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A-CHOY Looking like Romaine leaves, this vegetable originated from Taiwan, and can now be bought from local supermarkets. They are crunchy and have a slight bitter aftertaste. The leaves bruise easily so buy and stir-fry on the same day. The Taiwanese flash-fry this green – with oil and garlic in less than one minute.

AGAR AGAR A thickener made from seaweed that is used to make custards, puddings, jelly and kuih. It is also used in some commercial flavoured yoghurts, drinks and candy like marshmallow, to add texture and bulk. Tasteless and semi-translucent, agar agar is sold in powder or flake form, and dissolved in hot water. It is suitable for vegetarian and vegan recipes. In South East Asia, it is used to make desserts and can be flavoured with juice, pandan leaves, or pieces of cut fruit.

ANGLED LUFFA (see gua) This cucumber-like fruit has sharp ridges and a rough skin that has to be removed fully before cooking. It holds well even during long periods of cooking and is excellent for braised dishes.

APRICOT SEED (nan xingren). Usually bitter, this seed is used sparingly with other herbs in Chinese soup concoctions to help relive coughs and calm wheezing.

ARROWHEAD It looks like a pale water chestnut and is just as crunchy in texture. Arrowheads are used in curries to give texture and are delicious deep-fried in paper-thin slices as chips. They are better remembered as auspicious Lunar New Year plants as their jade-green arrow-shaped leaves are a symbol of continuous improvement for the Chinese.

ASSAM GELUCOR The dried slices of a sour fruit found in Malaysia (botanical name garcina atnoviridis). This is interchangeable with tamarind pulp and is used to flavor Nonya and Thai curries and soups.


BAMBOO SHOOTS Considered a delicacy in Asia, most bamboo shoots we get in Singapore are boiled and canned. It could be because the raw young shoots of the bamboo contain a toxic substance that can only be destroyed through rigorous heating. Canned bamboo shoots are delicious added to braised dishes, stir-fries and soups.

BANGKWANG (yam bean; jicama) Also called sengkwang in Malaysia, this sweet vegetable, shaped like a top, is one of the key ingredients in the dish called popiah. It’s crunchy and smooth even after cooking and absorbs the flavours of the liquid it’s cooked in. It’s a tuber like the potato, but unlike most tubers, it has little starch and high water content. Having a similar texture as water chestnuts, it’s sometimes used as a cheaper alternative.

BEAN SPROUTS (dou ya) The tender young shoots of the mungbean are commonly called taugeh which is its Malay name. They are common ingredients in stir-fries and soups.

BELACAN/BELACHAN Shrimp paste with a distinct pungent aroma, it is a main ingredient in many South East Asian cuisines. Sold in firm blocks or bottled in thick paste, belacan can be pink or grey-brown. Some cooks toast slices of belacan before adding it to a dish. This intensifies the aroma. The paste version is used as a marinade for chicken in the Cantonese dish called har cheong kai (prawn paste chicken).

BELIMBING A small tart fruit also called belimbing assam or belimbing buloh in Malay. Fresh belimbing is usually added to curries and sambals (spiced chilli mixes). They can also be pickled.

BOK CHOY/PAK CHOY (xiao bai cai) This member of the brassica family is also known as Chinese cabbage and Chinese chard. Mild-flavoured, this vegetable is often stir-fried or steamed. See nai bai.

BOTTLE GOURD (po gua; woo lo gua) Also known as calabash, this is shaped like a bottle and has mild-tasting flesh which can be used in soups, braises, stir-fries and bakes. Only the young gourd with smooth shiny is eaten. The mature gourd is dried and used as a bottle or utensil.

BRINJAL (terong) Also called aubergine or eggplant. In South East Asia, this fruit (it’s not a vegetable) is long and thin with a pale purplish hue unlike the darker Western cousin while the Thai eggplant is round, the size of a ping pong ball.

BUAH KELUAK Grown extensively in Indonesia, this is prized for its black oily kernel that has a slightly bitter taste even after cooking. Needless to say this is an acquired taste.

BURDOCK Called gobo in Japanese, these roots look like long twigs as they are skinny and woodsy. Burdock darkens easily when cut and much of its flavour lies under the skin so there’s no real need to peel it. A good scrub and wash will do. Burdocks are an acquired taste as it’s as sweet as a carrot but has a bitter taste. They are used in many Japanese dishes – gobo misozuke for instance. If you don’t mind the slight bitter bite, shredded burdock tastes reasonably delicious stir-fried with minced meat and simply seasoned with soy sauce.


CAI XIN/CHOY SUM is a versatile Chinese green, a cousin of Chinese kale and part of the brassica family which includes vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. Cai xin is used mostly for stir-fries and soups. Choy sum is the Cantonese name of the vegetable.

CANDLENUTS These cream coloured nuts are better known by its Malay name, buah keras. They are added to Nonya dishes for flavour and thicken the sauce and gravy. Unlike Western nuts, candlenuts cannot be eaten raw.

CENTURY EGGS Commonly known as pei-tan, these are duck eggs preserved in lime, ash and salt for as long as 100 days. The white of the egg turns translucent brown black while the yolk becomes a dark blue green. It has a slightly fishy flavour and is an acquired taste.

CHAPATI This is unleavened Indian bread made from whole wheat flour and cooked on a flat skillet. It accompanies curries and other dishes with gravies.

CHAR SIEW or lean roasted pork is both sweet and savoury and characterized by its red colouring. It’s often sold with roast chicken, duck and/or other barbecued meats.

CHAYOTE (fut sau gua) Also called vegetable pear, this starchy fruit resembles the clasped hands of Buddha. Its Cantonese name means “Buddha’s hands melon”. It’s mostly used in stir-fries and soups.

CHILLI PADI Also known as bird’s eye chilli because of it tiny size, chilli padi is the most fiery of local chillies.

CHINESE CELERY Aromatic and stronger than the Western celery, this vegetable is often mistaken for coriander. An easy way to find out which herb you’ve picked: Break off a little of the stalk and you will recognize the smell of celery if it’s Chinese celery you’re holding. Used mostly as a garnish for steamed and stir-fry dishes. The Cantonese call Chinese celery kin chye.

CHINESE CHIVES They can be green, yellow or flowering, have a spring onion flavour and are considered more pungent than Western onion chives. Green chives are best with tofu and noodle dishes. Flowering chives can stand alone stir-fried as a vegetable dish with some seafood but is best remembered stir-fried with pig’s liver. Yellow chives are the most delicate of the three and are best in soups and steamed or braised dishes where they are unlikely to be overcooked.

CHINESE HAM Or Yunnan ham is traditionally a winter ingredient, made from pork leg. This smoked or air-dried ham is sold in thick slices and adds a rich, smoky flavour to the dish.

CHINESE MUSHROOMS These are dried Shiitake mushrooms that come in varying sizes and price. They need to be rehydrated (soaked in warm water) before cooking. The soaking liquid is usually added to the dish for additional flavour.

CHINESE RICE WINE Traditionally made from fermented glutinous rice, it has a low alcohol content though aged for 10 years or more. It’s used both for drinking and cooking. The best wines are from Shaoxing in Zheijang province.

CHRYSANTHEMUM FLOWERS, DRIED These are infused in hot water to make a pleasant chrysanthemum tea which is believed to “cool” the body during hot weather. Dried chrysanthemum flowers can be bought in packs from supermarkets or Chinese medical halls in Singapore. Even dried, they emit a fragrant scent.

CHRYSANTHEMUM LEAVES (tang o) have a slightly pungent scent and a distinct bitter taste when cooked. Used mainly in soups and steamboat dishes, they get more bitter with prolonged heating.

COCONUT is the fruit of the tropical coconut palm. Just about all of it is used in various ways in South East Asian cuisines.

How to use:

* Coconut milk or Santan is a white milky liquid made by grating the white meat of the brown mature coconut, mixing it with warm water to release the fat, then squeezing this liquid through a thin cloth.
Several grades of coconut milk are used in South East Asian cooking:

* Thick coconut milk or “first squeezed” milk, has 20 to 29% fat.

How to use: In desserts, pancakes, sweet soups, steamed desserts such as kuih muih and to thicken and add a rich flavour to all kinds of meat and vegetable curries.

* Thin Coconut milk is coconut flesh soaked and squeezed a second time to make Thin milk or “Second Squeezed” milk, with 5 to 7% fat. Usually used in drinks such as cendol, soupy dishes such as curry laksa and rice dishes such as nasi lemak, where rice is cooked in coconut milk or water and coconut milk.

* Coconut cream or Pati Santan is when fresh coconut flesh is squeezed with little or no water, or “Thick” coconut milk is left to stand in the fridge overnight until creamy oils rise to the top and can be skimmed off. Note: coconut milk in cans and tetra packs often has stabilisers and emulsifiers added. It will still separate if you leave it overnight in the fridge, but the cream will not be as rich. Coconut cream is used to make candies, rice puddings such as Pulut Hitam and steamed desserts.

CORIANDER (xiang cai) Also known as Chinese parsley or cilantro, fresh coriander is often used as a garnish and needs little to no cooking. Often confused with Chinese celery (kin chye) because they look almost alike. However taste-wise, coriander is the stronger of the two. Understandably, the herbs are not interchangeable in recipes. Coriander stems and roots are used in fiery Thai cooking. Ground coriander seeds is also one of the key ingredients in curry pastes and mixes in South and South East Asia cooking. The other spices in a curry paste or mix are chilli powder, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek.

CUCUMBER This belongs to the same family as melons and squashes and is a fruit, not a vegetable. Sliced, cucumbers are a fresh crunchy addition to salads. Even when pickled, they retain a lovely bite. Cucumbers from Malaysia tend to have a more water-packed centre and should be cored before adding to salads. Japanese cucumbers are slender, thin-skinned and have a firmer centre. Lebanese cucumbers which are more difficult to find locally, are short and round and have a crisp fresh flavour. See zucchini.

CURRY LEAVES Originally from the Indian subcontinent, these leaves are used fresh or fried to impart a unique scent of curry powder.


DAIKON (lo bak) Also called Japanese radish or white carrot, its leaves are mild and peppery and are pickled or stir-fried. A fundamental ingredient in Japanese cooking, daikon is served raw or cooked. It’s also grated raw and added to Japanese dipping sauces. In Chinese cuisine, it is always cooked, simmered in soups or braised with meats. In the Korean kitchen, radish is an essential ingredient for kimchi.

DASHI This Japanese stock made from kombu (seaweed) bonito flakes and water, forms the base of many Japanese sauces and soups.

DATES, RED/BLACK (hong zao) Used mostly in its dried form, the red date or jujube, is something you add to soups to make them sweeter. They are used in savoury dishes as well to add a subtle sweet balance to the dish. The Chinese use dates to flavour many tonic soups. Dried black dates (hei zao) are smoked to enhance their flavour and are used for medicinal soups in traditional Chinese medicine.

DAUN SALAM Used traditionally to boost the fragrance of curries and sambals, these leaves, also known as Indonesian bay leaves, are light and citrus-y unlike European bay leaves.

DONG QUAI (angelica sinensis) A Chinese herb usually simmered with meats to nourish women’s health. It is believed to strengthen the blood and alleviate period pains.

DRIED CUTTLEFISH Sold whole, this is used to add flavour and depth to soups. Rinse to wash away excess salt before use. In traditional Chinese medicine, dried cuttlefish fortifies your health.

DRIED PRAWNS These are sun-dried and salted and are preferably soaked in water for several minutes to remove excess salt. They can be left whole, ground or pounded and added to dishes for extra flavour.

DRIED LILY BUDS (kim chiam) Also called golden needles, there are the unopened buds of the yellow day lily. They have to be soaked in warm water and their hard stems trimmed before cooking. They are most popular in vegetarian cooking as they impart an earthy flavour to a dish.

DRIED SCALLOPS Used sparingly to enhance the flavour of soups, stir-fries, porridge and stews, these dried versions of the white scallop are as expensive as their fresh counterparts.


ENDAMAME These are the fresh green pods of the soy bean made popular by Japanese restaurants who serve them as an appetiser. You can get endamame in the frozen section of the supermarket these days. They may be heavily salted but a rinse with hot boiling water will take away most of the salt. Endamame is an excellent source of protein.


FENUGREEK These small yellow-brown seeds are usually ground and used in Indian chutneys and pickles. It is also an essential ingredient in some curry mixes. Fresh fenugreek leaves are used in lentil stews.

FERMENTED SOY BEANS Also known as dou jiang or tau cheow (Hokkien), they are usually sold bottled and used to flavour dishes like Chap Chye and Babi Chin.

FISH BALLS/CAKE Made from white fish meat, these are ground to a paste with salt and flour then moulded into balls or flat rounds. They are usually poached or deep-fried and added to soups and noodles or eaten as snacks.

 FISH MAW This is the dried air bladder of the fish and is mostly used in preparing thick soups. The Chinese believe that it is beneficial for good health.

FUNGUS WHITE/BLACK White fungus is also known as white wood ear and snow ear fungus. While available in its fresh form, it’s more popular dried. All it needs is several minutes of soaking and it turns into a yellowish white mass twice its size. It’s collagen filled and its relatively cheap price (compared to bird’s nest) makes it much sought after by those who want to keep young. It’s commonly used in nourishing and healing soups. It’s all used in many vegetarian dishes.

Black fungus or bok nee as it is more commonly known is also called wood ear fungus or black Chinese fungus. Though available fresh, they are mostly sold in its dry form and need to be soaked before use. Generally tasteless, they add a lovely crunch to a dish and are known to soak up spicy flavours.


GHEE or clarified butter is used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. It’s fragrant and has a nutty flavour. Some people prefer cooking with ghee because it does not burn as easily as butter.

GINGER This thick root of the ginger plant used either fresh or ground as a spice.

How to use:

* Blue ginger This has a ginger and lemon grass aroma and is usually chopped and added to curries. See lengkuas.

* Crystallised ginger also called candied ginger is eaten as a snack or used in Chinese desserts.

* Ground ginger is used to flavour cakes and puddings.

* Pickled ginger or gari is the pinkish or yellow young ginger served as tsukemono or preserved vegetables that go with Japanese rice in sushi bars and restaurants.

* Chinese recipes use old ginger (drier, more fibrous and stronger flavoured) to balance “cool” foods such as chicken or seafood and to increase body temperature during cold weather.

* Young ginger (fresh and with thinner skin) is used to lower body temperature and are often pickled.

GINGER FLOWER (bunga kantan) The pink bud of the torch ginger plant, this is sliced thinly and added to salads for a unique flavour. It can be used raw as in the local dish called rojak, or cooked in curries.

GINKGO/GINGKO NUTS The seeds of the ginkgo tree, ginkgo or gingko nuts were first used in Chinese herbal tonics and soups. Known for their memory-boosting qualities, ginkgo nuts are usually steamed and used in savoury and sweet dishes.

GLASS NOODLES (tang hoon) Also called bean thread noodles or cellophane noodles, these turn transparent when cooked. They are made of mung bean paste.

GOJI BERRIES/WOLFBERRIES From the sweet Boxthorn fruit, goji berries were traditionally used in Chinese herbal dishes. These days they are used in cakes and desserts to give a delicate sweet hint. In Chinese herbal medicine, goji berries are eaten to improve eyesight as they are rich in carotene.

GOTU KOLA (Indian pennywort) These are more often eaten raw, shredded in salads or kerabu dishes. It is also made into a sweetened drink, stirred into soups and eaten as part of a raw herb platter. This plant is more associated with medicinal recipes and is known for its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

GULA MELAKA (palm sugar or jaggery) is actually made from the juice extracted from the coconut palm. Sold in blocks and in the form of syrup, gula Melaka has a lovely caramel taste. It’s often used drizzled over iced desserts.


HAIRY CUCUMBER (mo gua) Called known as fuzzy melon and winter gourd, this elongated relative of the winter melon can be light green-yellow or dark green in colour. So named because of its fuzzy, hairy skin, it’s mild and delicate and takes on the flavours of the other ingredients. Best used in soups and stir-fries.

HEI KO (black prawn paste) is a thick syrupy paste with a strong prawn flavour. Used to impart a salty, fragrant kick flavour to dishes such as rojak, where it’s drizzled and tossed with pineapple slices, bangkwang, cucumber and tofu puffs. It is often an acquired taste.

HOISIN SAUCE Made from fermented soy beans, onions and garlic, this thick, sweet sauce is used as a marinade or added to stir-fries and grilled food.


IKAN BILIS or anchovies are sold fresh or sun-dried and salted. They are usually deep-fried and served as crisp snacks to go with drinks.


JACKFRUIT In some Asian cuisines, the green fruit is cooked as a vegetable. When ripe, it is eaten as a fruit or used in local desserts. It has a strong aroma, sometimes compared to aroma of durians.

JU HER Also called cured squid or processed cuttlefish in English, it is the main ingredient of a traditional hawker dish called ju her eng chye. You can also find this ingredient sold cut in pieces for another food centre dish called yong tau foo.


KABOCHA (nam gua) Often mistaken for a pumpkin as it is also called Japanese pumpkin, this is actually a squash. Round slightly flattened with green orange skin and a bright orange flesh, kabocha is tender and sweet with a flavoursome texture that is a combination of pumpkin and sweet potato. It can be used in any recipe that calls for a pumpkin or squash.

KAFFIR LIME LEAVES (daun limau purut) The leaves of the kaffir lime plant have a strong but pleasant fragrance and are used to scent desserts and curries. The kaffir lime is as large as a ping-pong ball and has a knobbly skin. It gives very little juice.

KAI LAN (Chinese kale) Better known by its Chinese name, this leafy vegetable is also known as Chinese broccoli and has a crunchy texture with a slightly bitter taste. It’s used often in Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. Baby kai lan is the smaller, rounder version.

KALAMANSI LIME This small round green citrus fruit is sour, rarely sweet. It adds a tangy flavour to drinks and can be grown easily in a pot.

KANGKONG (water convolvulus) This semi-aquatic plant has arrow-shaped leaves and hollow stems which offer a crunchy bite even after stir-frying. Stir-fried with belacan, chilli and fresh or dried shrimps, they make the memorable sambal kangkong dish.

KIAM CHYE These are the stalks and leaves of the Chinese mustard green that are preserved in vinegar and brine. They can be finely chopped and used in stir-fries or left in chunks to flavour pork ribs in the popular dish called kiam chye soup.

KERISIK or finely grated, wok-roasted coconut adds a smoky depth of flavor and is used in many South East Asian cuisines. It has many names, including kerisk and kelapa sangria.

How to Use:  To thicken curries or as a topping for curries, dumplings and rice dishes such as nasi lemak. It is often used in dry rendang meat dishes and a rich rice cake and fried tofu stew called longtong.


LEMONGRASS An aromatic herb used for flavouring. It’s best remembered in Thai cuisine where its fragrant quality is used to scent and flavour Tom Yum curries. You can use it whole, sliced or pounded into a paste together with other spice ingredients.

How to use:
* Peel off tough outer leaves, leaving the pale inner leaves.
* Slice off the thick bottom part of the stalk.
* Pound the stalk, especially the bulb to release the aromatic oil. Infuse to get lemongrass tea. Or wrap minced pork or chicken over the bulb to get a fragrant “skewer” for grilled meat.

LENGKUAS or blue ginger or galangal Better known by its Malay name, lengkuas is a rhizome, with a ginger and lemon grass aroma. Its pungent tang makes it a lovely addition to curries. Even though it belongs to the ginger family, it cannot be used as a substitute for the common ginger.

LILY BULBS, DRIED (bai he) Though slightly bitter in taste, they add a subtle flavour when added to a dish like Chap Chye, the Nyonya version of sauteed mixed vegetables often eaten during Lunar New Year. Used in Chinese herbal soups, they are meant to help relieve cough and sore throat.

LONGAN This sweet, juicy fruit, native to South Asia, is used either fresh or dried in soups, snacks and desserts. They are sometimes mistaken for lychees. Dried longan is an essential ingredient in Chinese desserts and herbal soups that contain bitter herbs.

LONG BEANS Also known as yard beans, they look like thick green shoe laces and are often sold curled into a coil. Fresh long beans have a crisp snap but become less crunchy after cooking. They can be blanched and tossed in a salad or stir-fried with seafood or meats.

LOTUS SEEDS These cream-coloured seeds come from the lotus plant – the same plant that gives us lotus root. Sold dried, they have a delicate taste and are eaten in desserts (such as cheng tng) or stir-fried in vegetarian dishes.

LOTUS ROOT This is actually a rhizome or swollen stem from which the roots grow. The crunchy root of the lotus plant is a popular ingredient in Asian cooking. It can be sliced and pickled or blanched to serve as a snack or used in soups and other braised or stir-fried dishes. Younger smaller specimens are better for pickling and brief cooking while larger, starchier ones are better for soups and stews.

LYCHEE A small rounded fruit with a red-brown skin and sweet fragrant flesh. It makes a refreshing snack and is usually eaten on its own or used in fruit salads and desserts. It’s high in vitamin C but in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s labeled as a fruit with “hot” properties.

LUP CHEONG (Chinese sausage) Better known by its Cantonese name, lup cheong come in different prices, depending on the ingredients they are made of. Their stuffing can be made with fine or coarsely minced pork and pork fat, liver, Chinese wines and other seasonings. They can be steamed or fried and added to rice and noodles or eaten as a dish on its own.


MIRIN Japanese sweet cooking sake with a light delicate flavour and low alcohol content. It adds a mild sweetness to dishes and is stirred into food during the last stage of cooking. Dry sherry is a possible substitute, so is fresh apple juice for halal cooking.

MISO Fermented soy bean paste from Japan, miso can be light or dark brown with different textures and flavours. Stirred into sauces or soups or used as a marinade for meats and seafood, it’s one of the most popular Japanese ingredients in the market.

MIZUNA (king choi) Also known as Japanese mustard, this pretty vegetable with feathery leaves is bitter and peppery but not as strong as rocket (arugula). They are eaten raw in salads, stir-fried or cooked in Japanese hot pots.

MUI CHOY (preserved mustard cabbage) Better known by its Cantonese name, these are made from a leafier variety of mustard green than the one used for kiam chye, another preserved vegetable. Usually coated in a layer of salt, it is sometimes preserved in a mix of salt and sugar. Mui choy has to be soaked well and slow cooked to bring out the flavour. It is the key ingredient in a stewed pork belly dish.

MUSTARD GREEN (gai choi) Also called Chinese mustard, these have thick slightly green stalks and tightly packed green leaves at the top. It’s strong mustard flavour makes it good for pickling, soups and sharp sour-tasting dishes.


NAI BAI (white baby bok choy) is a popular variation of bok choy but is sometimes mistakenly called white stem cai xin. The milky white stems and bright green leaves make a delicious stir-fried dish.

NATA DE COCO is a chewy, jelly-like food made by fermenting coconut water so it becomes solid, by using special bacteria – the process can be compared to how bacteria turn liquid milk into cheese. Once solid, Nata de coco is cut into cubes and flavoured with fruits. It is high in dietry fibre, low in fat and has no cholesterol.

How to Use: 

Nata de Coco is popular in South East Asian desserts, including fruit jellies and fruit salads, such as Buko Salad in the Phillipines. It’s common as a topping on shaved ice desserts like Ice kachang and it’s often added to sweet coconut-based dessert soups or drinks. It’s also used to add texture and crunch to fruity pickles.

NUTMEG (buah pala) You can buy the whole seed and grate when needed. Nutmeg powder is used to flavour desserts and savouries. In Malaysia, dried, shredded nutmeg rind is coated with sugar or steeped in syrup and eaten as a snack.


ORANGE PEEL, DRIED (chen pi) This gives a pleasant orange flavour when added to soups and casseroles. It needs at least 20 minutes of soaking before use.


PANDAN/SCREWPINE LEAVES These give a sweet subtle flavour to many Asian desserts. The Nyonyas or Straits-born Chinese use pandan for both sweet and savoury dishes. The leaves are usually tied and added to a pot of hot dessert while cooking for flavouingr, or pounded to extract the green colouring for desserts like kuih talam and kuih dadar. Pandan leaves are never eaten.

POMELO One of the largest citrus fruit, it has a thick skin and a white membrane that covers the flesh which can be yellowish-white to pink. Pomelos can be sweet or tart and are usually eaten fresh or used in fruity salads.

POPIAH SKINS These tissue-thin skins made of rice flour can be used for spring rolls other than popiah. They can be used straight from the pack but needs to be fully thawed if left chilled in the fridge.

PRESERVED SOUR PLUMS These are whole plums preserved and sold in brine. They are rarely eaten on their own but are used in soups and steamed dishes with rich meats and seafood.

PRESERVED TIENTSIN CABBAGE (tung chye) These are small chopped pieces of the cabbage that have been preserved in brine. Firm and crisp in texture and salty in flavour, they are added to minced meats for flavour. They must be rinsed well before use.


RAITA Basically yoghurt whipped and seasoned with salt, pepper and spices, it often has mint stirred in. Usually served as a condiment with Indian curries.

RED BEANS Also known as aduki beans, these are usually boiled and mashed to make sweet fillings for cakes or left whole in sweet soups.

RED DATES These sweet dried Chinese dates or jujubes have a musky aroma and are usually used in Chinese herbal cooking. They can be used to flavour both sweet and savoury stews. See dates.

RICE PAPER This makes delicate wrappers for food and vegetables. Vietnamese rice paper rolls pack shelled cooked prawns, glass noodles, carrots, cucumbers and herbs for a healthy delightful bite. Rice paper also makes a good wrap for spring rolls which are often pan- or deep-fried.

RICE VINEGARS Fermented from rice, Asian rice vinegars are generally less acidic than Western vinegars and are common to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese cooking. They come in different colours and intensities.

How to use:

* White rice vinegar has a tinge of yellow and is not purely white. Japanese white rice vinegar is delicate while the Chinese variety is stronger and sharper.

* Brown rice vinegar is light to dark brown and made from unpolished brown rice that gives it more nutrient. It can be used in place of white rice vinegar.

* Black rice vinegar is somewhat smoky flavoured. Made from glutinous rice and grains such as wheat, millet and sorghum, it’s an important ingredient in Chinese hot and sour and sweet and sour dishes.

* Red rice vinegar is made fermented red yeast rice and some barley. It’s sweet, tart and salty, making it excellent for seafood dishes and dipping sauces.

* Seasoned rice vinegar is white vinegar with extra sugar and salt. The Japanese use this to season sushi rice.


SAGO Made from a starch extracted from the stem of a mature sago palm. This starch is sieved and then heated to form small pearl-sized beads called sago pearls which are used mostly in local desserts.

SAKE Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Rarely used in cooking. See mirin.

SALTED FISH A specialty of Malaysia, these dry salted fish – either in fillets or whole – are used sparingly in curries and sambals. They are also used in soups for a flavour boost.

SALTED RADISH (chye poh) The favourite topping of rice cakes called chui kueh, these finely diced radish are cooked in spices and salt to make a crisp- chewy brown relish.

SAN CHOY (Malabar spinach/slippery spinach) Its most distinguish feature is the way it turns slightly gooey (like lady’s finger) when cooked but this does not make it any less delicious. Its pleasant earthy flavour makes it ideal for stir-fries and braised dishes.

SESAME SEEDS Available in black and white, these seeds are used as a sprinkling over rice, breads and salads, or ground to make a paste for Chinese desserts. Sesame seeds have a strong nutty flavour.

SHALLOTS Smaller cousins of the onion, these have a mild sweet flavour that works better with some recipes. In Asian cooking, fried shallots are an absolute must as garnish. Fried shallots are called bawang goreng in Malay.

SNOW PEA SPROUTS (dou miao) Also known as mangetout, these tender, crisp shoots of the snow pea plant can be stir-fried or added to soups.

SOY BEAN These beans can be cooked in soups and braised with meats but soy beans are more well-known for their by-products that are used every day in households across Asia. Other than edamame (listed on its own), here are the others found in the local kitchen.

How to use:

* Bean curd (tofu) Both firm (tau kwa), soft (tau hu) and very soft silken tofu are made from the curds of soy milk. The soft varieties are often used in soups or steamed as they are delicate and break easily. Firm tofu can be stir- and deep-fried and eaten on its own or added to curries and spiced stews.

* Bean curd puffs (taupok) These are deep-fried and are either round or square shaped. They are usual stuffed with minced seafood or meat and fried or steamed.

* Bean curd skin/sheet (fu pei) This is actually the “skin” that forms on top of heated soy milk and sold dried. It has to be soaked to soften and is used to wrap meats or vegetables for deep-fried rolls.

* Bean curd stick (fu chok) Made the same way as bean curd skin, these come in dried sticks which are softened and added to savoury soups and sweet desserts.

* Sweet bean curd strips (tim chok) These small brown rectangular pieces of dried bean curd are only slightly sweet and are usually pan- or deep-fried and added to savoury dishes. It’s a key ingredient in vegetarian cooking.

STARFRUIT Also known as carambola, this five-corner fruit is pale green but turns orange-yellow when ripe. Usually eaten raw or used as edible garnish for salads and cocktails.

SUGAR CANE The source of commercial sugars and molasses, these juicy canes are squeezed to extract its juice for a refreshing cool drink in warm weather. Sugar cane is also cut into short lengths and boiled with water chestnuts for a “cooling” Chinese tea.

SWEET POTATO LEAVES (fan shu) When stir-fried with other ingredients, these mild-tasting leaves with succulent stems complement the stronger flavoured ingredients. Once considered a poor man’s vegetable because they were a staple in less wealthy homes.

SWEET POTATO These tubers are starchy and sweet and can be simply cooked – steamed or baked – to bring out their best flavours. The local orange sweet potatoes are used in soupy desserts while the purple Japanese sweet potato with pale yellow flesh tastes like a combination of potato and water chestnut.

SZECHUAN PEPPERCORNS Also known as anise pepper, this isn’t a pepper but the berries of a plant found in China’s Szechuan region. When ground, it has a pungent aroma with a citrus hint. It’s one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder.


TAMARIND PASTE/PULP/PODS Sold in blocks, tamarind paste or pulp is usually soaked in water, stirred to combine then squeezed and strained to get a sour liquid to flavour South East Asian soups and curries. You may find sweetened tamarind pods in some supermarkets. These can be eaten whole but watch out for the seeds.

TAPIOCA (or cassava) Has a smooth starchiness and a sweet buttery flavour that makes it excellent for desserts. Like most cassava roots, tapioca (ubi kayu in Malay) has a toxic compound which, fortunately, is got rid of by soaking and cooking. The most popular use of tapioca is in kuih bingka or baked grated tapioca cake. Tapioca chips and patties are just as popular. Tapioca flour is used as a starch to thicken puddings.

TARO Known as keladi in Malay, taro is a corm or thickened underground stem that can be used for both sweet and savoury dishes. Its texture is smooth, moist and starchier than the potato or sweet potato. In Chinese cuisine, taro is best remembered in orh nee (sweetened taro puree with gingko nuts). Like yam, taro contains oxalic acid crystals which may irritate the skin on contact. Wear gloves when preparing taro and cook fully before you eat.

TUNG KWA (sugared winter melon) Often sold in the dried food section of a supermarket, these crystallised pieces of winter melon are used in Chinese desserts.


WAKAME Soft seaweed from Japan, this has a mild flavour and is used in salads and soups. Also toasted and used as a condiment.

WASABI The fiery condiment used in Japanese restaurants come from the grated stem of the Japanese horseradish. In high-end Japanese restaurants, wasabi is grated when an order is made. Real wasabi has a lighter and softer fire. Fake wasabi can be searing.

WATER CHESTNUTS (ma ti) The knobbly edible tuber of a water plant found mostly in South East Asia, the water chestnut has a white juicy flesh with a hint of sweetness. Used mostly in stir-fries and desserts, water chestnuts add a lovely crunch and a touch of sweetness to a dish.

WATERCRESS (xi yang cai) Eaten raw in salads, watercress has a peppery bite. Cooked in soups, especially pork ribs soup, it gives a punchy flavour. Rich in vitamins A, B and C, this vegetable is easily bruised and is best used after purchase.

WILD PEPPER LEAVES Another leafy ingredient used for nasi ulam, wild pepper leaves are slightly tangy and faintly bitter, and make an excellent complement to rich and meaty dishes. In the Thai dish miang kum, wild pepper leaves wrap dried shrimp, roasted coconut, shallots, chillies, lime, peanut and ginger for a pop-in-the-mouth snack.

WINTER MELON (dong gua) Though called a melon, this is actually a squash with dark green skin and snow white flesh and seeds. It has no taste on its own and takes on the flavours of the food it is cooked in. Used mostly in soups and as a filling for Chinese savoury pastries.

WOMBOK or Chinese cabbage is known by many names – Tientsin cabbage, Beijing cabbage, Napa cabbage. It’s white, elongated and has pale green leaves. Generally mild and delicate, it absorbs the flavours of the ingredients it’s cooked with. Used in Korean kim chi and clear soups.

WONTON WRAPPERS/SKIN Made of flour, these come varying thickness and shapes. They can be used straight out of the package and do not need to be moistened like rice paper wraps.


YEEN CHOY (amaranth or Chinese spinach) Also known by its Chinese and Malay names (bayam), this vegetable can be easily recognized by its red-tinged leaves. It’s related to the beetroot and the red comes from antioxidants within. It tastes like spinach and can be cooked the same way – stir-fried and or added to soups.

YU CHAR KWAY Or Chinese cruellers are fritters of dough deep-fried in pairs so that they stick together. It’s often cut into pieces and eaten with porridge or tau suan, a mungbean dessert. Its name is literally translated to mean “oil-fried devils” and legend has it that it refers to the fate of an evil husband and wife pair who betrayed a beloved general.

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