South East Asian Common Herb, Spices and Ingredients

What makes South East Asian cuisine aromatic, light  and refreshing yet satisfying?  The herbs, spices and ingredients. Most of South East Asian cuisines balance 5 taste buds well. The balancing of the five senses plus the spiciness are the secret behind the deliciousness of the food. Although sometimes three or four tastes are more dominant in some dishes.  No wonder, upon trying South East Asian food people often describe it as tasty!

The five tastes buds (plus spicy) in South East Asian food represents by ie:

Salty: salt, fish sauce, soy sauce

Sweet: gula jawa (palm sugar), sugar, sweet soy sauce

Sour: tamarind, lime, lemon, pineapple, young mango

Savoury/umami: dried shrimp, shrimp paste, oyster sauce

Bitter: bitter melon, papaya leaves and some  leaves from different plants and trees.

Spicy: chili, pepper

I would not elaborate here, the well-known spices that were originated from Indonesia and other parts of Asia (eg nutmeg, clove, etc) ,chances are, you are familiar with those spices.

This is an elaboration of more specific ingredients that is common in South East Asian cuisine yet it might be still foreign to the rest of the world. These ingredients carry some health benefit, that the western world has now incorporated them in their diet, think about Turmeric Latte. Please note this article merely comprises of the ingredients that is available at my kitchen/garden at the moment.

Some of the ingredients I couldn’t source as they are not available in South Africa for example, Pandan (screw pine) leaves which is essential in some South East Asian dishes. If you’ve been to my cooking class, you would have recalled all of these ingredients 🙂

1. Fresh Turmeric root (Kunyit in Indonesian)

The aroma and taste of the fresh turmeric are much more flavorsome than of the powder one.  The only downside is fresh turmeric will stain in your hand and food processor. Handle with plastic glove and wash your utensil immediately if you don’t want them stained on your utensils or hands. I use turmeric leaves for Rendang and some other Indonesian/Malaysian dishes. When I bought fresh turmeric, I would plant some of the roots in my garden and see the magic grows beautiful aromatic leaves. Both the leave and root freeze well.

2. Fresh Aromatic Ginger (Kencur in Indonesian)

Kencur is used in some of Javanese and Balinese and some other parts of South East Asia for cooking and herbal medicine. The most popular Javanese herbal/jamu is “Beras Kencur”. Kencur brought the most aroma compare to other ginger family. Kencur freezes well, but it is not available in South Africa.

3. Ginger (Jahe in Indonesian)

Self explanatory. Please note that although Kencur (and galangal) is within ginger family, they can’t substitute each other as their flavors are different.  However one thing they are in common is the health benefits of these roots which have been used as natural remedy in the east.

4. Dried Blue Ginger (Galangal/Laos/Lengkuas in Indonesian)

Another ginger family which used widely in Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean and Thai cuisines are galangal. I’ve haven’t seen any fresh galangal in South Africa. However the dried and brine galangal are available in South Africa.

5. Palm Sugar (Gula Jawa in Indonesian)

Gula Jawa is widely used in Javanese cuisine and some  desserts from different islands of Indonesia. Malaysia named it Gula Melaka. Indian (gur) and Thailand produce Palm Sugar bricks as well, although the color, taste and texture are not the same as Gula Jawa. However as Gula Jawa is not available in South Africa, Indian and Thai palm sugar can replace them. I mostly replace Gula Jawa with muscavado/dark brown sugar for cooking. For South East Asian dessert however, I prefer to use the authentic Gula Jawa. Store Palm Sugar in a dark cupboard or fridge.

6. Dried Shrimp (Ebi/Udang Kering in Indonesian)

Dried Shrimp is used more widely in greater Asian regions. Dried shrimp is often added, imparting the “umami” or savory flavor to the dish. Store dried shrimp in the fridge or freezer.

7. Lemon Grass (Sereh in Indonesian)

Lemon grass brings the beautiful fragrant and flavor to South East Asian soups, curries and other dishes. Lemon grass can be grown in South Africa and sold in local shops. Freeze lemon grass when they are in abundant.

8. Candle Nut (Kemiri in Indonesian)

Candle nut brings the nutty flavor plus thickening some Indonesian and Malaysian curries and other dishes.  Candle nut is not available in South Africa, can be replaced with macadamian nuts.  Candle nut freezes well.

9. Fresh Kaffir Lime Leaves (Daun Jeruk in Indonesian)

Kaffir lime leaves along with lemon grass are commonly added in South East Asian cuisines. Thai Tom Yum, Singapore Prawn Laksa, Indonesian Soto Ayam, those are some cuisines that benefit from the aromatic leaves. Dried kaffir lime leaf is available in South Africa, while the fresh leaves are rare to find.

10. Lemon

Lemon is a good substitution of lime and other Asian citrus fruit that use widely in South East Asian cuisine as a condiment. Lime is seasonally available in South Africa, while lemon is available and affordable year-around.

11. Chili (Cabe in Indonesian)

The type of chili we use in South East Asia is what in South Africa called Thai chili (long and thin) and Bird’s Eye chili (cabe rawit). The smaller the chili type, such as bird eye’s chili, the hotter they are. When working with big quantity of chili, take caution as chili can burn your body parts.  Handle with plastic gloves or oil your hands beforehand.  When Thai chili in season in summer, freeze them for the winter month.

12. Celery (Seledri in Indonesian)

Soup celery is the type of celery that used in Indonesian cuisines, either soup, garnish or condiment for Javanese Fried Rice, for example.  The celery is much thinner, smaller,  subtle and leafy than the Western celery.

13. Green/Spring Onion (Daun Bawang in Indonesian)

Spring onion is widely used in South East Asian cuisine, either in stir fry, soup/soto, and other dishes such as Indonesian Martabak. Easily found in grocery shops in South Africa. I replant the roots from store bought spring onion in my garden which will come in handy.

14. Banana Leaf (Daun Pisang in Indonesian)

Banana leaf is used for food wrapper, garnish or as a replacement of plates in South East Asia. Plus banana leaf is used as one of  traditional cooking methods wrapping rice, proteins and tofu and dessert. Banana leaf gives a particular aroma that increase appetite.  Banana leaf is not sold in shops in South Africa. However, banana trees sometimes are available from nurseries which you can grow in your garden and picked the leaves as needed. Banana leaf freezes well.

Wanna try to make your own South East Asian cuisines at home? If you are in Cape Town, inquiry for the Interactive Authentic Asian Cooking Class where I teach Indonesian and South East Asian dishes in a relaxing yet informative class:

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