This is a guide to some of the ingredients commonly used in Southeast Asia/Asia. I use these ingredients often in my cooking as well. I also list down some alternative ingredients if the ingredients are not easily found in your part of the world.
*List is updated frequently.
Belachan or fermented shrimp paste is a staple in Southeast Asian cooking. This is a stinky block of umami goodness, and not that replaceable to me. These days, it’s easily found and available in supermarkets. Some recipes call for belachan to be dry toasted before used as an ingredient. Toasting will help to bring out more of the flavour.
Chinese Five Spice Powder
These are a premixed blend of ground spices, usually cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds. Sometimes fennel and peppercorns. I find no difference in the ultimate taste. Usually found in the spice section of supermarkets.
Calamansi limes are smaller, cute versions of lime. They are sour, and used commonly as a garnish.
Easily replaceable with regular limes or lemons.
Candlenuts (buah keras/kemiri)
Candlenuts are found in Southeast Asia and a relative of macadamia nuts. These provide a savoury, nutty flavour to dishes. It also adds a nice creaminess in dishes. Candlenuts are usually blended into pastes, and can do so easily as it is brittle. It is essential to cook the pastes thoroughly, as candlenuts cannot be eaten raw. If not cooked well it can cause an upset tummy – speaking from personal experience.
Easily replaceable with macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, or cashew nuts.
Chillies – Red (cili merah/cabe)
Whenever I mention chillies, these are the chillies that I am referring to. These red chillies are the Spur or Byadgi variety, though us in Asia most definitely do not call them that. In fact, most of us don’t even know (or care) what this chilli variety. It is also almost always the only types of chillies sold in markets here, the other being Thai Bird’s Eye Chillies. When I first started posting recipes, I received a couple of comments asking me to specify the types of chillies used – and I was honestly stumped and confused. Till I realise those comments came from the US or Europe, where there are lots of different types of chilli peppers available.
Anyway, the spice level for these varies, though most are mild to medium hot. It usually has a slight sweetness to it. Alternatives for the Asian red chillies are Fresno and Serrano chillies.
Chillies – Green (cili hijau)
Green chillies are simply the green versions of the red chillies above. More often than not, these are mild in spice level. It helps imparts a fresh kick to dishes. That is not to say it is complete non-spicy. Think of these as slightly spicier version of capsicums. There are also spicy variety of these green chillies, though usually not as spicy as its red counterparts.
Curry leaves are incredibly aromatic leaves that smells so reminiscent of – you guessed it – curry. These are aromatic by itself, but when cooked in oil or butter, your entire kitchen will be immediately engulfed in the scent. I grow these, but they are easily available in our local supermarkets. While they are used extensively in Indian curries and cooking, in Singapore and Malaysia, these are used in our Malay and Chinese dishes too (see Salted Egg Yolk Calamari and Creamy Crispy Butter Chicken)
In my opinion, these are not easily replaceable. I have read that Kaffir Lime Leaves (scroll for more information on this ingredient) are a good replacement. While I don’t quite agree the taste would duplicate, or even come close, kaffir lime leaves are delicious anyway so replacing curry leaves with kaffir lime leaves will not hurt your dish.
You can also use bay leaves to replace. Again, while not the same, bay leaves are aromatic too. The most easiest and accessible replacement would be basil, although to add these at the end of your cooking process. Curry leaves (and kaffir lime leaves and bay leaves) are usually added at the beginning of the cooking process to extract the maximum flavour.
In the US, they’re not too easily found except at a very well-stocked Asian grocer. Indian grocers would also have them easily. Otherwise, purchase it from Amazon. While I personally have never used them in my cooking, dried curry leaves are also available. I don’t imagine them to taste any different except more concentrated, and might even be better choice since they can keep in the pantry for longer.
Dried Shrimps (udang kering)
Dried shrimps are shrimps that are sun-dried and preserved. The shrimps add a burst of briny, umami flavour to dishes, and is actually one of my favourite ingredients to use.
To prepare for cooking, wash first, and let soak in some warm water, although this depends on what the recipe called for. If not soaked, the shrimps are rather tough and chewy – which may not be such a bad thing as it adds texture to the dish.
Dried Anchovies (ikan bilis)
Much like dried shrimps, dried anchovies impart that burst of umami flavour to dishes. The dried anchovies found and used in Southeast Asian cooking are small. Dried anchovies used in Korean cooking are comparatively much larger. They can be used interchangeably, though personally I would not, simply because of appearance.
Dried anchovies have salt on them, though the amount varies. Adjust seasoning accordingly.
Preparing them for cooking depends on the recipe, though make sure to always give them a rinse under water.
Dried Chillies (cili kering)
I use a lot of dried chillies in my recipes, namely for dried chilli paste. Dried chilli paste is a staple in Malay households. Dried chillies are typically sold in huge bags here. They can be the Spur, Byadgi, or Kashmiri variety, and are used interchangeably throughout Southeast Asia and India. These are usually long, wrinkly and curly.
Alternatives for the red chillies that we use would be Fresno and Serrano chillies. Any other type of medium-hot chilli would do fine, it is all up to your spice preference and tolerance.
Dried Chilli Paste (cili boh/cili kisar)
I have a recipe using dried chili paste, ready to go here.
Alternatively, for those who are not interested to make their own dried chilli paste, you can buy ready-made dried chilli paste in supermarkets. Generally I much prefer using my own, but the store-bought variety can work in a pinch. The packet stuff usually has salt included, so adjust the recipe accordingly.
Ginger is a common root spice, so I don’t think I need to talk much about it.
When I say 1 tablespoon of ginger, I usually mean 1 inch of it. In my daily cooking, I’m not too precise with the measurements, approximate takes the stress out of cooking.
Galangal is also known as Blue Ginger. This root vegetable is totally different from ginger and not interchangeable. While ginger is a spicy root, galangal has a fragrant, citrusy almost floral flavour to it.
Although it is not interchangeable, you can replace it with one another. The taste will be slightly different, but it will still come out good. An example is in my Chicken Rendang recipe.
Kaffir Lime Leaves (limau purut/dauk jeruk)
These are the fragrant leave of lime plants. Before adding to the dish, tear the leaves up to release flavour and fragrance. These are one of my favourite ingredients to use, but not too easily found, even in our local supermarket. The good news is that they freeze well, so buy a big bag when you see it and store in the freezer. They usually come
These are NOT replaceable with lime or lemon leaves… at all. However, the zest of the lemon and lime, can. Simply grate lime or lemon skin into the dish, 1 teaspoon of zest is good for 4 to 5 kaffir lime leaves.
When I use onions in my recipes, I am usually referring to Red Onions. They are easily replaceable with Yellow Onions. Yellow Onions tend to be sweeter, the red variety are sharper and more pungent in taste when raw. When used in dishes, I find there to be not much difference in the end result.
Shallots are smaller versions of red onions. It tastes milder and perhaps only a hint – just a hint – sweeter to regular onions, but I interchange them a lot, depending on what I have in my pantry. This is especially when used as a base ingredient in a dish.
When used as a raw ingredient however, like in Sambal Matah, or when making Fried Shallots for garnishing, it is best to stick to shallots. Although, again, in a pinch I have used big Red Onions to make sambal matah and fried “shallots”, and I have been equally satisfied.
Lemongrass are a common base ingredient. These are fragrant herbs that impart a fresh, citrusy flavour to a dish. It can be prepared differently.
To incorporate the lemongrass in a dish, use only the white inner core. Remove the hard outer leaves and top portion, discard. Slice the soft inner core. It should slice easily. If it’s a tough slice, try slicing it an angle.
The other way is to impart flavour. Lemongrass is fibrous, and this is especially helpful to ensure a smoother soup.
Thai Bird’s Eye Chillies (cili padi/cabe rawit)
These tiny little firecrackers are spicy – expect a medium to high level of spiciness. Typically these are used in conjunction with the bigger Asian red chillies so it is a more balanced spice level.
Tamarind is a fruit found across Asia, and when utilised in cooking, adds a mellow sour element to the dish.
Tamarind is typically sold in blocks. In Singapore, the most common brand – or at least what I always see at home – is the Orchid brand of tamarind pulp.
To prepare, add hot or warm water to the tamarind pulp. The flesh should come off the seeds, and combine with the water to become tamarind paste. Throw away the seeds and use just the tamarind juice.
Lately I’ve been using this ready-made Tamarind paste version. It’s a lot more sharper and intense than regular tamarind pulp blocks. I adore the convenience though, so I’m switching to it. Use less than is required in the recipe. For my particular brand, 1/2 teaspoon equates to 1 tablespoon of tamarind pulp.
Alternatives: There’s no direct alternative, because tamarind is a distinct taste. While you can’t quite replace the taste, you can replace the sour, tangy element. Lime, lemon juice, or vinegar combined with a hint of sugar, can be good replacements.
*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links that I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you. I *only* recommend products I would use myself.