Essential flavors

Everyone has pantry staples they always keep on hand, but some are more interesting than others. I asked chef Mai Pham of Lemon Grass Restaurant (601 Munroe Street, (916) 486-4891) to name five ingredients she could not cook without:

1. Lemon grass. “I love the very vibrant, citrusy flavor, and the texture. Cut very fine, it’s a little bit gritty, which to me is very desirable.”

2. Fish sauce. “This is the quintessential ingredient in [Southeast Asian] cooking—like olive oil to the Italians. It salts foods, obviously, but it also has an incredible umami profile.”

3. Ginger. “It’s a little hot in your mouth, and this flavor or sensation accentuates and extends whatever is happening in your mouth.”

4. Fresh herbs. “Asian basil, rau ram, green perilla, red perilla, mint. If you cut the leaves into just two or three pieces, you can really bite into them.”

5. Thai bird chilies. “The most flavorful chili on earth.”