What to get at the Asian supermarket

By Mieke

‘Toko’ is the Indonesian word for shop and is what some of the first Asian supermarkets here were called, as they were rooted in Dutch-Indonesian history (from here on out I will use the term ‘Indisch’, which is a Dutch term for both the people and food associated with the Dutch East Indies). Being Indisch myself, I’ve been going to tokos since before I was born. You can read a brief history here.

Over the years I have seen them expand their wares from limited Dutch-Indonesian and Indonesian imported and locally recreated wares in the early 80s to covering most of East Asia as well as other parts of the world today. Because I get asked what people should buy at the toko at least once a week I thought it was time for a good ol’ (but grossly incomplete) listicle of things to buy at the Asian supermarket.

While the ‘Asian’  diaspora has a presence everywhere, what you can buy at your local Asian supermarket can be very different. As I am based in the Netherlands and mostly know about what to buy at Asian tokos here, that is what this post is generally about.

The basics

Ever since I read Vegan Japaneasy by Tim Anderson, I’ve switched to Japanese rice. Often sold under the name sushi rice, it can also eaten plain or in other dishes. Japanese rice has a short, thick grain and dries well, which I like slightly better and works perfectly for fried rice.

Other solid rice varieties are basmati and jasmine (of course arborio is also solid, but that’s a different continent).

There are different types of tofu. I use firm tofu for frying and silken tofu as an egg alternative in vegan crème brûlée or in vegan mapo tofu for example. It is best to poach silken tofu briefly before use so that it doesn’t fall apart as much. Firm tofu is best frozen in the packaging with the liquid, before thawing (and then freezing and thawing again) and then pressing it for further use.

There are many different types of noodles. So many in fact, that I think the only way to find out which one you like best is to try different ones.

I’m a big fan of pre-cooked udon noodles, which are nice and thick, hold sauce well and cook in no time. I really love flat rice or glass noodles in cold salads, while other people prefer egg noodles for bami goreng for example. So just grab some noods and try them, they tend to run quite cheap so no harm no foul if you don’t like some of the ones you try.

Herbs, spices, sauces and condiments

These are the herbs, spices, sauces and condiments that I always have in stock because they can always be combined into something delicious.

Note: spices and herbs tend to run cheaper at the toko and are usually also more flavorful than those from the supermarket, so it’s really worthwhile to stock up on all your herbs and spices here.

Fresh and frozen 
Sereh, also known as lemongrass, is really indispensable in Indisch, Indonesian but also in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. In stews like rendang it’s best to bruise and then tie it in a knot, while for uses where the sereh gets mixed into the dish, like Laotian laab or larb(ish), it’s best to peel the sereh until you get to the soft white core and finely chop that up for further use.

Jeruk purut, also known as makrut lime leaf, is also widely used in Indisch and Indonesian cuisine. It is also known by the k-name that I no longer use, you can read why you shouldn’t use that name here.

Laos or galengal cannot be replaced with ginger no matter how many times recipe developers write this. It is fresher and sweeter, less spicy and according to some has a slightly piney flavor (I think it has a laosy taste, but who am I?). It has a shiny white skin.

Ginger is not a replacement for galengal. It is a lot more spicy (and gingery, continuing a theme here) and stringy. It has a course yellow-brownish skin. You can use leftovers to make tea (or whiskey) with lemon and honey.

Sichuan pepper, though spicy, is not actually a pepper but part of the citrus family. This pepper is essential for Sichuan cooking, gives you a mild high and numbs you mouth a little, which allows you to pick up other flavors better. It’s very floral. I love making ice cream with this.

MSG. Controversial in some circles, MSG is actually just super salt that naturally occurs in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and many more foods and is artificially recreated through fermentation. Research has yet to show there are any true health risks associated with the use of MSG, but the myth (originally fueled by anti-Chinese racism) persists. You use MSG like salt to boost umami. If you want to understand more about MSG, Pit Magazine devoted an entire issue to it, while The Bad Food Bible also does a stellar job of explaining why there is nothing wrong with using it and The MSG Pod is a lovely podcast to check out.

Crispy chili in oil is indispensable in any kitchen. You can use it for mapo tofu, but really everything tastes better with a little chili crisp. I often eat it with scrambled eggs, as a dip with dumplings, to add heat and crunch to noodles or straight from the jar. For Tummie Magazine I made Cathy Erway’s peanut brittle with chili crisp recipe to go with chipotle chocolate mousse. Lao Gan Ma is pretty much the standard, they also sell a version with peanuts if that’s your thing. You can make chili crisp very easily at home, but I like to support the Lao Gan Ma empire by always having a mega pot of it on my shelf.

Gochujang is a fermented Korean chili paste and equally indispensable. I use it to glaze Korean fried chicken, in all kinds of marinades but it also pairs incredibly well with cheese. The classic is budae jjigae (army stew), but it also does incredibly well on a toastie or with pasta.

Hoisin sauce is another indispensable sauce (this is a bit of a theme with me and condiments). You may recognize this as the dip you get with Peking duck, but you can of course also dip other things in it (your finger is a good one) and use it in all kinds of marinades. With hoisin I notice that everyone has different preferences because the taste and texture are slightly different across brands, so try different brands until you find your hoisin match. I’m sure it exists.

Sriracha with extra garlic. I think everyone is familiar with Thai sriracha by now. My favorite brand is the (American) Flying Goose brand and my favorite flavor is the one with extra garlic, which seems to have more depth than ‘plain’ sriracha. Flying Goose has developed a whole bunch of variaties, which are all worth a shot. I’m a big fan of their smoky sriracha as well as the ones with  black pepper and extra lemon grass.

Light soy sauce is the nicest soy sauce for cooking because it’s slightly more subtle and less salty than dark soy sauce. I always have light soy sauce at home for cooking and dark for dipping or finishing dishes.

Kaki Tiga kecap medja is Indonesian sweet kecap, which is slightly less sweet and thick than kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce). This is the kecap that I grew up with and that’s probably why I like it best. If you are looking for really good kecap manis, I recommend the Bango brand.

White miso is a well-known Japanese fermented soybean paste. There are also yellow, red and black misos. White is the most versatile/ accessible, so that’s why I tend to use that. I use it in marinades, to make dressings or mayonnaise, as a substitute for shrimp paste and fish sauce, but also to give dishes an extra umami kick, like this hummus for example.

Thai spice pastes are great to keep in the cupboard for days when you don’t feel like cooking and want to get something on the table with relative ease. There are all kinds of ready-made Thai spice pastes available, I like red curry and penang paste in particular. In Thailand curry pastes are generally used as a foundation with more ingredients added to the dish during cooking, but if you mix the paste with some coconut milk, a protein and some veggies you’re already going to have a pretty good time.

Coconut milk, see Thai spice paste for why it is useful to always have this at hand, although I also use this a lot in Indische and Indonesian cooking. Because I live alone, I like to keep small tins or tetra packs of 250 ml at home. Note this is not the coconut milk you can now find in most grocery stores as a replacement for cow milk and there are various textures and flavors of coconut milk available as well. Most stores will indicate which ones you can use for cooking and which for baking for example, which is mostly related to the water content of the milk.

Kimchi is a Korean method to preserve vegetables and ready-made kimchi usually comes in the form of the classic and most well-known Nappa cabbage kimchi. You can of course make kimchi yourself, but I like to have a ready-made jar or bag at home for snacking, to use on cheese melts and burgers or to make kimchijeon (kimchi pancakes). You never know when the kimchi craving strikes.

Panko. Coarse Japanese breadcrumbs that make everything you breadcrumb a 1000 times more delicious as when you use western (I guess?) breadcrumbs. They result in fluffy super crunchy fried things every time.


If you don’t feel like cooking, the toko is also your friend. Most tokos have a fresh or take-out counter where you can get ready-made meals you just have to reheat. But they also have an arsenal of other ready meals. Below you’ll find some my favorites, which I always keep at hand for days where I am unable to cook.

Instant noodles
There are many different types, flavors and brands of instant noodles available from all corners of South East Asia. Instant noodles from South Korea, Japan and Singapore tend to run slightly more pricey but are totally worth it. Beyond that Indomie is probably the most famous brand out there (if you can find them their potato chips are pretty damned good too).

With instant noodles it’s also best to just get some and just try them until you find the ones that tickle your pickle. It helps to know that Asian people tend to use instant noodles as a base and often enhance them with other ingredients rather than eating them ‘plain’. A classic example of this is stirring a beaten egg, roughly chopped spring onion and a slice of cheap cheddar cheese into your Shin Ramyun noodles.

Please do pay attention to the instructions: due to the different noodles used instant noodles have different preparation times. There wet as well as dry instant noodles so you don’t always use the cooking liquid to make a soup.

My personal favorites are the laksa noodles from Prima Taste, basically anything from Nissin and Indomie‘s dry noodles.

Gyoza and dumplings
Nowadays you will finds loads of gyoza and other dumplings in the freezer section of the Asian supermarket.

I personally like Anjinomoto’s vegetable gyoza best. You can steam as well as steam-fry (my English abandons me here) them, where you crisp their bums in sunflower oil for 5 minutes before adding a splash of water and closing the lid and steaming them for another 5. Most packages also come with microwave instructions but I find steaming or steam-frying them gives the best result.

Of course you can find an endless arsenal of (potato) chips and krupuk (prawn crackers) at Asian supermarkets. Again: try stuff that appeals to you and then keep getting the stuff you like best.

My favorites from the freezer are custard buns and edamame, those shelled steamed and salted soy beans you get at Japanese restaurants.

All potato chips well for me, but my favorite krupuk has and always will be palembang. In the Netherlands you can also buy krupuk to fry at home, but I’m too lazy for this and prefer to look for  surprising flavors in the crisps and/ or cracker department. Tip: if you come across anything with salted egg, that’s usually going to be a good thing.

Win Asian groceries from Asian Food Lovers (open to Dutch inhabitants only)

Update: the giveaway is now closed. Check out the comments on the Instagram-post for Asian groceries I have missed in my list.

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