve provided a recipe for the adzuki bean paste, but you can purchase tinned cooked red bean paste from Japanese or Asian supermarkets.

Double choc bean brownies

Adzuki beans add richness and body as well as a good dose of dietary fibre and protein to these brownies. Adding beans means you don’t need to use as much oil or butter, and the brownies are naturally gluten-free.

Explore a Taste of the Territory with Jimmy Shu in his brand-new series at 8:30pm Thursdays from 23 April to 11 June on SBS Food and On Demand.

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