The 21st century has been nicknamed the age of global pantry more than once. While a decade ago, that nickname could still be contested, the “pandemic years” have made sure that the age of the global pantry is not only here as a trend; it’s here to stay.
Alas, with ingredients such as wasabi, turmeric, sesame, and fermented soybeans finally losing their “exoticism” and becoming regular pantry mainstays in households that once considered them unusual at best and disgusting at worst come a slew of issues some consider problematic.
A lot of it has to do with the source that made them mainstream in the first place: the internet.
The internet has done a lot of work to “normalize” (I’m pretty sure some would argue with me right here that I’m offensively using the term, but I’ve yet to come up with an alternative that would illustrate my point better) the ingredients many Westerners considered unusual just a few years ago.
Now you can easily get those same ingredients online, if not at your local supermarket.
But easier the access, the more concerns have arisen around the entire concept of Global Pantry. The question isn’t whether it should be endorsed (that goes without saying, more access is good), but whether we’re going about the concept correctly or have we missed the main point.
But I believe that once the ball got rolling, the potential to do good with the concept became boundless. All we need is just a bit more knowledge.
What Is the Concept of a Global Pantry?
I would say the concept of a global pantry is pretty simple and neat. It simply means that ingredients that were once considered foreign and strange can now be found beside each other in any household worldwide.
A Global Pantry is a pantry where Indian curry paste, Japanese shoyu (soy sauce), and Middle Eastern hummus are not just stocked together but utilized for entirely new dishes with unique flavor profiles that cannot be attributed to one place of origin.
A Global Pantry finds ingredients of ALL origins equally valid, beautiful, and worthy of respect. And that conflation of components, in turn, allows for a higher flight of fantasy and gives birth to truly global dishes, where each ingredient matters and thus no single place of origin can be attributed (though, of course, often it is).
The problem is that not everyone sees that lack of origin as a good thing.
In fact, the concept of Global Pantry has earned as much skepticism as it has earned phrases.
The Controversy Around the Concept of Global Pantry:
The main problem around the concept of Global Pantry seems to revolve around the question, “but who benefits from it?”.
The easy answer, the correct response should be “we all do.” But the reality is, as always, far more complicated.
First of all, it can’t be ignored that the “exotic” ingredients keep shredding their “exotic” status primarily due to the work of white media personalities. It’s white chefs, food gurus, and “what I eat in a day” influencers from major urban areas that have gone viral on Youtube, Instagram, and TikTok, using specific ingredients that have gotten considerable credit in normalizing what didn’t need to be normalized in the first place.
Navneet Alang talked about this at length back in 2020 far more eloquently than I ever could. There are chefs, professional and amateur, bloggers, and influencers of color that have used these ingredients for years now in recipes both traditional and modern. And it can be argued that they’re doing it in more respectful ways. So why is it that fewer people are willing to learn from them? And, more concerningly, how much of it concerns how those “exotic” ingredients are used?
And here is, I’d argue, the main crux of the problem. Does pantry globalization mean that the ingredients that have been normalized for Western pantries are being stripped of their cultural significance?
As someone born in a country where the national cuisine is considered one of the main points of traditional cultural pride, I see layers of conflicting emotions at play here. As a Georgian, I am ecstatic when someone shows a tiny bit of knowledge about the ingredients common in Georgian cuisine. If you know what blue fenugreek is and how it’s different from regular fenugreek, I’m not going to judge you even one bit for how you decide to use it. You know what blue fenugreek is! It’s so exciting!
But Georgian cuisine hasn’t gone mainstream across the entire world yet. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cuisines have. And now, these ingredients are used for cooking foods not traditionally from those cultures. One starts to wonder, is that a good thing? Or does it mean that “exotic” ingredients are more acceptable when incorporated into dishes Westerners find more palatable?
Why These Questions Should Make You MORE Interested in Keeping a Global Pantry, if Anything:
I think we’ve already amassed enough knowledge about globalization to know that it’s not a process that can effectively turn back. Like it or not, our pantries have already become globalized. It’s the concept of respecting the food we have to learn more about. And that cannot be done if we suddenly decide to cut our consumption of specific ingredients for no other reason than fear of misusing them.
The problems around the concept of Global Pantry, while valid, cannot be fixed by certain foods suddenly becoming off-limits. In fact, these questions should make you more interested in keeping unusual foreign ingredients in your pantry and incorporating them into your cooking as much as possible.
You cannot gain a full appreciation of any food unless you’ve known what that food is capable of, how versatile it is, and which ingredients it goes well with. That kind of thinking keeps soy sauce limited to a sushi dip in certain people’s minds.
The more you use the ingredients, the more you love them, and the more you’ll learn about them. And only through learning can proper respect come. What matters is who you learn from. No one can teach you better than people from the cultures where they’re a staple.
Top 10 Ingredients for the Global Pantry
So is it only the “exotic” (god, I’m starting to hate this word, but alas, it’s useful for the context) ingredients that are the marker of the Global Pantry? You may ask. Can my pantry be considered global if I stock it with European ingredients?
Well, no, not if you only stock it with European ingredients. But it won’t be Global Pantry if you store it with only East Asian ingredients or ingredients from the Indian subcontinent, for that matter. That’s why it’s the Global Pantry. Ingredients from all over the world should co-exist on the shelves and in the food you cook.
Here are the top 10 we’d start with:
Lemon Butter Sauce - France
Beurre blanc, or white butter sauce, is a traditional French sauce similar to Hollandaise. However, it’s not considered either leading or compound sauce. The lemon butter sauce is an additional twist, adding zesty lemon flavor. The lemon butter sauce pairs beautifully with fish, poultry, and grilled vegetables.
Chili Oil - China
Popular in Western Chinese cuisine (Sichuan, Hunan, etc.), chili oil is a fiery condiment made by mixing chili powder and chopped chilis with hot vegetable oil and mixing it all together. The beauty of it is in its versatility. It’s used as a dip (primarily for dumplings), seasoning, and ingredient for soups and marinades. Your imagination is the only limit of chili oil usage.
Mayonnaise - Japan
Yes, Japanese mayo is different from your classic mayo and deserves a special spot in your… eh, fridge rather than the pantry, but you get the gist. Japanese mayo is made only with yolks, has thick and smooth, custard-like consistency, and has a richer flavor with significantly less acidity. Swap your regular mayo for Japanese for a little bit. You won’t regret it.
Pesto Sauce - Italy
Whether you add traditional green basil pesto or Calabrese red pesto to your shopping cart, you can count on being able to go through the jar with ease. The great thing about pesto is that there’s no limit to what it can be paired with. Toss some fresh pasta with it if you’re all out of ideas (or maybe swap for Asian noodles for a truly unique dish), use it as a sauce in sandwiches, or smear some on top of a fish fillet and pop it in an oven to bake. The only limits pesto has in use is the one you impose yourself.
Gochujang - South Korea
Another chili-based product, the unique aspect of gochujang is that it mixes spicy, savory, and sweet flavors. The more I learn about gochujang, the more I understand that it’s similar to pesto in the sense that the only limits it has, are ones imposed by the cook. It can be used as an ingredient in sauces, marinades, glazes, soups, or stews, and that’s only in traditional recipes. Want to make the most out of your tub of gochujang? Add a bit to your creamy pasta, use it as an ingredient for pizza, or mix a spoonful with your Japanese mayo to make a sandwich sauce or dip for fries. The complexity of the flavor profile will add a unique flair to dishes that have already become a staple.
Nduja Sauce - Spain
Another spicy sauce, this time from Europe, contains a small secret. It’s not so much a sauce as spreadable pork sausage. Add it to toast, noodles, vegetables, etc. Its flavors lend themselves well to complex dishes.
Masala Spice Blends - India
When it comes to Indian cuisine, the spices, particularly garam masala spice, come to mind almost immediately. But the wondrous thing about masala spice blends is that it’s not a ubiquitous recipe. In fact, masala spice blends can vary enormously depending on whether they are for chicken, fish, vegetables, etc. But one true thing is that adding a bit of correctly chosen masala spice blend to your cooking will give beautiful new depth to the flavors.
Canned Tuna - Italy
This is merely the case of quality. Italian canned tuna (specifically canned tuna in olive oil) is considered a premium-quality gourmet product due to the low-mercury tuna varieties used and the long marination period that ensures an exceptionally flavorful product. Switching to Italian tuna in your regular recipes will give the final dish a better texture and deeper flavor.
Truffle Salt - France
Want to feel a bit bougie? Add a little truffle salt as a final garnish to your dishes for an extra flavorful kick.
Aioli - Global (But, Mostly USA)
Traditional Spanish aioli is just garlic emulsified with oil. But that version of aioli is rarely found today, even in Spain. Now it’s usually garlic mayonnaise.In the US, referring to all flavored mayonnaise as aioli has been a trend since at least the 1990s. And American manufacturers of gourmet and artisan products have made the most of it. Perhaps none more so than Stonewall Kitchen, which has an entire line of unique aioli flavors, like sriracha, habanero mango, maple bacon, and truffle.