Supermarkets are getting better about stocking ethnic ingredients, but they can still be hard to find. Here are a few of the items that we stock in our pantry and suggestions for approximating their flavors if unavailable.
Do not use canned cream of coconut, which is sweetened. If you have dried, shredded unsweetened coconut on hand, you can make a crude approximation of coconut milk. Bring equal parts whole milk and shredded coconut to a simmer and let steep, covered, for 15 minutes. Grind the mixture in a blender or food processor and let steep for another 15 minutes. Strain the mixture, pressing down on the coconut in the strainer to extract the most flavor. This will make an acceptable substitute for curries and stir-fry sauces, but it's less reliable in baked goods.
One tablespoon of soy sauce mixed with 1 finely minced anchovy fillet will make a crude stand-in for 1 tablespoon of this salty, pungent Thai sauce.
To replace 2 tablespoons of this sweet Japanese rice wine, substitute an equal amount of white wine or sake plus 1 teaspoon sugar.
To make your own coarse Japanese bread crumbs, process some chunks of bread through the shredding disk of a food processor. Spread the crumbs out on a baking sheet and bake, shaking the sheet once or twice, in a 300-degree oven until dry but not toasted, about 6 minutes.
To replace this sesame paste, grind up an equal amount of sesame seeds in a blender with just enough peanut or vegetable oil to make a fairly smooth mixture. Add 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil or to taste, if you have some on hand. Another option is to blend 3 parts peanut butter with 1 part sesame oil, then use half the quantity of tahini called for in the recipe.
To replace 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste soaked in 3/4 cup hot water and strained, mix 1/3 cup lime juice and 1/3 cup water.