6 Essential Seasonings for Authentic Southeast Asian Cooking

The rich flavors of Southeast Asian dishes rely on three things: the spices, the herbs, and the seasonings. Shrimp paste, fish sauce, and soy sauce provide a different dimension of saltiness. Lime juice adds a bright citrusy tanginess while tamarind juice or paste adds a tanginess quite unlike the flavors of citrus fruits. Vinegar not only adds acidity to dishes, it has many other uses in the kitchen.

  • 01 of 06

    Shrimp Paste

    Shrimp Paste
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    Called terasi in Indonesia, belacan in Malaysia, bagoong in the Philippines, mam ruoc (or mam tom or mam tep, depending on the shrimp used) in Vietnam and kapi in Cambodia and Laos, shrimp paste is made by fermenting shrimps with salt. It is used for cooking or as a condiment. The smell is pungent; the flavor is salty and heady. 

    Shrimp paste may be wet or dry. The color varies from pink to deep dark red to almost brown. The texture ranges from smooth to chunky. The level of saltiness can be mild...MORE to extreme.

    The preparation of shrimp paste dates back to the eighth century and has its roots in southern Thailand which, at the time, was ruled by the Malay Kingdom of Srivijaya. Newly harvested shrimps were mixed with salt, spread on bamboo mats and dried under the sun. In dried form, the shrimp lasted for months. And so the practice spread to neighboring regions and persists to this day. Shrimp paste making remains an important industry in Southeast Asia.

    Shrimp paste is made with different varieties of shrimp, the most popular of which is krill, small shrimps with transparent shells. When larger shrimps are used, the fermented mixture is ground (sometimes several times) until the ideal texture is achieved.

    Some wet shrimp pastes are ready to eat. A tablespoonful accompanies green mango for a quick snack, for instance. Shrimp paste can be added as a flavoring for a fresh salad or as the dressing itself.

    Dried shrimp pastes like the Malaysian belacan, however, calls for preparation. The amount required in a dish is crumbled or chopped then mixed with aromatics during sauteeing. If the dried shrimp paste is to be used in a sauce or as a garnish, it is first roasted to freshen it and to heighten the flavor and aroma (see three ways for roasting belacan).

    Recipes with shrimp paste:

    1. Sambal Kangkung With Shrimp Paste
    2. Char Kway Teow: The Emperor of Malaysian Noodles
    3. Nasi Lemak: Coconut-Pandan Rice Served With Sambal and Garnishes
  • 02 of 06

    Fish Sauce

    Fish sauce
    Ben Fink / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

    In Southeast Asian cooking, fish sauce is both a seasoning and a condiment. It is added to the pot during cooking or it is served in a condiment jar or saucer on the dining table.

    Another product of fermentation, fish sauce is produced by heavily salting fish, storing the mixture in earthenware jars and leaving it for nine months to a year. The salt macerates the fish and the resulting liquid is a pure fish sauce.

    Commercial fish sauce varies in color, aroma, flavor, and price. The best kind,...MORE produced as described above, is clear and pale gold in color. The darker and more pungent varieties are second and third-grade fish sauce made by adding salt to fish remains and then boiling the mixture in more salted water.

    In the Philippines, the quality of fish sauce, both "regular" and "special", is regulated by law

  • 03 of 06

    Vinegar

    Vinegar
    © Connie Veneracion

    Vinegar in Southeast Asia is traditionally made with sugar cane juice, palm sap (also, flower sap or nectar) or rice. Palm varieties used for vinegar production include coconut, nipa palm, and sugar palm. Non-traditional sources of vinegar include cashew.

    Just like fish sauce, the flavor, color, and price of vinegar vary depending on the main ingredient and manner of production. The best kinds of vinegar are produced with a slow aging process that takes months or years. The less expensive ones...MORE which can be produced in less than 24 hours are made with a bacteria culture.

    In a Southeast Asian kitchen, it is not uncommon to find several varieties of vinegar. The pricier ones like rice vinegar are used for marinating and cooking while the less expensive (and, often, more pungent) kinds used for food preparation such as rinsing fish prior to cooking. Vinegar infused with spices and aromatics are usually reserved for dipping cooked food.

    In the photo, the vinegar on the left is made from sugar palm and infused with turmeric while the one on the right is cane vinegar infused with chilies.

  • 04 of 06

    Soy Sauce

    Dipping har gao in soy sauce
    Paul Poplis / Photolibrary / Getty Images

    Soy sauce may be more closely associated with Chinese and Japanese cuisines as the ubiquitous dipping sauce for dumplings, sashimi, and rice rolls, but soy sauce also figures prominently in Southeast Asian cooking where it is used as a seasoning, marinade or condiment. 

    Soy sauce was first produced in China between the 3rd and 5th century. Made from soybeans, the traditional production of soy sauce consists of several processes that include soaking and cooking the soybeans, culturing (the...MORE addition of mold), brewing, pressing and pasteurization.

    Traditional methods for making soy sauce call for long periods of fermentation in large earthenware jars under the sun. The length of production time can be cut short by letting the soybeans and mold ferment in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

    In Indonesia, soy sauce is called kecap, the generic name for fermented sauces, and is classified into three varieties:

    1. Kecap asin or thin salty soy sauce;
    2. Kecap manis or thick sweet syrupy soy sauce; and
    3. Kecap manis sedang or mildly sweet soy sauce.

    In the Philippines, soy sauce is called toyo.

    The Chinese-speaking Malaysians in Malaysia and Singapore refer to the sauce as dòuyóu while the Malays who speak Indonesian-related dialects call it kicap.

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  • 05 of 06

    Tamarind Paste

    Tamarind paste
    Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

    Tamarind is the Tamarindus indica tree or its fruit. The tamarind fruit as well as the tender leaves of the tree are both edible and used to add a sour flavor to dishes. 

    The tamarind fruit is pod-like with two or more sections. Each section contains the fruit's pulp with a seed embedded inside. The young fruit is often too sour to eat but the mature ones are used to make jam, juice, ice cream and candy.

    In everyday cooking, tamarind juice is used to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. To extract...MORE the juice, fresh tamarind is boiled in a little water until the skins burst and the fruit pulp becomes mushy. The tamarind is then mashed and pressed through a strainer to separate the liquefied pulp and juice from the inedible seeds and skin. 

    In some regions of Southeast Asia, however, dried tamarind is more often used for cooking. Conveniently available in blocks of varying weights, the portion required to flavor a dish is broken off from the block and soaked in hot water to soften the pulp. The mixture is strained and the pulp is pressed against the strainer to push it out and mixed into the juice to form a paste.

    Ready-to-use Tamarind paste is sold in jars. While this might be the most convenient form for storage and usage, tamarind paste is rather bland. A quick reading of the ingredients on the label often reveals that the tamarind paste has been seasoned and the natural and pure tamarind flavor is therefore diluted.

    Some dishes with tamarind juice/paste:

    1. Sayur Asem (Indonesian Tamarind-based Vegetable Soup)
    2. Vietnamese Lemongrass Tamarind Chicken
    3. Sinigang na Sugpo (Prawns in Sour Broth)
    4. Pepes Ikan (Indonesian Grilled Fish in Banana Leaves)
    5. Ayam Goreng (Malay Fried Chicken)
  • 06 of 06

    Citrus (lime or calamondin) juice

    Lime
    Marc O. Finley / StockFood Creative / Getty Images

    Citrus fruits and their juice have been important ingredients in just about every culinary tradition for centuries. Western cuisines have lemon; Southeast Asia has lime and calamondin

    What does citrus juice add to a dish? If it is tartness, doesn't vinegar fill the role sufficiently? Unlike vinegar which is pungent, citrus juice is aromatic. In Southeast Asia, lime and calamondin juice is not only added to season a dish; it is also a dipping sauce and an ingredient in many hot and cold...MORE beverages.​

    A third citrus fruit that plays a serious role in Southeast Asian cuisines is kaffir lime. With its bumpy skin and thick rind, the juice of kaffir lime is not significantly dissimilar from lime juice. The leaves of the kaffir lime are, however, more widely used for cooking.