In June, during celeb chef Andrew Zimmern 's seminar at the 31st-annual Food & Wine Classic  in Aspen, an audience member asked Zimmern to name his five must-have Asian ingredients. Without hesitating, Zimmern ticked off eight: star anise, toban djan, light soy, dark soy, "really good rice wine, not the $2.70 bottle," sesame and peanut oils ("get the Chinese brands"), and fermented black beans.
I jotted down the list and promptly forgot about it—until recently when I was thumbing through my notes and came across Zimmern's recipe for cold hand-pulled noodles with sweet aromatic soy sauce . I took stock of my pantry and headed for H Mart  in Aurora. The massive Asian supermarket is one of my favorite places to while away the hours. I always end up with a packed cart full of items I don't know what to do with. This time was no exception (ahem, fresh jujube fruit ), even with my focus on collecting the ingredients on Zimmern's list. Some were easy: star of anise and sesame oil were already in my pantry; I skipped the peanut oil because of my daughter's food allergies .
But others—like toban djan, a spicy fermented bean sauce with aromatics—required some sleuthing (not to mention a Google search ). Zimmern says that this is the ingredient missing from every American kitchen.
As I searched the shelves, one of Zimmern's quotes ran through my head: "I believe food is great," he said during his seminar. "Food with a story is a rock star. Food with a story you haven't heard before is even better." That's just what I was looking for—that taste, that story, that new-to-me connection. $47 later, I went straight home and made Zimmern's sweet aromatic soy sauce, which he calls "the secret to Chinese cookery." Hand-pulled noodles  are next.