January 24, 2018

GCH: What’s on Your Plate? The International Pantry

Most of the recipes on GCH: What’s on Your Plate are for delicious dishes that may not even require a trip to the store to make tonight.  That might not be the case with my contributions!  If you’ve always wanted to try a Mexican, Korean, or Indian recipe but didn’t know where to start, I’m here with a primer for some basic things to stock in your pantry and refrigerator.

The Korean Kitchen

I am biased:  I love Korean food!  There aren’t any complicated techniques to master (I’m looking at you, French bistro cuisine!) and it relies mostly on fresh vegetables and a few simple condiments.  I highly encourage you to find an Asian or Korean grocery store and try some recipes out.  Here’s what to buy to get you started.

Sesame Oil:  This dark, nutty oil is a base flavor in most Korean recipes.  Any brand is fine, and your neighborhood Safeway or Kroeger may stock it in the Asian aisle.

Soy Sauce:  You probably already have this.  Kikkoman is definitely in your grocery store right now!

Rice Vinegar: A delightfully sweet-tart vinegar that is fresh-tasting and light.  I use it often in salad dressings.

Garlic:  In James Clavell’s classic samurai novel Shogun, the Japanese guards refer to Koreans as “the garlic-eaters”.  They meant it as an insult, which is incomprehensible to me!  Garlic is very healthy for you, and is found in many cuisines around the world.  I mean, imagine Italian food without garlic!  I buy it whole because it’s cheaper that way, but if you don’t want the trouble of mincing it to order, feel free to buy a jar of minced garlic to live in your fridge.

Green Onions:  You know, just your basic green onions.  And unless you’re making dessert, you can almost guarantee a Korean recipe will call for minced green onions.  Thankfully, if you buy them in an Asian grocery, they are going to be shockingly cheap to purchase.  In fact, every Asian grocery store I have been in has fresher vegetables at better prices than the American grocery store.

Ginger:  A common flavor agent in Korean food.  Buy a whole “hand” of ginger, or buy minced ginger to go in your fridge.  Be sure to buy regular minced ginger, and not the pickled kind they serve with sushi.

Doenjang:  Pronounced “den jong”, this is fermented bean paste.  It’s basically a stronger, chunkier version of Japanese miso paste.  This flavors many soups and stews, and lends a meaty, salty savor.  It can live happily in your refrigerator for a good year – after all, it’s already fermented!  When you buy it, read the ingredients – make sure there are no added flavors, like anchovies, and that you’re getting just plain doenjang.  Most brands feature helpful illustrations to help us non-Koreans out!

Gochujang: Pronounced just how it looks, “go chu jong”, this red paste looks scarier than it is.  If you like Sriracha hot sauce, you’ll love gochujang.  It is hot, fruity, sweet, and complex.  Koreans love this fiery paste and will sometimes serve a side dish of whole green onions to dip in gochujang.  That’s a little hardcore for me, but in smaller amounts, it is a tasty and welcome splash of spice.  And to make it easier, doenjang is always sold in a little tan tub, and gochujang is always sold right next to it, in a little red tub.  Don’t worry, you can’t confuse them.

Kimchi:  The iconic dish is the Korean version of sauerkraut – pickled cabbage that will cure any cold!  There are also radish and cucumber versions.  Pick up a jar and see if you like it.  I love it, and I love the huge dose of Vitamin C it gives me.  Koreans eat kimchi and rice with every meal.

Rice:  This is not the Uncle Ben’s variety.  You’ll need short-grain, Japanese-style rice.  Two popular brands are Calrose and Shirakiku.  And yes, it’s supposed to be sticky!

Everything else for your Korean recipes will be vegetables or some meat.  Common vegetables used are zucchini, spinach, carrots, mushrooms, eggplant, cabbage, onion, and bean sprouts.  These should all be purchased fresh, of course, and for the most part, once you have the basic condiments, you can go to the regular grocery store for the other things you need.

Indian Ingredients

Indian food is a delightful way to explore different flavors, textures, and techniques.  It’s also a wonderful choice for vegetarians, or people looking to cut down on meat, since recipes using beans and vegetables abound.  Here are some basics to get you going.

Curry:  As I mentioned last week, curry comes in powder, paste, and sauce form – but I would avoid the sauces, since they are diluted, and you can’t control the salt, heat, or viscosity of the finished product.  Instead, go to your regular grocery store, and look in the spice aisle.  Last time I was there, I counted six different curry powders!  They are all similar, in that they probably contain turmeric, mustard, coriander, and cumin.  But they diverge there, and each has other spices – ginger, cayenne, cinnamon, allspice – in a different balance of flavors.  I recommend that you buy two different brands.  Open them, smell them, and see which you like better.  I have three right now – one is sweeter, one is more bitter, and one is hotter.  I use them in combination, or pick which one goes better with the recipe – the sweeter one for squash or carrots,  the hotter one for meat.  As for pastes, these are more specific and uniform – one brand’s Madras curry paste will be very similar to another brand’s.  I like Madras, as it’s a very balanced mix of sweet, bitter, spicy and hot.  It’s another condiment that doesn’t take up a lot of space in the fridge, lasts forever, and adds a unique kick to everything it mixes with.

Whole spices:  I can’t recommend whole spices highly enough!  Now just to be clear, I’m not a zealot:  please buy ground cinnamon and not sweat and curse over trying to grind down a cinnamon stick for your next batch of snicker doodles!  But if you did a taste-test of prepackaged ground cumin versus whole cumin  toasted and ground at home, you’d go kick that name-brand jar right out of your spice cabinet!  I always have whole cumin, mustard, and coriander seeds on hand.  Believe it or not, Mexican and Indian cuisines share a lot of flavors:  garlic, cumin, onion, peppers, and cilantro, just to name a few.  The cumin will certainly not go to waste if you do any kind of “international” cooking.

Rice:  Sorry, you can’t use Japanese / Korean / Chinese rice in Indian cooking!  But Indian, Thai, and other south Asian cuisines use the same rice: either basmati or Jasmine rice, and you can find both in white and brown varieties.

Everything else in Indian food should be purchased fresh.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, spinach,lentils, chickpeas, and green beans are all common ingredients.  Indians also make great use of chicken, so if you cut out red meat from your diet, check the multitude of chicken presentations.
Sorry this was so long.  I just got excited sharing the little bit of knowledge I have of what some people may consider non-traditional cooking.  Now get out there, and be a culinary adventurer!
Explore, experiment, and enjoy! — Dana
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About Dana Kim

Dana Kim – Blog Contributor
Dana currently lives in Hollywood, California, with her husband and two children. She is currently learning to cook traditional Korean food, to teach her daughters about their heritage and culture. She loves trying all different kinds of recipes and is happy to share those recipes here!


  1. coleen hayden says:

    dana! thank you…love this! so very helpful (and i was happy to see that i had over half of your suggestions already in my 'fridge and pantry). and i <3 the taste that sesame oil brings to a stirfry! yummy! thanks, dana! <3

  2. Megan Smidt says:

    1. Dana, I love your "voice" in your posts! I can just hear you and I love you!
    2. THANK YOU!!!! This was very helpful… 🙂

  3. Thanks Coleen and Megan! I took my friend to the Korean store on Monday and showed her everything she needed to get started. She was excited, and said having the basics already in the house made it more likely to take the next step and make some recipes. Next week I'll post a Korean recipe and we can all get going together!

  4. I LOVE learning something new when it comes to cooking, and I can't wait to try next weeks recipe!! I need to find a store that sells these products first though!! 🙂


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