Ingredients to upgrade your food

Some of us are better cooks than others, but it also helps when you have ingredients at hand that can do wonders to transform your cooking.

Always keep these handy in the kitchen as you never know when you might need them. – Compiled by Patsy Kam

Gojuchang.- Photo: dpaGojuchang.- Photo: dpa


Gochu means chilli in Korean and gojuchang refers to a spicy, sweet, fermented chilli paste. It has a deep, slightly spicy, savoury flavour and is the backbone to Korean cooking.

Even if you’re not into Korean food, you’ll be amazed how this paste fits just about anything – you can use it in soups, add to your rice for more flavour or mix it in mayonnaise to amp up your sandwich! It’s also an excellent condiment for frying chicken, beef or even tofu.

Fish sauce

Most of us associate fish sauce with Thai cooking but it’s also used in a lot of other cuisines as well. Korean and Japanese cuisines have their own versions of fish sauce. It acts as a secondary source of salt and gives another dimension of flavour to your dish.

Thai green curry or pad kra pow (Thai basil beef) has that added umami, and even a simple dish of fried vegetables can be so much better with just a splash of fish sauce. Mind-boggling, but try sprinkling some on half-boiled eggs – you’ll never go back to table salt again!

Don't throw out that pasta water just yet.Don't throw out that pasta water just yet.

Pasta water

You know that water left over from boiling your pasta? Don’t throw it out as there are many uses for this secret ingredient. You can add in the starchy salty water to your pasta to give your sauce more body. It helps to ensure you don’t end up with a sticky clump of noodles!

Tofu topped with miso pasteTofu topped with miso paste


Another underused ingredient, as it’s often associated with Japanese food. Since most of us only know how to appreciate Japanese food and not cook it, we don’t see the point of keeping miso in the fridge. It’s perfect for roasting vegetables and potatoes, and making soups. It makes food taste better and it’s healthier than salt which has gotten so much bad press since it’s associated with high-blood pressure. Try it mixed with some good-quality butter, in your pasta or when frying meats.

Doenjang Jjigae (stew).Doenjang Jjigae (stew).


Doenjang is Korean fermented soybean paste, similar to Japanese miso, but much stronger and saltier. Doenjang is more commonly found overseas, so if you’re in the midst of cooking Chinese dishes and find that you’ve run out of taucu (Chinese fermented soybean paste), doenjang would be the next best replacement. It’s good for marinades, meats and sauces and works pretty much the same as miso or taucu.

Soy sauce.Soy sauce.

Soy sauce

A traditional Chinese condiment probably as old as time (or at least over 2,500 years ago since the Western Han dynasty), soy sauce is good for just about anything! Meat, eggs, seafood, vegetables and even pasta, it’s a good replacement for salt and has that added umami note.

Curry powderCurry powder

Curry powder

Surprise, surprise, it’s not just for making curry! If you’re frying fish, smother some over it to soak up moisture and you’ll have a safer cooking experience, not to mention a real tasty fish. Beyond the usual curry chicken, curry powder can be used to flavour stews and sauces, marinade meats and more unconventional uses include seasoning hamburgers and even mixed into scrambled eggs.

Lemon juice

If you have fresh lemons, all the better, otherwise a small bottle of store-bought undiluted lemon juice does the trick too. Add a dash to can sardines or your meat to give a bit of zing to your dish. The juice also cuts the saltiness and gives another note to an otherwise predictable dish. Fragrant and tastes better than vinegar which tends to be too sharp.

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