Most people would agree that the native cuisine of a country tastes best in the country itself. The freshness of the ingredients, the soil on which they were raised, even the flavour of the water, all go to creating an authentic-tasting dish. That being said, however, when you’ve sampled delicious food on an Asian holiday, for instance, you naturally want to re-create as much of those glorious tastes as possible. Fortunately many Asian ingredients, such as Sriracha hot sauce, fresh ginger, and coconut milk, are now readily available in Europe or North America, either in specialist Asian stores or even in mainstream supermarkets. But some things are hard or impossible to find so you will have to find a way to substitute with something you can buy locally.
Let’s start with the basics – salt, pepper, and sugar. Don’t assume these are the same east and west! Many Chinese dishes have salt as their main flavouring, such as Salt and Pepper Squid, so getting the salt right is important. It’s probably best to use a sea or rock salt and then adding a dash of soy sauce, an important source of saltiness in Asian cuisine, to taste. Pepper comes in several colours – so if you’ve just been used to grinding up black pepper, it can be quite a revelation to taste the heat of white peppercorns (essential in some Chinese soups). And a recipe may call for Sichuan peppercorns – which aren’t really pepper at all, but a red berry that produces a slightly numbing sensation on the tongue. If you can’t find them, use regular pepper, with the merest hint of chilli (but keep it really, really subtle). There’s probably not a lot of difference between granulated sugar and rock sugar, except that you will have to grind the latter to a powder. Many recipes specify palm sugar – and the closest to it, outside Asia, is light brown sugar.
Spices and chillies shouldn’t be too much of a problem but when it comes to herbs, bear in mind that there are at least six different forms of basil. Thai dishes usually call for Thai basil, so use regular basil with a dash of mint. Anchovy paste is a reasonable substitute for the flavours of fermented fish, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. Tamarind juice may not be available where you live, but you can make an acceptable substitute for its earthy tang with five parts of tomato ketchup to a part of vinegar and a dash of Worcester sauce. Rice wine vinegar can be hard to find, so use sherry vinegar instead. If a recipe calls for green mangoes, you could use sour green cooking apples at a pinch. If you can’t get hold of shallots, chop a mild Spanish onion very finely. Lemon juice (use a little less) can be substituted for lime juice and lime zest can stand in for kaffir lime. And dried porcini mushrooms can be swapped for dried shitake mushrooms.
But there is one thing that there’s no substitute for – and that is learning how to cook Asian food from an expert. Once you know the basic techniques you will find yourself substituting ingredients with ease. Come to the Tropical Spice Garden’s Cookery School in Penang and learn some priceless skills.