Many of Southeast Asia’s flavors—from ginger to Thai basil—have inspired the menus of our favorite takeout spots but countless more herbs and spices await discovery at your next office lunch. Use this list to help inform and guide you toward an exotic and exciting lunch selection. Without further ado, here are seven Southeast Asian and Pacific Island herbs and spices to add to your must-try list.
Pandan is subtle and slightly grassy. Some say that pandan’s aromatics make it the “vanilla of Southeast Asia.” Many devotees of this common ingredient, also known as screw-pine and a relative of lilies, would counter that pandan is to vanilla what silk is to cotton.
A popular ingredient in the Philippines, the long, slender, layered grass-like leaves of the pandan plant look like a cross between lemongrass and leeks. The aroma of pandan resembles vanilla and almond. From boiled rice to baked goods, the plant’s distinctive bright green also adds a punch of color in both savory and sweet dishes.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
From Thai cities to many Pacific islands, the kaffir lime isn’t about the fruit—it’s about the leaves. About the size of a thumb, the dark, leathery, glossy green kaffir lime leaves are ground, cut into thin strips, or minced; sometimes they are used whole, similar to a bay leaf.
The actual kaffir lime has its uses too. Zest the bright green rind into curry pastes for a citrusy, slightly sour note.
Zerocater favorite: House-made Kaffir Limeade from Bun Mee in San Francisco
If you’re a fan of sriracha or hot sauce, try sambal oelek, a fiery, funky chile paste from Indonesia.
Eaten daily across Indonesia’s 17,000-plus islands, sambal oelek has no one set recipe. A condiment (or “sambal”) traditionally made with an ulek (an Indonesian stoneware mortar and pestle), sambal oelek can be as simple as red hot chiles and salt. Other versions may incorporate garlic, tomato, shallot, shrimp paste, fish sauce, or anything else you might pair chiles with. No matter what you want to include, it’s also easy to make at home with a food processor or mortar and pestle.
Also known as Vietnamese coriander, Vietnamese mint, or daun kesum, laksa leaves add a fragrance of lemon and coriander to soups and noodle dishes across Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. The distinct aroma is only specific to fresh leaves; dried or frozen won’t be as fragrant.
The leaves also lend their name to a dish where they take center stage: the noodle-based soup called laksa. A combination of seafood, tofu, meat, and/or vegetables, laksa is served in a rich, coconut milk-based broth and infused with laksa leaves. Found in Malaysia and Singapore, laksa is a hearty, spicy pick-me-up defined by its signature leaves.
Zerocater favorite: Lemon Coriander Prawn Salad from Bamboo Asian in San Francisco
Used throughout southern India and the island nation of Sri Lanka, curry leaves are a bit of a misnomer. While fresh curry leaves impart an earthy, complex, “curry-like“ aroma and flavor, they are not responsible for the “curry” flavor of Indian dishes we may be familiar with in the U.S. (which instead are the result of various blends of herbs and spices).
Curry leaves resemble bay leaves, only smaller. They can be used whole as an aromatic, or minced or ground to fully infuse into a dish. Dried leaves are available but have less aroma. Fresh or frozen leaves work best when first bloomed in hot oil; they bring lightness to the palate.
Zerocater favorites: Japanese Curry Pork Bowl from Pow Pow in Washington DC and the Vegetable Curry from The Spice Route in Washington DC
Whether as a pulp or a juice, the tart, dark-brown tamarind brings pungency and vibrancy to dishes throughout the mainland countries and islands of Southeast Asia. A tropical tree fruit, tamarind pods are ripened and dried, and can be used as anything from a tart ingredient to a showcase ingredient for chutneys and sweets.
Tamarind’s acidity brings fruitiness and complexity to sauces, curries, soups, and other dishes. It’s known for being refreshing, and is increasingly available in pulp blocks or jarred concentrate. (The sticky bricks of pulp blocks are easier to find, but must be reconstituted and strained. Pourable jarred concentrate is easier to use but can be harder to find.)
Zerocater favorites: Tamarind Chicken Wings from Pho Cyclo in DC, Honey Tamarind Dressing from Be Leaf in Chicago, and Grilled Salmon with Tamarind Sauce from Rasa in Manhattan
The small kingdom of Brunei Darussalam is only 2,226 square miles, yet it is also home to 77 species of ginger. Among the most popular for culinary use isn’t the ginger root we are more familiar with, but the large, vibrant blooms known as torch ginger.
Also known as Porcelain Rose or Torch Lily, whole buds may be added as flavor-infusing garnishes for rice dishes such as nasi ulam. The pungent, gingery, floral, slightly grassy character of torch ginger is also a natural complement to tamarind and earthy flavors. The inner petals are used in soups, relishes, sauces, and noodle dishes throughout Bruneian cooking.
The cuisines of Southeast Asia are as varied as the region’s islands are numerous. However, dozens of ingredients come together in fascinating, vibrant ways that can perk up any meal. Whether showcasing them on their own or mixing with others for a symphony of distinct, bright flavors and aromas, these herbs and spices are key to adding some punch to your lunch.