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8 Pantry Staples To Make Umami-Packed Homemade 'Takeout' Food

ChihYu Smith
Written by ChihYu Smith
Pantry Staples to Make "Takeout" at Home
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One of the questions I receive most often from readers of my I Heart Umami is "What pantry items do I need to make super delicious Asian-inspired Paleo recipes?" Luckily, eating gluten-, grain-, and/or wheat-free doesn't mean that you can no longer enjoy Asian cuisine. I love using coconut aminos to replace soy sauce; it's less salty and naturally sweeter than soy. Fish sauce adds depth and extra umami, and it's a must-have if you love Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. Throughout the years, I’ve learned how to make Asian-inspired paleo, Whole30, and keto meals, and the staple seasonings and sauces in this excerpt from my new cookbook Asian Paleo are a few that have helped me boost flavor along the way.

1. Coconut Secret coconut aminos

Coconut aminos are a great substitute for soy sauce. They're made from sap that comes from the coconut blossom. They are gluten- and soy-free, with a lighter taste than soy sauce or tamari. I like to use them for marinades and add them to stir-fry dishes, soup, or practically anywhere I'd like to boost a little umami. Throughout this book, you'll see how and where I use coconut aminos to extract natural sweetness from cooking. This little bottle is one of my secrets to making Asian-inspired paleo cuisine without using added sugar.


2. Red Boat fish sauce

Fish sauce, made from salted and fermented anchovies, is a staple in Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian cuisine. It is used almost like salt. If you use fish sauce, I'd recommend you reduce the amount of added salt, as fish sauce can be quite salty. Use it sparingly; a few drops will go a long way. A good bottle of fish sauce—such as Red Boat brand—is a light to medium amber color and has a longer fermentation process so it tastes less fishy. Many brands have a very strong and unpleasant smell and contain processed ingredients. I recommend using only Red Boat for cooking. Fish sauce is great for Vietnamese dipping sauce, noodles, or stir-fry and curry dishes. I also like to use it as a beef marinade. Store it in the refrigerator once opened.

3. La Tourangelle toasted sesame oil

Growing up in Asia, I had never seen untoasted sesame oil, so when I first saw it in the States I was intrigued. That said, whenever I refer to sesame oil in my recipes, I always mean toasted sesame oil, because that's how people use it—in toasted form—back home. Look for clarity in the oil bottle: The oil should not be cloudy. One with a dark amber color will have a stronger fragrance than the lighter version. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way. Use for seasoning, in salad dressing, or to marinate meats.

4. Chosen Foods avocado oil

I fell in love with avocado oil because of its high smoke point and neutral flavor. It's great for stir-frying and is vegetarian- and vegan-friendly. I use it to replace soy, canola, sunflower, or any vegetable oils.


5. Marukan rice vinegar

There are a few types of rice vinegar. Look for white rice vinegar with a clear to light yellowish color. It is made from fermented rice and has a milder (less acidity) and naturally sweeter taste than other vinegars. Check that it has no added sulfites or other additives. Rice vinegar is common in Asian cuisine. I like to use it sparingly in salads, dressing, and dipping sauce for dumplings.

6. Whole Foods Market balsamic and aged balsamic vinegars

By complete coincidence, I discovered that balsamic and aged balsamic are great substitutes for Chinese black vinegar, which is made from wheat, millet, and sorghum, ingredients that aren't paleo or Whole30 compliant. Black vinegar also often has too many processed additives.

Although balsamic and aged balsamic vinegar do not taste the same as black vinegar, they're a much healthier choice and, when used correctly (combined with other seasonings and aromatics), they taste just as good as the traditional black vinegar.


7. Entube harissa chili paste

I discovered Entube harissa paste while I was looking for a substitute for Sichuan black bean sauce. It does not taste the same as real black bean sauce, but again, when you use it in the right context along with aromatics and the right cooking methods, this harissa paste is an awesome substitute for anyone who follows a Paleo or Whole30 diet. You'll see that I use it in many Sichuan-inspired recipes in this cookbook.

8. Thai Kitchen red curry paste

I use Thai Kitchen red curry paste supplemented by my homemade Curry Flavor Enhancer (page 184 of my book). Why? I rarely make curry just by using store-bought curry paste. It's not as fragrant, fresh, or lively. What's the solution? I blend my own mixture, using fresh shallots, garlic, cilantro or parsley, chilies, ginger (or galangal, if you can find it)...and so on. When you see how easy and fragrant it is to make my Curry Flavor Enhancer, you'll never make a pot of homemade curry without my recipe!

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