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Periodic Table of Asian Seasonings: A Guide for Home Cooks

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Periodic table of Asian seasonings

Periodic table of Asian seasonings

What Is a Periodic Table?

In chemistry, the periodic table is a method of grouping elements into categories (gases, metals, nonmetals). It's a brilliant and complex organization system—and the sole reason that I did not achieve a 4.0-grade point average in all of my years of academic study. To be precise, it was chemistry that robbed me of a perfect 4.0.

But I'm not bitter (slightly acrid, but not bitter). In fact, the periodic table and I have come to an agreement of sorts. I took the liberty of translating gases, metals, and nonmetals into savory, pungent, and fiery Asian seasonings; my inspiration came from a California table wines advertisement I saw many years ago.

I'm fascinated by the varied ingredients used in China, Japan, Thailand, and India; some of them are well-known and others are obscure and (to me) somewhat mysterious. Join me as we learn what they are and how they are used in cooking.

Sweet or Savory Seasonings

  • Bonito flakes: No, they aren't just for cats. Known as katsuobushi, these dried fish flakes are usually skipjack tuna and are favored for their smoky umami flavor. Think of them as a cross between bacon and anchovies. They are an integral component of dashi (that savory broth of Japanese cooking) but can be used any time you need a pop of savory flavor.
  • Black beans (douchi): Don't confuse these with the frijoles negros of Latin American cooking. Asian black beans are fermented black soybeans. Rehydrate and rinse them before using whole, chopped, or pureed. If you use them at the start of cooking they will impart a subtle umami flavor; use them at the end and they will retain more of their infamous "funk."
  • Cardamom: This pod in the ginger family is so versatile; it can be used in both sweet and savory cooking, and one can utilize the whole pod, the seed, or ground spice. If you have tasted garam masala or masala chai or Turkish coffee, you have tasted cardamom. It's sweet with hints of mint and citrus.
  • Chili garlic sauce: This blend of garlic and coarsely ground chilies does pack a punch, but you are in complete control of how much you use in your cooking, and you can use it in so many dishes. If a recipe calls for fresh chilies you can substitute a teaspoon of chili garlic sauce. To tame the flame, mix with a little sour cream or mayonnaise and use as a spread on burgers or a dip for veggies.
  • Cloud ears: These mushrooms (actually a jelly fungus) are usually sold dried and need to be reconstituted before use. They are a unique culinary dichotomy—slippery and gelatinous yet at the same time crunchy. Their smell is rather potent but the taste is quite mild. It's often used in Sichuan cooking to absorb some of the spicy heat.
  • Cumin: This fragrant ground spice is not merely an Asian seasoning; it is a world traveler, its distinctive earthy flavor common in India, the Middle East, and Latin American cooking. Cumin is the seed of an annual herb, native to the Mediterranean and Upper Egypt. From there it traveled through the continent of Africa to Asia Minor, Iran, and India. North African Muslims carried it to Spain where it was (and still is) used to flavor stews. From Spain, it then traveled to the New World where it became an essential part of Mexican cuisine. My favorite way to use it is in homemade taco seasoning.
  • Dried shrimp: Don't be fooled by the small (as a penny) size of these dried morsels. They are often sold in bulk in Asian markets. To select the best ones, look for shrimp that are bright orange. They are salty-fishy-chewy and are used whole, chopped, or ground for use in Chinese and Latin American cooking.
  • Lemongrass: This long thick grass-like herb imparts a subtle citrus flavor with a hint of ginger. To use it, trim off the top and the base of the stalk, peel off the tough outer layers, and finely chop to use in marinades, salads, or spice-rubs. You can also use the trimmed stalks to infuse teas or broths—simply crush the stalk (a meat tenderizer works great for this). Remove the stalk pieces before eating.
  • Miso: Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and grain (usually rice or barley). The consistency is somewhat like play-dough or fine wet sand. There are two basic categories: the white (shiro) is mild and slightly sweet; dark red/brown (aka) is saltier and more savory. Don’t reserve the use of miso for Asian cooking only. It can provide that “something missing” to just about any savory dish (gravy, soup, sauce, stew).
  • Nori: These are the dried seaweed sheets used to wrap sushi rolls. Nori has a briny taste; my daughter uses it in her vegetarian "tuna" salad to augment the taste of fish.
  • Seaweed: Also known as sea vegetables, edible seaweed is prized for its salty umami flavor. Wakame is a common addition to miso soup or served raw in a seaweed salad. Kombu is the main ingredient in dashi soup stock, reddish dulse has a unique leathery texture and when cooked in oil crisps up like bacon. When dried hijiki looks like little black twigs and gives a burst of flavor to stir-fries.
  • Sesame seeds: With their nutty taste these edible seeds are prized for their oil and subtle crunch. They come in various hues (white, yellow, red, and black) and can be added to sweet baked goods, as a garnish on vegetables, or as part of a coating on sauteed chicken or fish.
  • Thai basil: This is the not sweet basil of Italian pesto; Thai basil has distinct licorice and slightly spicy notes that, unlike its European cousin, can withstand the heat of cooking, like this Thai basil chicken.
  • Wood ears: Wood ear mushrooms are often confused with cloud ear fungi. Both grow on trees and are dark in color. Cloud ears are smaller and more tender, but they can be used interchangeably.

Bold and Pungent Flavors

Cilantro: I've called cilantro the "love it or hate it" herb; there's no in-between. If you are one of those who say that cilantro tastes like soap, don't blame the cook. Cilantro contains a compound that assails the olfactory receptor gene OR6A2—that's a fancy way of saying that if you hate cilantro it's in your genes and no amount of begging will change your mind. For those who love it, the leaves are packed with vitamins A, C, and K; they are citrusy and are best used just before serving. Heat will make it lose its flavor. This cilantro pesto recipe uses fresh cilantro and has dozens of uses.

Cinnamon: Did you know that there is more than one type of ground cinnamon? Ceylon (Sri Lanka) cinnamon is the good stuff. It's mild, almost floral tasting. And then there is cassia, the one with which you are probably most familiar. It is broken down into 3 specific types—Indonesian, Chinese, and Saigon. Indonesian is the sweetest, Chinese is dark and bitter, and Saigon falls somewhere in-between. My favorite use for cinnamon is in homemade cinnamon rolls.

Curry leaf: The curry tree, native to India, is in the satinwood family. The leaves have a distinctive lemon-like scent. Although they can be dried and crumbled, their flavor is significantly muted when handled in this way. To use them fresh, stir them for several minutes in hot oil. This will release their aromatics. Discard the leaves and use the oil as a flavoring, or use them in this curry leaf chutney.

Curry Paste: Curry paste is not simply a curry powder mixed with water. They are seasonings from two different cultures. Curry powder is an Indian-style seasoning (like garam masala), whereas curry paste is used in Thai dishes.

Dried tangerine peel (chen pi): This is an essential in the Cantonese kitchen but this is not mere dried orange skin. These are dried and then aged anywhere from 3 to 5 years. Aromatic and bitter, these dried peels are used in sweet and savory dishes and in herbal medicine. This link provides more than a dozen uses for dried tangerine peel.

Fenugreek: The seed of this clover-like plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb. Today it is one of the most distinctive tastes in curry powder. By itself, it is bitter but used in concert with other dried spices (cumin and coriander are frequent cohorts) it adds a unique pop of flavor. This potato and lentil coconut curry uses fenugreek seeds and is rich, flavorful, gluten-free, and vegan.

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Five-spice powder: There are a number of variations of this spice blend; star anise is always present, and the other players can be cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, fennel seeds, ginger root, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, and galangal. Five-spice is often used as a dry rub, in the breading for fried foods, in stews, or as a seasoning in a marinade. This Sticky 5-Spice Chicken is a perfect example. The chicken is marinated in a 5-spice/soy sauce mixture and then baked in the oven. The final glaze brings it to a deep mahogany color.

Galangal: This root (well, technically it's a rhizome, a creeping underground stem) looks very much like fresh ginger but don't let their physical similarity fool you. Although they are cousins, they can't be used interchangeably. We'll discuss fresh ginger in a minute. Galangal has a citrusy flavor; some people say it tastes piney, like rosemary. Don't purchase dried galangal—although you can soak it in warm water to reconstitute it, the flavor will never be as pleasing as fresh. Use it in Thai coconut ginger soup or mashed in Thai curry paste.

Ginger: This cousin of galangal has an interesting history. We know that ginger also grew in China; wise men in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Indian systems viewed it as a healing gift from God. We also know that, from its origin to the present, ginger has been the world’s most widely cultivated herb.

Historians believe that by the 5th century, ginger was being transported in trade ships to what was then the far reaches of the Earth—Rome—where it was used both as a medicine and a flavoring agent. Ginger became a highly valued trade commodity. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, this precious (and costly) herb almost fell from existence in Europe. Arab merchants stepped in and began to control the export of ginger from India, and they developed a new market in Africa where ginger proved to be a treatment for malaria and yellow fever.

Today ginger can be found anywhere, and for just a few dollars, but in the 13th. century ginger was so highly valued that one pound cost the same as a whole live sheep. Today it is used not only in Chinese cooking but as a ground spice in baking (gingerbread) or sliced and candied. It can be added to a tummy-soothing cup of tea, stirred into a creamy carrot soup, or blended with peanut sauce.

Kaffir lime leaves: The kaffir lime is a strange-looking citrus. The fruit is brilliant green, bumpy (warty-looking) and extremely bitter. It's not eaten (but is used in house cleaning products). But the leaves are wonderfully aromatic. In Thailand, they are used in the same way that we use bay leaves. They are added to soups and stir-fries (and removed before serving).

Star anise: Star anise (ANN-niece) is not the same as anise (fennel). This star-shaped dried "decoration" is the fruit of an evergreen tree. When dried it looks like a seed. It's one of the elements of Chinese 5-spice, garam masala, spiced chai, and Indian biryani. It has a mild licorice flavor and can be used whole (simmered and then removed before serving) or ground.

Turmeric: This herb is a rhizome in the ginger family. The rhizomes are dried in the sun and ground into powder. It has a peppery, mustard-like fragrance and deep orange-yellow hue. Turmeric is commonly used in curries but can also be used as a dye. These potatoes roasted with turmeric are a beautiful golden color; you could serve them as a side dish with any meat or fish, or add chickpeas for a vegetarian meal.

Hot and Fiery Spices

Black mustard seeds: There are over 40 varieties of mustard seeds, but outside of the Asian world they are basically categorized at white, brown, or black. The white seed (Sinapis alba) gives us the flavor we recognize as yellow mustard (it’s colored with turmeric). Brown mustard seeds (Brassica juncea) are also known as Chinese mustard. If you have ever enjoyed an appetizer of Chinese barbecued pork you are no doubt familiar with the standard sides of sesame seeds and Chinese mustard. Then, there is the black mustard seed (Brassica nigra). Black mustard seeds are the fieriest of the three. They are very small and often roasted (or fried) before adding to a dish to release their essential oils and add a bit of sweetness to their heat. Winter squash and wild mushroom curry is an Indian-style vegan dish with pops of flavor from chilis, cumin, curry leaves and black mustard seeds. You can use any type of mushroom but I think meaty king trumpets are best for this dish.

Dried red chilies: Andhra Pradesh is home to the village of Guntur, a small dusty town that is home to the largest chili market in Asia. It is here that the Guntur sannam is produced, a fiery dried fruit that accounts for roughly 30 percent of India’s chili exports. The skin of the Guntur is dark red, thick, hot, and pungent. They are used whole, tossed into the simmering pot, imparting color and unforgettable fiery flavor. This cabbage poriyal (stir fry) is a good example of how they are best used. (By the way, if you cannot find the ingredient asafoetida, garlic powder is a reasonable substitute).

Raw garlic: Roasted garlic cloves are buttery and sweet; raw chopped garlic is an entirely different beast. The more you damage (chop, mince, pulverize) garlic's cell walls, the more sulfide-transforming enzymes you release. Toum is a sauce/condiment/dip that showcases raw garlic.

Sichuan peppercorns: This fruit of the Zanthoxylum simulans, a tree in the citrus family, creates a strange sensation on the tongue. It is hot/pungent but also produces a tingling, buzzing sensation. Harold McGee (“On Food and Cooking”) likens it to touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue. Are you willing to give them a try? These baked peppercorn chicken wings are fiery but are cooled down by the accompanying avocado dip.

Thai chilies: Also known as bird's eye, these red peppers are prized not only for their heat (up to 100,000 on the Scoville scale) but for their beautiful red color. A visual presentation is as much a component of Thai cooking as is flavor, as in this tom yum gai (Thai hot and sour chicken soup).

Wasabi: If you have dined at a sushi bar, you probably think you know wasabi. Perhaps you really do, but the odds are that you have shared your dining experience with an imposter. Most of what passes as wasabi is actually powdered horseradish, reconstituted and tinted green. Actual wasabi is a member of the cabbage family, a native of Japan. At its best it will be freshly grated; that cutting/mincing process releases more than 20 enzyme-generated volatiles that will assault and invigorate your senses with a slam-bang of not the tongue but eye and nose “awakeners.” Wasabi can do more than add zing to your sushi platter. Here are 37 recipes for you.

White peppercorns: Though they come from the same plant, black pepper, and white pepper are not identical. Black pepper is a berry that is picked before it has ripened and is then dried in the sun. White pepper is the fully-ripened berry of the Piper nigrum. The berries are soaked in water for 10 days (which allows them to slightly ferment) and then the skins are removed. These white peppercorn chicken wings are a popular Chinese dish.

Yellow curry powder: The yellow curry powder of India is not one spice, but rather a blend of many warm and earthy ground spices—primarily coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and fenugreek. Anise, cinnamon, black pepper, yellow mustard, mace, and cardamom can also be added to the blend. Roasting in a pan with oil allows the flavors of the spices to “bloom,” deepening the flavor. In recent years, yellow curry has become an important part of Assyrian and Iraqi dishes as well, such as this Iraqi djaj bil-bahar il-asfar (yellow spice-rubbed chicken).

Do You Spice It Up?

© 2020 Linda Lum

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