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A Guide To Building Your Own Asian Pantry at Lotus Market

Sharon Drummond/ Flickr

Foodies and non-foodies alike may have recently stumbled across The Beginner’s Asian Pantry, a comprehensive yet simplistic guide to building a pantry which will give you everything you need to actually make all of those Asian inspired dishes you’ve been pinning for months and never looking at again. The pinning stops today.

We’re here to take you one step closer to making your Asian food dreams a reality. Because what’s better than being able to satiate your 3am craving for Everyday Noodles’ minced pork sauce without having to leave your house?

The Strip District’s Lotus Market boasts a slew of pantry staples as well as fresh ingredients that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the city. But upon stepping into Lotus Market you may very well find yourself overwhelmed by the abundance of foreign ingredients and rows and rows of unfamiliar sauces, vinegars, and jared mysteries.

To alleviate this confusion, we have compiled an aisle by aisle field guide and list of all the items you’ll need to get your Asian pantry on it’s feet.

shuets udono/ Flickr

shuets udono/ Flickr

Aisle 1

Lotus Market’s first aisle is aptly placed since it contains an array of staple pantry items that can be used in hundreds of diverse recipes.

Mirin: Real mirin is tough to find in the states. But Lotus Market’s Kikkoman brand Aji-Mirin is a perfectly acceptable substitute. This sweet sake-like product is the foundation for many Japanese dishes and essential to any Asian pantry.
Rice vinegar: Another absolute necessity that serves as a foundational element or finishing garnish for just about everything you’ll be cooking. Any of Lotus’ many available brands hold up well. Just steer clear of seasoned varieties.
Fish sauce: Don’t let the pungent smell fool you. You’ll soon be using this fishy liquid in abundance and you’ll never look back. Also, go for Squid brand which, helpfully, has a big orange squid on it.
Shaoxing wine: This traditional Chinese wine comes from fermented rice and is great for beginning and intermediate cooks looking to up their game. While you won’t find the genuine (and far more alcoholic) shaoxing at Lotus, we find that the Pagoda brand works well for cooking (maybe not so much for swigging).
Usukuchi (light soy sauce): This Japanese soy sauce shouldn’t be confused with low sodium soy sauce. Usukuchi is light in color, fuller in flavor, and delicious. Our pick for usukuchi at Lotus comes in a red and yellow packaging and reads simply SUPERIOR LIGHT SOY SAUCE.
Chinkiang vinegar: You know those soup dumplings you’re so fond of? Chinkiang vinegar is one of the essential elements of creating that tasty sauce served alongside them. Due to not being able to read Chinese, this one was tough to find. The giveaway was in the ingredient list which, among other things, includes the unmistakable glutinous rice. Pro tip: Look for the bottle with a gold top and a red, gold, and white label. Look for the words “sweetened vinegar sauce”.

Jason/ Flickr

Jason/ Flickr

Aisles 2 & 3
Welcome to aisles 2 and 3; home of oils, Americanized soy sauce, and pickled everything. Beware, aisle 3 is the land of canned meats that you don’t need in your life.

Sesame oil: This iconic ingredient is used all across Asian cuisine from South India to Korea. Because of it’s high smoke point, sesame oil is used primarily as a finishing flavor. And as tempting as it may be to buy the economy size container of this nutty and captivating oil, keep it small and go for the slightly higher priced bottles.

gail m tang/ Flickr

gail m tang/ Flickr

Aisle 4
Although none of our essential pantry items will be found in this part of the store, we’d like to give a shout out to the excellence that is aisle 4 and the adjacent hot food bar/ bun and pancake cooler.

Aisle 4 itself is where you’ll find canned goods like bamboo shoots and water chestnuts which, in a pinch, are great to have on hand for a quick stir fry. But the real magic happens at Lotus’ hot food bar where you can score delicious tea eggs (a Chinese snack which is simply an egg which has been double boiled in tea) and braised pork belly over rice. And if you’re looking for some quick dim sum at home, this is where you can find pre-made refrigerated sesame pancakes and pork buns of all kinds.

Flickr/ PROkattebelletje

Flickr/ PROkattebelletje

Aisles 12 & 13
Flavor and bulk is the name of the game for these aisles which, once again, are aptly placed in the midst of the store as you are beginning to piece together what kind of meals could potentially arise from this grocery venture.

Noodles: Vermicelli, Soba, Ramen… the list goes on. If you find yourself a touch overwhelmed by the plethora of noodles at your disposal, we recommend starting with the Shandong noodles. This 5 pound box of noodles are versatile and great for serving with simple broths. Shandong noodles can be found in Aisle 12 near the bottom row. They come in Medium and Wide varieties depending on your noodle preference. We recommend medium to maximize slurping potential.

Kombu: This dried kelp product adds tons of umami flavor to broths and is available in an array of different varieties, all of which are viable pantry options. We reached for the Dashi Konbu by Bgreen.

Katsuobushi (bonito flakes): This unique product comes from the bonito fish after it has been filleted, cooked in liquid, smoked, and then hung up to dry, and shaved. Like kombu, katsuobushi is often used in making stock, particularly in the Japanese dashi.

Dried mushrooms: The variety you choose is up to you (and will depend on your taste preferences) but we recommend starting with shiitakes. Dried mushrooms keep forever and will add another layer of depth and umami to stock.

Rice: Obvious? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Rice may seem like an unoriginal choice for a list of Asian pantry items, but it’s profound presence in Asian cuisine is undeniable. And before you skip this pantry item at Lotus, bare in mind that purchasing a bag of rice in most Asian markets is going to save you big bucks down the road. Our recommended brand is Kokuho Rose California Sushi Rice in Aisle 13.

Ingrid Taylar/ Flickr

Ingrid Taylar/ Flickr

Aisle 14, 15 & 17
Once again, these aisles are not quintessential in your quest for pantry building blocks but, if you have a love of colorful sweet treats, aisles 14, 15, and 17 welcome you with open sugary arms. Pocky, mochi balls, red bean ice cream, and bear shaped/chocolate filled cookies rank amongst our favorite indulgent items.

timoni west/ Flickr

timoni west/ Flickr

Aisle 21
This small refrigerated area near the back of the store contains some of the most important (and impressive) pantry items that will up your flavor game.

Umeboshi: These small, dark colored plums come from Japan and have an intense sour flavor. They are often boiled and served alongside rice but can be used to add flavor during the cooking process as well. This small garnish can easily change an entire meal’s flavor profile, so use sparingly. Pro tip: At Lotus, the plums come in a short round container with a yellow lid which contains only Chinese characters. If in doubt, check the bottom label which will say “Pickled Plum” and “Umeboshi”.

Miso paste: This soybean paste is used for making Miso soup which you can combine with tofu for a quick and simple meal. We recommend the Shiro Miso, a Japanese product that will last for months in your fridge.

Pickled Ginger: More of a garnish than an ingredient, these delicate pink ginger shavings are great for finishing a dish with a pop of intense ginger flavor. And, when refrigerated, a jar will keep for months.

Kimchi: Even the most experienced chefs often buy pre-made kimchi because it is reasonable and incredibly versatile. The Korean staple is a spicy fermented cabbage that pairs well with rice dishes and, while it is delicious, can be tricky to make at home. All of Lotus’ varieties of kimchi are suitable for those looking to acquaint themselves with this product before attempting to make it from scratch.

Mor/ Flickr

Mor/ Flickr

Aisle 24
The meatiest portion of our list is here. And we saved it for last.

Dried baby shrimp: Used primarily to flavor sauces and dressing, dried baby shrimp add a distinctive taste to every dish they come in contact with. At Lotus’ these come in a red and yellow 3oz package and are marked simply as “Dried Shrimp”.

Lap Cheong: As we approach the end of our list, we also approach one of the most important pantry items in our repertoire. This Chinese sausage comes in different flavors and varieties of meat and is a versatile product which can be used both inside and outside of traditional Asian cuisine. Different combinations of ingredients enable these small sausages to vary from smoky to malty to a strong flavor that can only be described as “almost too rich” due to the presence of liver. Whether you’re putting these on a sandwich with bitter greens or tossing them with noodles, lap cheong is a go-to item for any Asian pantry worth it’s weight.

About Julianna Bagwell (104 Articles)
Julianna Bagwell is the Managing Editor for LOCALpittsburgh as well as a freelance writer for various publications including Thrillist.com. At her core, she is an extreme foodie and dog enthusiast.