Shelf Life

Hot Pantry Tips from the Spicy-Cooking Expert Diana Kuan

Diana Kuan is on a heat-seeking mission. The longtime cooking teacher and trained chef is a master of all kinds of stir-fries, salads, and dumplings, but she’s most excited about the spicy, piquant, tingly flavors of Asian condiments. They also happen to be the focus of her new cookbook, Red Hot Kitchen: Classic Asian Chili Sauces from Scratch and Delicious Dishes to Make With Them. The book was a direct response to a common reaction Diana’s students had when she showed them how to whip up sriracha instead of buying it: “Recently I’ve been focusing on a lot of spicy cuisines like Sichuan food, Thai cuisine, and Korean cooking, and a lot of people are really amazed that it’s not too hard to put together a hot sauce at home.” Here are the ingredients Diana keeps on hand to do exactly that.


“There’s some sauces you can make with only fresh chiles, some with just dried chilis, and some that use a combination. I try to include only chili peppers that you can easily find in the U.S. in my recipes. If there are ones that are only available in Asia, I’ll try to find a substitute. In Thailand, there are a lot of sauces that are made with Holland peppers, and they’re not that easy to find here, but jalapeño and serrano chiles make great substitutes. For example, the Thai version of sriracha can be made here with red jalapeños. That’s what the classic rooster brand, Huy Fong, uses.”


“This is my absolute favorite flavor. I put both ground cumin and whole cumin seeds in everything. If you’re making vegan or vegetarian dishes or hot sauces, it adds a really meaty oomph.”

Hot Sauce

“I always have some sort of hot sauce on hand, often homemade but sometimes not. I usually have sriracha or sambal oelek. Those are simple; they’re really chile, garlic, and vinegar, so you can dress them up to create lots of other things. I’ll also have at least one around that’s a little more complex, like nam prik pao or XO sauce, and those you can just use by themselves without needing other ingredients. They’re funky, and they’re earthy. I crave those on a daily basis.”

Sesame Oil

Sesame oil is another staple for me. It’s super aromatic, and I use it as a kind of finishing oil. It’s not really used as a cooking oil since it has a really low smoke point, but it has this nice toasted aroma that’s really addictive.”

Clear Rice Vinegar

“I use Japanese rice vinegars for pretty much all my Asian cooking, even the Chinese dishes. Chinese clear rice vinegar is actually a lot sharper, and I think it’s a little closer to distilled white vinegar. So if I don’t want that crazy sharpness in something like a salad dressing, I use the Japanese version which is a little more smooth.”

Chinese Black Vinegar

“This is an aged vinegar made with glutinous rice, and the flavor is really similar to balsamic vinegar, but a little bit maltier. I use that for a lot of Cantonese or Sichuan cooking. It’s a great dumpling dip—that’s what comes with soup dumplings. And sometimes I’ll use it as a swap for balsamic in my other cooking.”

Meyer Lemon

“In addition to using it on roast fish or chicken, it’s one of the ingredients I use for yuzu kosho, which is a Japanese chile paste. In Japan, they use yuzu fruit, which tastes like a combination of Meyer lemon and limes, but here it’s pretty much impossible to find. So I use the peel and juice from a Meyer lemon and a lime to make yuzu kosho.”

Coconut Aminos

“I’ve started using this a lot in the past year or two. I use this brand called Coconut Secrets. It’s amazing for imitating the earthy flavor of fish sauce, but it’s vegan. It’s fermented coconut sap, and it’s a little bit sweet and not as salty as regular fish sauce. But I teach a lot of vegetarian Chinese cooking classes, and I use this a lot to get that flavor profile.”