Written by root. Posted in FEATURES


Published on November 13, 2017 with No Comments

Explore the Asian markets for fresh aromatics and spices that give a unique spark to many Asian dishes.



With the concept of farm to table and embracing traditional foods, Asian cuisine captures the zeitgeist of today’s gastronomical scene. Each cuisine is not just distinctive through its flavour profile, but the clever use of local herbs that give every dish that added edge.

Thai sweet basil is the spicier cousin of the Mediterranean basil. It has a distinctively sweet anise flavour and is used abundantly in Thai, Vietnamese and Loatian cuisine to spice up stir-fried dishes, curries, salads, and also as a garnish for soups. The leaves are generally thrown whole or, for the most flavour, torn to release its oils.

Sometimes referred to as Siamese Ginger, this piquant spice is very hard and woody and has larger roots than its ginger cousin. The galangal also has a sharp, almost pine-like flavour and is commonly used to flavour Thai curries and soups. In Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine, the galangal is used extensively in rendang dishes, adding an earthy note to the heavily spiced dish. In Cambodia it plays a major role in the herb paste known as kroeung. Galangal is naturally tough and requires a sharp knife to slice. When shopping, look for one with a firm skin and pinkish root. A little goes a long way.

Sometimes known as citronella grass, this stalky plant’s white bulbous part is where the flavor is most concentrated. There are several ways to use it. The lower stalk can be bruised with the back of a knife or a pestle, or the stalks can be sliced thinly and added into salads and soups. This herb is essential to Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Bruneian and Singaporean Nyonya cooking. Cooks use lemongrass to add a lemony flavour and lighten meat-heavy and /or oily dishes. The stalks also make fragrant skewers for satays and kebabs.

Kemiri nuts are used widely in Indonesian Padang cuisine, as well as Nyonya cooking in Malaysia and Singapore. The nuts are crushed and grounded and added into pastes to thicken sauces and bring a rich nutty flavour to stews. They are also known as Candle Nuts because their high oil content can burn like a candle. Kemiri nuts can turn rancid in a few months and are best stored in a freezer or refrigerator.

These fragrant leaves are used in Southeast Asian Cuisine the same way bay leaves are used in Western cooking – to infuse a dish and heighten its flavour profile. Cooks prefer to tear the leaves naturally to release the fragrant oils rather than cutting it with a scissors or knife. The aroma that is released add a distinctive citrus scent to soups and curries. Caution when using kaffir lime leaves in any cooking. Throw them in only towards the end. Cooking them too long may turn your dish bitter.

The long-stemmed bud of the ginger flower, with its blush pinky-red petals, looks good enough as an ornamental piece. But cut into its waxy petal and the bud will release an aromatic fragrance with a hint of peppery notes. Shred its buds into thin slices to use in salads and sauces. It is indispensable in Nyonya cuisine in Malaysia and Singapore, especially in dishes such as assam laksa or any assam pedas.

With a rich spicy flavour, these sticks can be used in sweet or savory dishes and drinks. The everyday cinnamon stick you might get at the market is actually the bark of the cassia tree. True cinnamon is a really thin bark that looks like a rolled-up cigar. Either way, the spice and aroma is unmistakenly sweet-and-spicey. In Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine, it is used generously to spice up soups and broths. Elsewhere, cinnamon sticks are used as aromatics to flavour curries and sauces. Cinnamon powder is popular in Chinese cooking, common to Singapore and Malaysia.

The flower buds of the clove tree, cloves are quite aromatic. Its sweet penetrating aroma has a distinctive flavour and is used in sweet and savoury dishes. Many food recipes that include cloves also include spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, star anise or peppercorns that also make up the aromatics for a curry dish. An Asian cooking trick is to stick three or four cloves into an onion to enliven a good stock.

This knobbly rhizome has a thin, pale yellow skin and aromatic, juicy and slightly fibrous flesh. Young ginger has a more pungent flavour and smoother skin. Peel the skin away and use grated or sliced, or chopped in stir-fries, stews, soups, curries and curry pastes.

More fragrant than anise seed, the star anise is easily identified through its star shaped and woody feel. Star anise is part of the Chinese five spice mix. In Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, star anise is used to flavour broths and braised meats. In Bruneian, Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian cuisine, star anise is used in curries and stews.


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