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Street Food - Glossary

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bok choy

Part of the Brassica family, bok choy is also known as Chinese white cabbage and white mustard cabbage. It is used in salads and stir-fries.

Chinese cabbage

Also called napa cabbage, celery cabbage, and Peking cabbage, Chinese cabbage is part of the mustard family. Not to be confused with bok choy, it is used in salads and stir-fries.


Chipotles are dried and smoked ripe jalapeño chiles. Commonly used throughout Mexico, chipotles are available in several forms: as a powder, as whole dried chipotle pods, in a can as chipotle en adobo (combined with other spices as a paste), or as a concentrated paste. Chipotles are available from Latin American grocers or gourmet food stores.

choy sum

Another member of the cabbage family, choy sum is also called flowering white cabbage and Chinese flowering cabbage. It is used in salads and stir-fries, and is available from Asian and Chinese grocers, and better greengrocers.


Also known as mooli, Japanese radish, Chinese radish, or Oriental radish, this long root vegetable has crisp white flesh; the skin is either creamy white or black. Look for daikon with unwrinkled skin. It can be used raw in salads or as a garnish, or cooked in stir-fries. It is available from Indian, Asian, and Japanese grocers.

fish sauce

This pungent liquid made from fermented anchovies or other fish is an essential Southeast Asian ingredient. It loses its fishiness on cooking, mellowing to add flavor. Recipes vary, but can be used interchangeably. Known as nam pla in Thailand and nuoc nam in Vietnam, it is available from good supermarkets and Asian grocers.


Especially popular in Thai cuisine, galangal is a hot and peppery aromatic rhizome. A little like ginger root, it is used as a seasoning throughout Southeast Asia. It is available in both root and dried forms from Asian grocers.


This fiery paste made from chiles, garlic, and spices is available in supermarkets and Middle Eastern markets. It can be bought in a tube which looks like tomato paste, or in cans or jars; you can also buy it as a dry spice mix and make your own with the addition of tomato paste, lemon, and salt.

masa harina

This flour is ground from corn kernels that have first been soaked in lime water, then dried. This is the process that makes it differ from ordinary cornmeal. Masa is traditionally used to make corn tortillas. Masa harina is used in Central and South American cooking, and is available from Latin American grocers.

Lebanese spice mix

This term can be quite ambiguous, as each chef has his or her personal recipe. A guideline is 4 parts ground cinnamon, 1 part ground cloves, 1 part chili powder, and 1 part ground cardamom. Grind your own using a clean coffee grinder, store in an airtight jar, and use as needed.

palm oil

Extracted from the fruit of the African palm, this reddish-orange oil is very high in saturated fats. Commonly used in Brazilian cooking, especially in Bahia, it has a distinctive flavor and should not be mistaken for the milder and lighter palm kernel oil.

palm sugar

This sugar is made from the sap of date or coconut palms. It is also known as coconut sugar, gur, and jaggery. In India, the term jaggery also refers to sugar made from raw sugarcane.


Pimentón is a smoked paprika and comes in two varieties: pimentón dulce (sweet and mild) and pimentón picante (hot). It is available from good supermarkets and Latin American grocers.

pomegranate molasses

A fantastic Middle Eastern ingredient, pomegranate molasses comes in bottles. A thick, dark syrup made from the reduced juice of puréed pomegranates, it is fabulously sour and sweet at the same time, similar to very good quality aged balsamic vinegar. If not available, substitute a little reduced balsamic vinegar.

queijo de coalho

A Brazilian cheese, queijo de coalho is similar in taste and texture to haloumi, which works well as an alternative.

sambal oelek

A sambal is a spicy and fiery paste made primarily from chiles and is often served as a condiment. Used in Southeast Asian cooking, particularly in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, there are several forms. One is sambal oelek (perhaps the most basic), which is made with chiles, brown sugar, and salt. It is available in jars from Asian grocers.

shrimp paste

Made from salted fermented prawns, shrimp paste comes in a block and has a pungent smell and strong taste, which dissipates on cooking to become aromatic. Recipes vary slightly depending on the country in which it is made. It should be used only sparingly and is available from Asian grocers.

sour cherry

The sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) is smaller than its sweet counterpart, and comes in several varieties, including Aleppo, Montmorency, and Morello. Fresh sour cherries are usually available from late spring to early summer. Fresh sour cherries from the Aleppo region can be difficult to come by unless you have a good Middle Eastern grocer nearby. Dried sour cherries are a perfect substitute and are found in good supermarkets.


A dark red berry, sumac is dried and ground into a coarse powder that can be almost purple in color and has a very distinctive peppery, sour, and slightly bitter flavor. Commonly used in cooking of the Levant and Middle East, it is treated as a condiment like pepper. It is available from Middle Eastern grocers and health-food stores. If you cannot find it, use lots of black pepper and lemon juice in its place.


This is an essential ingredient in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking, and is also found in Middle Eastern and Persian recipes. The fruit of the tamarind are large pods yielding both seeds and a tart pulp. Used as a flavoring in much the same way as lemon juice, the pulp comes in concentrated form in jars, as a paste, in a dried brick, or as a powder. It is available from Indian, Asian, and some Middle Eastern grocers.

Thai basil

This has a different flavor from ordinary basil and is similar to anise. If not available, substitute a combination of fresh cilantro and mint leaves.

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