When I move, nothing makes me realize how full my pantry is. It’s simple to pack everything in a box and then (sort of) transport them to the new place. An unopened Nutella 35.2-oz jar somehow found its way to my Brooklyn studio. What was I supposed to do? Just leave it? There was no space for Nutella when I moved from New York to Hawaii last year. I had to do a complete pantry purge. I felt like I was being slapped as I placed every used bottle of vinegar and seasoning container in front of me. Was I going to use all this stuff? As I looked at each item more closely, my memories of why they were bought flooded.
My pantry is a mix of my past, present, and future. For dishes that remind me of grandma’s house, the weathered box of Sazon is ideal. The yeast-stained envelope was last used in a Japanese milk bread recipe test. The large bottle of Thai seasoning sauce, which remains unopened, is from when I was excited about reading a cookbook and bought every Thai ingredient that I could find. My life has been in flux for the past two years. Although I live in Hawaii now, it is temporary, and there are always new move-out dates. I would love to have a pantry that I am interested in. But right now, it is impossible.
My 6 Latinx & Asian Pantry Staples
Lots and lots of rice
Ethnically I am half-Latinx, half-Asian. Both sides need rice. Rice is a staple food for both sides. I often eat it for breakfast and dinner. You can find countless types of it, making it one of the most versatile ingredients. If possible, I keep at least six varieties of long-grain white: sushi, jasmine and basmati, multigrain and sticky rice. Each variety offers something different than the others. Long-grain white is my choice when making something like Rabo Candido (Cuban braised beef oxtails). Although the jasmine flavor might be strong, it’s my favorite when using coconut milk or lemongrass. Rice would be my only pantry ingredient if I could choose one.
Instant Dashi, an essential stock in Japanese cuisine, is traditionally made from water, kombu and bonito. It is loaded with umami and serves as a flavor builder in many Japanese dishes. Dashi is a key ingredient in miso soup, nikujaga and chawanmushi, to name just a few. Although I enjoy the extra time it takes to prepare the dish, sometimes I wouldn’t say I like the extra liquid. Instant dashi is a dried powerhouse ingredient that makes dashi flavor in seconds. Instant dashi can be activated with any liquid, like a bouillon cube. It can be used in soup bases or grated potatoes to make the best crispy hashbrowns.
Sazon is a spice mix. It usually contains garlic, onion and cumin. Sometimes, MSG is added. It is the main ingredient in the Latin American kitchen and the flavor of my childhood. Saxon was a staple ingredient in my childhood, including pernil and tamales. There are many ways you can cook with it, from yellow rice to marinades. Goya is still the most popular brand, but more recent companies like Loisa are producing it. You can also make your version at home if you feel more hands-on. This spice mixture and instant dashi are used in my season Ramen Recipe to make a rich base for plump shrimps and noodles.
Instant Ramen is long gone. The U.S. continues to see a rise in ramen options and the demand for them. I feel so happy every time I walk into a ramen aisle. A rainbow of packaging greets me. (I love Ramen so much that I wrote a picturebook about it. Ramyeon is my favorite Korean instant ramen, inspired by Japan’s Shin Ramyun and Samyang Carbo Hot Chicken. On days when I feel extra, Neoguri and Chapagetti are combined with steak to create ram-don (also known as Jalpaiguri), a play on both brands. Neoguri is spicy seafood; Chapagetti has black bean paste based upon the classic Korean jajangmyeon. They make the perfect meal to snuggle up with and watch anime binge-watching, as they are both delicious together.
TikTok has made Japanese Kewpie mayo a household name. It’s very popular. Kewpie is made from only yolks. This gives it a richer texture and a more flavorful taste than American jarred Mayonnaise, which uses whole eggs. The real secret to Kewpie’s success is the MSG. It replaces salt and sugar in other brands and brings out the essence of what you put it on. Its cute baby logo is also a favorite of mine. I even have a pair of Kewpie-baby earrings. Kewpie is great in all things: sandwiches, tuna, katsu, dipping sauces and soups. It can also be drizzled on top of everything. Even if mayo is not your favorite flavor, you should try Kewpie. I have seen even the most ardent fans of Kewpie become Kewpie lovers after just one taste.
My Korean side has always been elusive to me. But ssamjang helped. The thick paste is made from fermented soybeans and onions. As a child, there were no Korean restaurants in my area, so I only ate Korean food when visiting a major city. My mother, brother and I would go to the nearest Korean barbecue restaurant together and eat as if it was something we had done all our lives. To me, ssamjang serves as a sidekick to KBB Q’s caramelized meats. Although you technically can do without it, there would still be something missing. It is savory, salty and full of umami. It’s also great for dipping dumplings and raw vegetables. KBBQ is something I do at home now. It’s a great way to make Korean food more Korean.