In the world of Asian cooking, there are a few essential cooking sauces and condiments that accompany every Asian dish. The familiar find at pho restaurants is hoisin, sriracha and, for the more adventurous, nuoc mam (fish sauce). Southeast Asian eaters love to create individual dipping sauces at the table. Each person can enjoy a different level of spiciness or bitterness. Here are seven sauces to stock in the pantry so that Asian food can be enjoyed at home anytime, just as in restaurants. (By the way, the sauce aisle at Viet Hoa is a good place to start collecting.)
Sweet Chili Sauce: This type of sauce, like the one made by Caravelle, is a great substitute for nuoc mam cham, the spicy dipping sauce that usually accompanies Vietnamese egg rolls and vermicelli bowls. There are several variations that are labeled specifically for spring rolls, egg rolls or chicken. Go with the chicken sauce for its versatility. This thick condiment is similar to the Chinese version of a sweet and sour sauce and can be used to coat deep-fried proteins such as chicken, pork or shrimp.
Dumpling Sauce: Looking for the perfect sauce for those potstickers? Wei Chuan Dumpling Sauce is a house favorite. Both the spicy and mild flavors pack a deep, savory punch that's a tiny pool of saucy heaven for those potstickers. Add fresh, minced ginger, chile sambal and a squeeze of lime, and it makes a perfect Asian dressing for salads.
Ponzu: Ponzu is a tart, light Japanese sauce that's mixed with shoyu (soy sauce). It is served with gyoza or as a dressing for salads. When combined with Maggi sauce and sriracha, ponzu makes a tasty alternative for a spring roll dip. The citrus lime ponzu by Kikkoman makes a great Asian dressing.
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Mam Ruoc: This next Asian condiment is not for the faint-hearted. Mam ruoc is widely used in Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Laotian cuisine. It is finely ground shrimp paste, and is used as both a cooking ingredient and a condiment. Many find this sauce to be pungent in taste and aroma. The most common use is in flavoring seafood soup bases and stocks. It is also an essential component in a Vietnamese noodle soup called bun rieu (spicy crab tomato soup).
Sambal: A good chile sambal is a spice lover's best friend, especially where Asian food is concerned. A little goes a long way, whether as a small dollop in a bowl of ramen, a teaspoon atop fried rice or an addition to the pan during a stir-fry. Sambal is also a key ingredient in making nuoc mam cham, the dipping sauce for Vietnamese egg rolls.
Fish Sauce: This is probably the most-used ingredient in an Asian chef's pantry. Fish sauce is the liquid extracted from the fermentation of fish or cuttlefish and sea salt. While there are several to choose from, one of the more common and cost-effective is the Squid brand. Three Crabs, Red Boat and Megachef are other good brands to buy. However, for everyday cooking, at $1.89 a bottle, Squid is a smart choice. Check the back of bottles to make sure the list of ingredients is short and simple.
Maggi Seasoning: Last on the list is Maggi seasoning sauce. More often employed as a condiment rather than a cooking agent, this near-magical essence is used as a substitute for soy sauce. Full of umami, it's citrusy, light, tart and savory. It is used on banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches); in rice dishes, noodle dishes and soups; and as a dipping sauce with fresh, sliced Thai peppers or chile sambal. Maggi is sold in sizes ranging from two to 27 ounces.