Curious & Creative Approaches to Ingredient Pairings: Part 1 - Eastern Asian Cuisine

Assortment of East Asian dishes and ingredients with a bowl of ramen with beef in the center of image on black table.

Learning to be a better home cook is not a linear process. True, there might be a moment that for you signifies the beginning — the first time you followed a recipe all the way through, perhaps. But the quest to gain knowledge and try new things in the kitchen has no real ending. The process and the pursuit of cooking is a lifelong journey.

Part of this process for most curious cooks is exploring flavors and ingredient pairings. In our own journeys as foodies, learning to layer and combine ingredients has provided ongoing breakthroughs. The best part is that each discovery leads to another, unlocking so much creativity along the way.

One cool way to start thinking outside of the box when it comes to pairings and ingredients is to look to other cultures and cuisines for direction and inspiration. For many who have grown up in Western cultures, it may be a learned habit to prioritize ingredient pairings that share flavor compounds. This means complementary pairings that put “like with like.” When done right, this method can amplify the flavors in lovely ways.

But too much of a good thing is indeed too much. Also, over time, sticking too closely to shared flavor compound ingredient pairings can limit palate development — if someone grows up eating mainly salty foods, their perceptions of other flavors may not be as well-calibrated as someone who grows up eating a range of flavors!

Other cultures’ cuisines don’t pair like with like as often. In Part 1 of this two-part blog post, we’ll look at how many East Asian cultures tend to avoid compound sharing ingredients. Instead, a wide range of other pairing strategies are used to create mind-bendingly delicious flavors. Ingredients like spices, sauces, fresh herbs, and roots, create multiple layers of flavor in East Asian dishes.

East Asian cuisine encompasses a diverse range of countries, including China, Korea and Japan. We can’t even begin to cover them all, but here are a few approaches to ingredient pairings from those cuisines. We encourage you to add these approaches to your own home cooking tool kit:

Sweet & Salty

This contrasting combo is at the root of a number of ingredient pairings in East Asian cuisines. In fact, sweetened soy sauce is the base of a number of condiments and sauces in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cooking. Plum sauce, brown and white sugar, honey, red bean paste, ketchup, and fruit juice are also commonly used to add a mouthwatering component to savory and salty foods.

For at-home cooking, try: adding pineapple juice to a marinade for Asian-style pork chops; mixing in a teaspoon of brown sugar to soy sauce to season a tofu stir fry; add a drizzle of honey on fried chicken; maple syrup glaze on a baked ham; a swipe of jam on a cheese or charcuterie plate; thin slices of apple on a grilled cheese or panini.

Sweet & Sour

If you’ve ever ordered Chinese takeout, you know that this is a popular flavor pairing in East Asian cuisine. Rice wine vinegar, which comes in three varieties (white rice, black rice, and red rice vinegar) is a foundational component for marinades, sauces, and condiments, and it supplies potent acidity. Other sour ingredients, like yuzu, lemon, and lime, are also utilized.

Rock sweet-and-sour at home: candied citrus peels on yogurt; sweet-and-sour sauce on roasted veggies or used as a dumpling dipping sauce; expand your stash of vinegars to include rice wine vinegar, sherry vinegar and champagne vinegar to experiment with.

Spicy & Sour / Spicy & Sweet / Spicy & Umami

East Asian cuisines are all about bringing the heat, from tingly wasabi to slow-burn gochujang to mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns. But spiciness is only its best when it has something to play off of. Think: A sprinkle of togarashi pepper on a bowl of savory ramen; Korean kimchi that pairs the hot red pepper with the sour tang of fermented cabbage; cool, sweet cucumbers swimming in fiery Chinese chili oil.

There are really no limits to how you can layer spicy, sour, sweet, and umami flavors in your home cooking. Adding a few kinds of dried chili or spice blends to your pantry is a great start; as is investing in some different hot sauces and chili pastes.

Are you more than just a little food-obsessed? If so, check out more of our blog articles here, and dive into our collection of 150+ plant-fueled recipes, a treasure trove of great ideas for everyday cooking and special occasions. For even more ZENB goodness, follow along on our Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest pages! 

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