Five Essential Ingredients to Get at Any Ethnic Food Market
Your global exploration quest begins right in the heart of your kitchen. And with a little help from your local international food market. Our guide to the five essential ingredients to get at any food market will help you stock your pantry like a caravan on the Silk Road. But without the angry camels.
It comes down to five basic ingredient types, common to most cultures, but are so different from each other that you could make a meal from one corner of the world one night and the opposite corner the next.
Five Essential Ingredients
Mexican Essential Ingredients
If you’re lucky enough to have a Mexican market in your area, prepare for an assault on the senses. Every Mexican market I’ve ever been to is bursting at the seams with a rainbow of produce, stacks of corn flour bags, and glazed, doughy treats. Mexican essential ingredients are earthy and dense, perfect for the heavy influx of spices and herbs.
Cooking Oil: Lard
Yes, lard, as in rendered pig fat, which shockingly has less saturated fat than butter. Whew! You’ll be okay. Certain Mexican recipes simply are not the same without it, and utterly essential when making tamales. And lard also makes the loveliest of pie crusts, flaky biscuits and everything crispier.
Starch: Masa, but tortillas if you want to keep it simple.
Tortillas are to Mexico, what fingerprints are to your hand. It is the culinary essence. Stick with the corn variety. Many Mexican recipes use tortillas as a bread-like starch that is used to fold in meats and or vegetables, and tortillas are even used to thicken soups.
Spice: Dried Chiles
The jalapeno is by far one of the most popular chiles known to the region. They are available all year round and is another staple in Mexican cuisine. This pepper is used in just about every dish either seeded or not, and it adds so much flavor whether grilled, minced, or blanched.
No that’s not a typo for incorrectly spelled Cilantro. Culantro is the Mexican cousin of Cilantro and is mostly used to season protein dishes. They have a similar flavor profile, but Culantro has a more pungent streak to it. The best way to use the herb is in recaito, basically a marinade. Blend it with garlic, a bit of oil, salt and black pepper. Coat your protein with it and let it sit for at least an hour.
When you dunk a chip into a mound of salsa, know that you’re indulging in a dish that’s steeped deeply in Mayan culture. It was the food of Mayan royalty, so you’re in good company. As for today and selecting a salsa in a typical Mexican market, be prepared for the overwhelming variety, and not just the red, chunky version (Salsa Roja) you typically find at your regular grocery.
Instead, you may see versions made with tomatillos (salsa verde), or just dried chilies and garlic (Salsa Negra) or the more traditional Pico de gallo. If you’ve only had salsa Roja, get the salsa verde. It won’t overwhelm your tastebuds with too much heat but offers a lovely alternative to regular salsa.
But if you’re a bit adventurous, go with the Salsa Negra. It’s a fantastic blend of the more famous dried Mexican chiles. Or make your own using our Authentic Mexican Salsa.
Middle Eastern Essential Ingredients
We have just a few Middle Eastern markets in our area, but each one makes me envious for the forgotten explorers who first traded exotic spices across continents. You’ll find the essential ingredients here to be lighter and more delicate.
Oil: Olive Oil
Chances are you have a bottle of olive oil sitting in your pantry right now. What you may not know is that popular olive oils sold in the US are quite likely rancid. So without fancy testing equipment, how can you determine if your high-quality EVO hasn’t gone bad? Easy, the oil tastes heavily of olives. As it should.
Rancid oil tends to soften the bitter edges of a real EVO, and you may have grown accustomed to it. So get a few small bottles of different brands and taste them. Keep going back for the one that tastes like you have an olive in your mouth.
Couscous are tiny, semolina wheat beads that make the base for many popular Middle Eastern dishes. Indigenous to North Africa, it quickly spread throughout the region. It was traditionally made from millet, so you can choose either variation for your dishes. You can make Couscous either in a rice cooker or on the stove, but either way, it should result in a light and fluffy serving.
Cumin has such a beautiful and exotic history, originating in Syria, cultivated in Iran and coming to rest on the tables of the Roman Empire. From there, the spice spread to India and via colonialism, the rest of the world. But in Middle Eastern cooking, you only need purchase black or green cumin.
Leave a jar of it within reach in your kitchen or dining room table, and sprinkle on any prepared dish for an earthy and aromatic touch of flavor.
It’s quite brilliant how a herb that is as cool as mint is used so broadly in what is a very piquant cuisine. It’s such an essential ingredient that it’s commonly used in teas. There is something so delightful – its effervescence and crispness that make it an ideal companion to heavily seasoned and spiced stews and proteins. It has a particular affinity for lamb and is soothing in a variety teas famous throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Considering there are over two dozen varieties, you can’t be sure which you’ll find in your local Middle Eastern market, but they all have the cooling effect in common. Remember to buy fresh and use fresh. It’ll keep for a few days in the fridge before the leaves start to dull and brown.
Alternatively, mint is a super easy plant to grow, so consider a window box garden.
Condiment: Yogurt (Labneh)
Stemming from Lebanon, Labneh is a strained, whole fat yogurt. Don’t get this confused with Greek yogurt, which is just labeled as such for the American market.
Most Middle Eastern markets will sell a variety of labneh, but you can certainly make it at home if you just shop at your local grocers. Get a plain, full-fat yogurt and some cheesecloth. Tighten the cheesecloth around several servings of yogurt and let it strain into the sink. We usually tie it to the top end of the faucet and let sit for several hours, if not overnight. By the whey, (ha! see what I did there), you can collect the whey that drips from the yogurt and use it in a variety of different recipes.
Unwrapped you’ll find a much thicker, tangier yogurt and it will be authentic to the region. Use it simply with a few freshly chopped herbs and spread on a pita or go big and bold with a traditional Lebanese lamb dish, labneh, and pine nut dip.
Chinese Essential Ingredients
What is about Chinese food that is so addicting? It wouldn’t be the brilliant way they combine all tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter into a beautiful finish? Probably. These essential ingredients will lay an excellent foundation for your Chinese culinary adventure.
Oil: Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is the go-to oil in Chinese cuisine because of its high-temperature cooking threshold and mainly used when stir-frying in a wok. Peanut oil won’t give your food a scorched taste that you would get if you cooked with a low-temperature oil like olive oil.
Sesame oil is another common Chinese oil that’s tasty for drizzling or making a dressing but keep it away from high heat.
Rice is essential in Chinese cuisine. It dates back so far it boggles the mind. My must-do recommendation for preparing rice is to always, I mean ALWAYS, wash your rice. Run cold water over your rice and vigorously shake it with your fingers until you see the water turn cloudy. Strain it and repeat four times. I can’t express to you how important this process is. Keep doing this until the water rice runs clear. This removes any impurities and results in a fluffy, not clumpy rice.
Spice: Five Spice
It’s a spice blend of five spices beautifully combined with just the right ratios. Five Spice consists of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise and Szechuan peppers. You may come across different recipe variations, but the actual, traditional ratios are a bit hidden. Sort of like the recipe for Coca-Cola. You know what’s in it, but not quite sure how much of what. Getting Five Spice from an authentic Chinese market will reveal a bit of the mystery. Use it as a rub on pork or duck.
Scallions are a very delicate green onion and subtle enough to be used to enhance other ingredients in dishes like fried rice. I have a technique I like to use called “Sexy Scallions” which is scallions cut lengthwise and put in an ice bath so that they curl up, mostly used for garnish, it adds that “Xinggan” to your dish.
Condiment: Soy Sauce
The much-beloved soy sauce, a product of fermented soybean paste, is the liquid salt of Chinese cuisine. However, in the vast world of soy sauces, Chinese soy sauce floats right in the middle. Southeast Asia developed a lighter soy sauce, while the Koreans prefer a much denser variety.
In Chinese cooking, however, you can find a light and dark variety or what’s referred to as “old” and “fresh.” The lighter, lower viscosity soy sauce is used as a condiment and for dipping. The darker, “older” variety lends itself very well to high heat cooking, as it’s flavor fully blossom when exposed to heat.
Keep in mind that most of us are accustomed to the Kikkoman variety, which is NOT Chinese soy sauce. So if you want to try making an authentic Chinese dish or at least experience the real flavor profiles, pick up a few small bottles of different brands to taste test.
Indian Essential Ingredients
We have a confession to make. We really shouldn’t be referring so generally to Indian food. It’s a country of billions with numerous regions and cultural differences.
Food from Goa is startlingly different from a meal made on the border of Kashmir to the north. That being said (written) the essential ingredients we’ve chosen to have in your kitchen will give you a good start to make more popular dishes.
I cannot state more emphatically how much ghee is akin to the lifeblood of Indian culture. Hindus use the clarified butter in various religious ceremonies, and its use goes back centuries. So if you’re going to stock your pantry with an Indian cooking oil, look no further than ghee.
As for its practical use, ghee is perfect high-heat cooking as its smoke point is at 485F. Use it for sautéing, deep frying and in baked goods for a crispier finish.
Just like most parts of the world potatoes are part of everyday cooking in India, available year round, easy to grow and filling. Neutral in flavor it adds depth without overpowering the star of the show. Consider it a “filler.” It also serves beautifully as a carrier of flavors in what is a traditionally heavily spiced cuisine.
Quick tip: If you ever over salt a soup, chowder or stock, cut a unpeeled potato into quarters and add it to the liquid. It will remove half the salt from it, saving you from frowns and or embarrassing criticism from your guests, loved ones or even kids (they’re the worst).
Herb and Spice: Cilantro/Coriander
I adore this plant. The entire thing is just one big gift to culinary experimentation. From the seeds to the leaves and with several different preparations coriander is one of the shining glories of Indian cuisine but has numerous different uses depending on what regional Indian cuisine you may be making.
You can certainly get it at a local market, but if you’re up for an adventure and you have a local Indian market close to you, swing by and chat up the purveyor. We’ve uncovered secret family recipes and dozens of preparation tips just from a casual chat.
As for this herb, cilantro refers to the leafy parts and coriander to the seeds. In an Indian market, it’s probably called dhania. You can use the coriander seeds to make your own masala spice and leaves serve as an excellent garnish on any curry.
Chutneys are the most common condiment that comes to mind when thinking about Indian food and they come as varied as Indian spices.
But we’ve chosen Raita as our representative Indian condiment. While some chutneys are sweet, most common types, pack some serious heat. Indian dishes already have relatively sharp flavor profiles, so introducing a cooling condiment expands the full spectrum of the cuisine and your experience.
A mild cucumber raita is comprised of plain yogurt or curd, minced cucumbers, a dash of cumin and crushed mint. Now imagine that on a steamy, spicy hot kebab. That’s like a Bollywood dance scene in your mouth.
Our love for Indian food has grown intensely over the last few years, and we’d wrong you if didn’t at least address the beautiful methods that Indian cooking treats vegetables and legumes. I
f you’re stocking your Indian kitchen, be sure to add spinach and lentils.
“I’m strong to the finish, cuz I eat me spinach….I’m Popeye, the sailor man”. I just revealed my age, and I’m fine with it. If you’re not familiar with Indian cuisine, it is predominantly vegetarian.
Blanched, sauteed, and even fried spinach along with Indian spices brings it all together. Here’s another tip I would love to share with you – always remember that heat kills greens, meaning it will take away that beautiful green color and turn it brown.
To help you understand how important lentils are to Indian cuisine note that archeological evidence shows they were eaten 9,500 to 13,000 years ago. Part of the legume family, they have the second highest protein per calorie of any legume, after soybeans.
What I love most about lentils is how well it absorbs spices, when I cook lentils I always add all my herbs and spices to the pot before it starts to boil. I find that lentils, almost literally translated to “pulse,” does just that to the spices. It brings it to life.
You can taste every spice and herb in one single lentil, simply amazing.
There you have it. Get these essential ingredients, stock your pantry and take a quick world tour to some of the globe’s finest cuisines.
We certainly hope that you’ll be able to find these fantastic markets in your area, but if not, we have the solution. We’re currently working on the Mother Load of Online Ethnic Markets guide, set to publish this fall. If you want a preview, subscribe below.