I have realized that as much as I love to share recipes, I sense that the initiative by others to try them at home is not so strong. Not because they don’t want to… but because some of the ingredient lists are quite intimidating, especially if one’s pantry has none of them to begin with.
I’ve come up with this list, in no particular order, of dry ingredients that are almost never out of stock in my kitchen cupboard. There are a few unique items probably unheard of by the average meat-eating person. I, along with most other vegans, have made these fun discoveries during the transition; they are magical ingredients in the realm of plant-based eating. Majority of the items in the list can be found at most Malaysian supermarkets.
1. Nutritional Yeast
Despite its dodgy name, nutritional yeast tastes a lot better than it sounds. Affectionately known as ‘Nooch’ to those who swear by it, nutritional yeast is made of a special kind of yeast grown on and harvested from a sugary medium like cane sugar or molasses. It is treated with heat, turning it into an ‘inactive’ yeast and therefore unsuitable for baking purposes. Enriched versions of nutritional yeast are great sources of vitamin B12 and other nutrients. These light golden flakes have a rich nutty taste that has been likened to cheese. Yes, that’s right. Vegan cheese flakes. You have to taste it to believe it. It’s extremely versatile and can be sprinkled into soup, sauces, salads, popcorn, nachos, pasta, burgers, and can be used to make cheesy dips and sauces. You’d also be tempted to eat it on its own. Heck, I eat it on its own.
2. Liquid Smoke
I assumed most meat-eaters would know about this. Surprisingly, I’ve asked around and not many do! Then again, Malaysians don’t have too much of a cold cuts / roast / barbecue culture. Liquid smoke is pretty much exactly what it implies: a liquid version of smoke, made when steam and smoke from burning wood gets collected, cooled and filtered. Meat can be preserved through long-term exposure to smoke, but liquid smoke saves anyone from the trouble of trying. I use liquid smoke in my bean chili and roast tofu, and it is an indispensable ingredient for making tempeh bacon.
3. Herbs and Spices
Stock up on the herbs and spices – anything your heart desires! Italian herbs like oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme; spice mixes like curry powder or garam masala from India or Za’atar from the Middle East, paprika, pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, cumin, the works! I have a large box in my cupboard just to store my herbs and spices. In a make-or-break cooking situation, a pinch of this and that is the easiest way to sway it towards ‘make’.
4. Powdered Onion and Garlic
Most of the time, I’m in favour of fresh onions and garlic. However, here are exceptions, for example if you want to make a seasoning powder or a smooth frying batter, or there’s a dish that you don’t wish to add extra moisture to (like home-baked fries), or you need to add more oomph to a dish but it’s already fully cooked. For such cases, I use onion and garlic in their de-hydrated, ground up form. Powdered onion and garlic don’t taste as strong as their fresh counterparts, and naturally boost the flavour of any savoury dish without the use of MSG. Plus point: no need for chopping and onion crying, making it perfect for kitchen beginners or those with busy schedules. Easily available in Indian grocery stores.
5. Dried beans
When people are concerned about the seemingly high expenses that come with going vegan, I tell them this: beans, in their dried form, given their incredible nutritional density, is one of the cheapest and healthiest things you can buy in almost any food market in Malaysia. I always choose dried beans over canned ones because they are less processed, there’s less package waste and better price value. With all this in mind, the extra planning involved for soaking and cooking my own beans is a tiny compromise.
6. Nuts and Seeds
I am in awe of what Mother Nature has provided to us in the form of nuts and seeds. They are full of protein, healthy fats, carbs and fibre, making them close to the most perfect health foods on earth. I carry a jar of nuts and seeds in my bag for easy snacking, and eat them often to fuel my workouts. Roasted pre-packed nuts and seeds may be expensive in the long run, so I suggest heading to bakery stores to get them raw, like pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews and walnuts, which you can eat straight away or bake in your own oven. If you don’t know of any bakery store near your hood, or are on a budget, peanuts are cheap and available everywhere, and contain around 20% protein.
7. Sweet-Salty-Sour Condiments
The taste combo of sweet-salty-sour is something I include in many savoury dishes, including fried noodles and rice. I can’t tell you what the right proportions are because all dishes have different ratios and I’m winging it all the time too. What I suggest is adding a teeny tiny bit of each as you go along until you hit a good balance of all three. Sweet pantry suggestions include brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup and date syrup. Salty pantry suggestions include pink salt, soy sauce, tamari sauce and liquid amino acids. Sour pantry suggestions include rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, sour plum vinegar and apple cider vinegar. The latter, I keep at all times for drinking, baking, and as a natural cleaning agent when combined with baking soda.
8. Kombu Seaweed and / or Asafoetida
Since I only choose to purchase dry beans, these are pantry staples too. Kombu (a type of Japanese seaweed) or asafoetida (an Indian ‘spice’ which is actually the sap of a particular plant ) are added to the cooking process to help make the beans more digestible or, in other words, make you fart less. Kombu can be found in most organic health stores, either in sheets or thin strips. They can also be added to soups to add nutrition and flavour. Asafoetida can be found in most Indian spice shops. More details on these ingredients, and the process of cooking your own beans, can be found here.
9. Baking Soda
Baking soda is an alkaline chemical compound – sodium bicarbonate, to be exact. It froths up when mixed with an acidic ingredient; in baking, this reaction is what causes cakes and biscuits to ‘rise’. This is what most people know baking soda for, but it can be used in many other ways. I combine it with apple cider vinegar as an all-purpose household cleaner (it’s awesome for removing beetroot stains and strong smells from my wooden chopping board), I add it to my homemade toothpaste, I drink a teaspoon of it mixed in a glass of water when I have digestion problems, and for the third time in this article, I will link you up to my Cooking Beans Guide as I use baking soda in the bean-soaking process too!
10. Dried mushrooms
I find that mushrooms tend to get sold in copious amounts, which isn’t a bad thing… But for a household of two people, it’s often hard to go through all of it. I find that mushrooms in dehydrated form is a practical solution, as you get to be in control of how much mushroom you’d actually need without worrying about the rest of the mushrooms going bad. Dried Shiitake and Black Fungus (Rat’s Ear) is the most available around Malaysia, and can be soaked overnight or left to expand in boiling water for 10 minutes, before incorporating it into your cooking. I use them a lot in my Asian-inspired dishes like Beetroot Fried Rice, Herbal Hot Pot, Spring Rolls, Glutinous Rice Stuffed Bell Peppers, and Luffa with Corn, Shiitake and Glass Noodles.
11. Dried noodles and grains
I suppose this is quite a no-brainer. I like to keep different types noodles and grains around for variety’s sake. Suggestions of dry noodles include soba, pasta, and rice noodles in both thin and flat forms. Grains include rolled oats (which I eat almost every day for breakfast), rice (brown, red and black variants), millet, barley and quinoa.
12. Canned Tomato Paste
I tend to keep a can around when I feel like making lasagne, pizza, bean chili for Mexican-inspired wraps, a comforting tomato-based stew like this one, baked beans from scratch, or want to make pasta in a jiffy. Also great to add into stir-fry sauces.
13. Virgin Coconut Oil
Ah, VCO… The holy grail of plant-based oils. Full of healthy fats and antioxidants, VCO is an absolute pantry must-have not just for the plant-based eater, but for everyone for its myriad of study-proven health benefits. I personally use it as a health supplement (I take a tablespoon of it in the morning for energy and nutrients), for baking, smoothies and salad dressings, as a hair and skin moisturizer and makeup remover, and for oral care, like in my toothpaste and oil pulling. Be mindful of what type of coconut oil you purchase: virgin coconut oil is less processed than refined coconut oil and therefore has more of its nutrients retained and has a stronger coconut taste and aroma.
AND… a bonus item, if you can find it:
Textured Soy Protein
This is also known as Textured Vegetable Protein, or TVP for short. This is a by-product of soy oil extraction, making it a processed food item. Because of this, I only use it once in a blue moon. BUT, on the days that you just feel like having a change, and fancy a chewy, meaty bite in your meal (like when I crave for a mean bolognese), this is a backup item you’d be thankful for. It is quite tasteless on its own but absorbs sauces like a sponge. It is a great source of protein and fibre, extremely easy to use (just soak it in water for 10 minutes), cooks in mere minutes, and shelf life is extraordinarily long. I’ve kept TVP in my cupboard for up to a little longer than 12 months; some TVP companies boast that their products can last up to 20 years! You’ll know what plant-based item to stock up on should you get stuck in a bomb shelter. You can ask your nearby supermarket and organic health store if they have this item.
This list just features dry items, and says nothing about what I store in my fridge, which have to wait for another time! I hope this inspires you to build your own list of plant-based pantry essentials, and give you the confidence to pursue your own home-based culinary adventures.