From MSG to hot instant ramen: nine food staples to seek out in your local Asian supermarket
Get the idea of the big UK brands that you’re likely to find on the big supermarket shelves out of your head. Instant ramen noodles are big business in Korea, Japan and further afield for good reason.
hey are thicker and more robust – maintaining a nice bite – while the accompanying rich liquid seasonings are unctuous, powerful and extremely savoury. There are a host of options available (in the Asia Supermarket there’s an entire wall filled with them) but it’s hard to go wrong with Samyang. The brand’s Buldak Hot Chicken range (which includes options such as carbonara, kimchi, cheese right through to very, very hot options) is your go to for big flavour and spice, while the Chacharoni black bean noodles are deeply dark and savoury.
Instant ramen noodles
This is something magical. I’ve made my own dashi before (a Japanese stock used for a range of dishes including ramen) but having this on hand in the kitchen is a savoury and bold flavour booster to soups, sauces and more. Most of the varieties are soy-based and some contain things like mirin, sugar, mushroom and kelp extract.
Dumplings of any kind are among the best things that exist in the culinary world. And Japanese gyoza are among the kings of the dumpling universe. You’ll find Ajinomoto frozen dumplings the Asia Supermarket and Lee Foods in Belfast, as well as online. They come in wide range, including classic pork, beef and hoisin duck, and are a veritable bargain. They can be fried and steamed quickly from frozen in just a few minutes.
I’ve already written about umami and what the (balanced) addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG) can do to sauces and dishes. What has been traditionally (unfairly) abhorred in places like the US in particular, the addition of MSG is often a staple ingredient in food elsewhere in the world – and for good reason. It’s also listed as ingredient in many of the sauces many of us revere. You’ll find the Ajinomoto variety in local Asian supermarkets and online. This will add an instant umami and savoury bump to your dishes. But, like salt, use in moderation. Thankfully old stigmas seem to be waning in recent years with some of the world’s top chefs fighting its corner.
The freezer section in the best Asian supermarkets evokes the same level of joy I experienced in a toy shop as a child. You’ll find lots of interesting things worth spending your money on, including both savoury and sweet steamed buns. The former is what tends to pique my interest. You’ll find barbecue pork variety in there which does a half decent job at replicating some of the homemade buns you’ll get at a dim sum restaurant.
While you may be thinking to yourself, I can get soy sauce anywhere, the range, quality and variety available at your local Asian supermarket will impress beyond words. Wadakan light soy sauce is a good option, and great value. It’s a solid everyday option, which isn’t overly salty and works well as a dipping sauce for sushi or dumplings.
While you might find a copycat version of the Flying Goose brand in a supermarket, venture out and you’re likely to find an extensive range of varieties. There’s the classic, garlic-heavy sweet and tangy chilli option and a host of others – including coconut, wasabi, extra hot and black pepper. The latter is a punchier sauce which will bump up and boost any simple noodle dish.
This is another umami bomb of flavour which you’re unlikely to find anywhere on the high street or big supermarkets. Essentially, these are bonito flakes – cooked, dried, smoked and fermented skipjack tuna, which are tracing paper thin and can be added atop any rice, noodle or meat dish. They have a wonderful light, salty, savoury quality and add life into something otherwise basic and mundane.
Chilli oils and pastes
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed standing in front of the myriad of chilli oils, pastes and sauces in a good Asian supermarket, you’re not the only one. There’s a host of delicious things in jars which can add huge punch and depth to dishes of all kinds. You’ll definitely want a jar of chilli oil, or the crispy chilli variety. Black bean and chilli oil is yet another step up in terms of umami and can be thrown through noodles or served atop. Meanwhile, Korean gochujang is a rich, savoury chilli paste without too much heat which can form the base of soups, sauces or stir-fries.