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Essentials of Asian Cuisine: Fundamentals and Favorite Recipes
Growing up among wonderful home cooks in the kitchens of Southeast Asia, the expatriate Chinese communities in Paris, and traditional provincial cooks in the Loire Valley of France; then expanding my circle to include chefs and restaurateurs throughout Europe, the United States, China, and East Asia, I came to see continuities between and among the great cuisines of the East that could be expressed in Western terms. This book is intended to explore those continuities. In seeking out the basic principles of China's regional kitchens, I believe it is possible to establish a way of bringing to life all of the great cuisines of Asia for any cook who cares to learn.
Western cooks are easily intimidated by Asian cooking. Ingredients seem alien, techniques unfamiliar, and languages impenetrable, even to professionals well versed in international cookery. It needn't be that way. Perhaps because I came to know both Eastern and Western cooking naturally, absorbing them as I grew up, the connections have always seemed obvious, the techniques manageable, the language issues inconsequential.
The more one looks at the cuisines of Asia, the more one realizes that they are closer than not to what we know in the West. Historically, trade routes and land bridges linked Europe, Southwest Asia, India, and Southeast Asia. For example, the Indonesian island of Java had for centuries closer ties to the cultures of Iran and, by inference, Rome than to China, which was only a few hundred miles to the north. The Dutch, English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish had as much influence as the Chinese, and the ingredients and cooking styles reflect these circumstances. Many of the most central ingredients to the cooking of China itself are of Western origin, having come by way of war and trade. Corn, peanuts, sesame seeds, potatoes, pumpkins, tomatoes, and chili peppers were transplanted from Western Europe and the Americas. Indeed, for centuries the Philippines had closer ties to Spain, Mexico, and to the United States than it did to neighboring China.
The most important lesson I took from French cuisine was its notion of structure in cooking. When one learns the "architecture" of a cuisine, the rest will follow. (Indeed, France's first chef and one of its most important culinary pioneers, Marie-Antoine Carême, was an amateur architect!) Despite the fact that there are dozens of preparation and cooking techniques, hundreds of ingredients, and thousands of traditional Asian dishes, I believe strongly that the basics of Asian cuisine can be gleaned through an understanding of Chinese cooking, and that Southeast Asian and East Asian cooking can be seen as an extension of the Chinese kitchen, colored by local traditions and Western influences. This book is intended to set down what I feel are the fundamentals that bind all Asian cuisines, to provide a way of seeing and understanding what may have at one point seemed inscrutable to the average Western cook. Essentials of Asian Cuisine contains references to both Asian and Western cooking techniques, ingredients, culinary history, and cultural context, but it is not intended as a scholarly work. Rather, I hope that the enthusiastic cook will use it as a handy tool, and find it as much in sync with today's kitchens, supermarkets, and other culinary resources as with the culinary cultures it embodies.
The basics and organizing principles of Asian cuisines can be learned. The book includes, for example, a discussion of feng shui, the overarching principle in living a harmonious life that extends to cooking harmoniously, as well as the principle of yin yang, the art of balanced opposites that is central to Asian cuisine. There are brief overviews of Eastern culinary histories and cultures, so that the reader may better understand how foods evolved over time, and the whys and wherefores of ingredients and techniques.
Fusion, which is a basic principle of all world cooking, is a subject of much interest to many contemporary chefs. In the best sense, fusion means that ingredients and techniques, flavors and textures, backnotes and overtones develop and evolve as cultures rub up against one another and people move around. This notion has held true for the peoples of Asia for millennia. Asia's history is the story of migration, displacement, population shift, colonization, and empire. Partly out of a need to survive, partly out of a need to belong, and out of a need to accept, foods are fused. And out of all these needs, wonderful dishes evolve (the best of these having developed slowly), both through trial and error and for well-thought-out reasons. Also in the best tradition, flavors and combinations of foods are understood through the process of creating a meal, rather than simply as discrete items. Fusion is not a fad; it is an essential process in the evolution of human culture, and the cooking of Asia demonstrates this wonderfully. It is hoped that this book may provide some insight into the processes and aid cooks who are interested in the use of unfamiliar ingredients.
A caveat and an aspiration: It is important to keep in mind that this book is intended as a guide to cooking principles and not an exhaustive compendium. It points the way but does not describe every culinary nook and cranny along the way. It encourages personal discovery and experiment based on understanding.
While I have touched on what I believe are the principal historical cuisines of Asia, I have not gone into great depth relative to the cooking of a few countries. This is because as political boundaries have changed, cultural connections have remained intact, and cooking traditions do not acknowledge political borders. Laotian cooking largely reflects the principles of Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking, for example. Burmese cooking reflects that of Thailand. Malaysia was, for centuries, tied to the traditions of Sumatra, Java, and the rest of Indonesia. And — with author's emphasis — the cooking of vast and ancient India is best seen as a separate subject entirely.
Nonetheless, where Indian influences are felt, they have been included and described. And in the cases of Laos, Burma, and Malaysia, a few recipes have been included to illustrate the particular color and tone of their national cooking.
Every recipe in this book stands on its own, so that the reader may simply select an item on impulse.
At the same time, the book can be approached as a pleasurable course of study. In addition to hundreds of recipes, there are also sections on essential ingredients, equipment and technique, food rituals, seasonal menus, and mail-order sources. From there, I encourage the adventurous cook to relax into improvisation and experimentation. In time, the essentials of Asian cooking will seem a potential part of any culinary foray. Opportunities for your own brand of fusion will arise. I hope my Asian kitchen will become part of your own.
New York, 2003
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
Fundamentals: An Overview
Nearly all Asian food shows a significant Chinese influence. Notwithstanding the effects of Indian (which is a distinct cuisine), Western colonial, and Central Asian frontier cultures, the structure or "architecture" of the food throughout the continent reflects the thousands of years of Chinese military, political, mercantile, intellectual, and cultural influences. China is to Asia what Rome was to Europe: the civilizer, the empire builder, the consolidator. And as Rome — with its imperial aspirations, leisured intellectual classes, and access to the resources of a continent — took Europe out of Bronze Age cookery and into ideas of structure, exotica, culinary cross-referencing, use of nonlocal ingredients, spicing, and other tenets of modern cuisine, so China performed a similar role in Asia. The ruling classes of China valued gastronomy as more than survival, as an expression of its civilization, as an art. The key, therefore, to the fundamentals of Asian gastronomy is Chinese cooking.
Not that it ends there. The cultures of Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam — which, along with China, are the focus of this book — are remarkable in their own right. Japan, for example, can rightly be thought of as having evolved a distinct national cuisine, largely based on subtlety and understatement, a minimalist sense of refinement, and emphasis on artful presentation. Thailand, too, has a highly developed kitchen, where the ingredients and techniques of India and China overlap, finding expression in a highly developed, complex gastronomic culture. Korea has evolved certain critical parts of Chinese cooking, especially its preservation techniques, these manifested in the remarkable culture of kimchi. Indonesia, an archipelago with thousands of islands, finds itself in the center of millennia-old trade routes, pathways of European imperial conquest and religious colonization. Its cuisine reflects these influences, blending them with strong indigenous ingredient traditions. The Philippines — another island chain — reflects the doubly powerful pervasive Chinese influence, and the four-centuries-long Spanish colonial presence, melded with regional ingredients and cooking techniques. Vietnam and, to a certain extent, Cambodia manifest themselves as cultural crossroads between East and West, particularly of their colonial conquerors, China and France. Ironically perhaps, torn by war, they have united the culinary arts of two of the greatest gastronomic cultures on earth, pointing the way to the future of cooking: preserve your traditions, but incorporate the new.
Having been raised in both Eastern and Western cooking cultures, I have noticed that it is easy for Western cooks — even quite serious ones — to hold one of two erroneous ideas about Asian food. One is that all Asian food is the same, that is, all Chinese; the other is that Asian cuisines are too divergent and complex, too culturally diverse and distant from Western models, ever to master. Both of these reflect half-truths, but the truth lies in a middle path. Chinese cuisine has a conceptual structure that can be understood quite readily in Western terms; the differences and complexities of other non-Chinese facets of Asian culinary culture are comprehensible through it. For those just learning about Asian food, ingredients and facets of the cuisine may seem unfamiliar, preparation techniques may vary, emphasis on one component or another of a meal may be surprising. What unites Asian food, however, is a learnable, logical, and quite elegant set of organizing principles. When you have come to know them, you can proceed at your own pace, enjoying what can be anything from a few favorite dishes in your repertoire to a lifelong adventure of culinary discovery.
The key to Chinese cooking is threefold:
1. A STRUCTURED BALANCE OF OPPOSITES IN FOOD: rooted in the philosophical principles of yin yang, it is the idea that all ingredients must be blended harmoniously, and tasted separately, while coming together on the palate.
2. FIVE PRINCIPAL FLAVOR NOTES — salty, bitter, sour, spicy, and sweet — are present in every meal. A further expression of yin yang thinking and the effort of experimentation over millennia, this idea finds expression in a rather formal approach to food, comparable to the rigor of French cooking in the West. This system points to food being used as medicine: ingredients are evaluated for more than flavor alone; balance in the diet makes for physiological and mental health.
3. GRAINS — rice for the most part, and wheat in the northern regions — are at the center of Asian culture and at the center of the meal. Holding enormous importance in the cuisine by Western standards, rice is understood as part of a larger relationship (the fan tsai principle) between grains and their accompany- ing vegetable, seafood, poultry, and meat complements.
These principles have not only united Chinese cuisine across centuries and thousands of miles but spread to the countries of Southeast Asia and Pacific Asia as well. They form the basis for nearly all Asian cooking, and are as much present in a bowl of Indonesian nasi goreng as they are in a Korean kimchi, a Japanese tempura, or a Thai tom yam gung, for example. By mastering these principles and a few simple cooking techniques, and evolving a sense of Asian ingredients, I believe, a cook can work comfortably with any Asian cuisine and be confident preparing any recipe in this book.
BALANCED OPPOSITES: YIN YANG
The yin yang principle posits all existence as the interaction and balance of two basic opposing forces of the universe. Evolving in China from the fourth century B.C.E. forward, it was rooted in Taoism's connection to nature and Buddhism's search for enlightenment. (Scholars see parallels elsewhere in the ancient world: the Greek notion of "humors," the sardi-garmi principle of Iran and Afghanistan, and similar ancient Indian belief systems.) Yin yang essentially advocates a view of the world, indeed the universe, as harmonious. This harmony is observable in nature and can be experienced by living in a balanced way. The individual can literally take the harmony of the universe inside himself or herself through food that is balanced according to the yin yang principle.
Yin embodies female, dark, and cold forces; yang embodies male, bright, and hot forces. The moon is the symbol of yin, for example; the sun is the symbol of yang. This duality is all-pervasive and has acquired a specific application to food. The necessity to maintain a balance in the body and in the diet between yin and yang is a fundamental principle, often unspoken, which underlies the planning of meals for the Chinese. This system is also understood as the "hot-cold" food system, in which yin foods, those which have a cooling effect, include watery items such as vegetables, fruits, certain seafoods and animal proteins, and foods of mild flavor. Yang foods, representing strength and heat, include other seafood and animal proteins, herbs, and hot spices. These foods form a culinary spectrum, from extremely hot to warm to neutral to cool to extremely cold.
THE FIVE FLAVOR NOTES
In a system that further parallels other ancient cultures, the yin yang, hot-cold food system is further expressed through five flavor notes — salty, bitter, sour, spicy, and sweet — that correspond to the five elements — water, fire, wood, metal, earth. This again reflects a millennia-old belief system in which five elements or aspects are present in everything and everyone. They are necessary for life, and good physical and spiritual health can be achieved through their balance. Expressed in terms of food, this system can be understood as follows: water corresponds to salty and black; fire corresponds to bitter and red; wood corresponds to sour and green; metal corresponds to spicy and white; and earth corresponds to sweet, subtle, yellow, orange, and brown. The system is perhaps too complex to be discussed in depth here, but the gist of it is that elements represent or correspond to the physicality and functions of the internal organs and form the basis for organizing the medicinal, or life-balancing, properties of food.
It is also used as the conceptual foundation for acupuncture, for example.
THE BALANCED MEAL: FAN TSAI
One of the unique aspects of Chinese cooking and the Asian cuisines it has influenced is that the basic principles of culinary organization are the same in all meals and at all strata of society. Thus, the humblest peasant cook and the most exalted chef at court shared the same goal of harmony and balance in cooking. Every cook will therefore plan a meal around balancing fan (grains and rice) with tsai (vegetables and meat). A harmonious, refined symmetry of ingredients is as common to the simplest snack as it is to the wedding feast.
Of the two food groups, fan is fundamental and indispensable, and is considered primary. Tsai is secondary. Without fan one cannot be nourished; without tsai the meal is simply less tasty. Overindulgence in food and drink is discouraged as unbalanced and unhealthful. Waste is anathema. The proper amount of consumption is, as Chinese parents have said to their children for millennia, chi fen pao or "70 percent full." Chinese folklore is full of stories told to children about the negative consequences of waste. My brothers and I were always told: "Finish your rice or your future mate will have a pockmarked face."
In modern Chinese cuisine we can observe and experience the world as it once was. Chinese cooking principles date back to ancient times, before scientific methods, before medicine was understood as a subject separate from food, and when direct observation of nature was the only means of understanding human existence. Asian foods exhibit all of the strength and weaknesses of a culture that evolved through trial and error, observation of the natural world, and empirical models that evolved over time. Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from this body of knowledge is that as the modern world feels more and more separated from nature, Asian cooking can provide a possible pathway back to connectedness. On a practical level, the system helps any cook understand and critique his or her own work, for every recipe and every meal should have a sense of balance and some relation to the five notes, and should be based on grains served with complementary items.
CONSCIOUS COOKING: FENG SHUI
Feng shui has enjoyed a revival in the West of late. Evolved from ideas about balance and harmony in architecture, landscape, and interior design, the term means "wind and water," and implies that any environment has to be properly aligned and in harmony with the four cardinal points of the compass, or the four winds. In its most extreme manifestation it involves assigning values to every corner of a room, house, garden, or tomb; adjusting the axis of entry or exit, the furnishings, and so forth; and "correcting" deficiencies by "redirecting energy" through the use of symbolic objects. My husband, an architect with an interest in the subject, likes to say that feng shui simply means paying enlightened attention to every part of your personal environment and making sure that you feel good about it. After having worked with feng shui masters and written on the subject as it applies to cooking, I have concluded the following: the most important aspect of the feng shui kitchen is your own presence in the moment.
I have written that food preparation can be an expression of caring and of love for others. It can also be deeply rewarding for the cook, and for me it is a kind of meditative act. I like to think of this as experiencing the five senses through conscious food preparation, comprising techniques Asian cooks have used for thousands of years.
sight: In addition to the obvious functions of helping you navigate the kitchen and work with your utensils, your eyes can also tell you how your dish is coming along. When stir-frying, the subtle liquification of the oil just before it smokes indicates it is ready to receive the ingredients. When making a coconut flan, the beautiful golden color and clear aspect of the caramel indicate that it is sweet while a dark brown, somewhat opaque aspect indicates that it has been cooked for too long and will be bitter. When grilling shrimp, look for the flesh to turn pink and opaque halfway through before turning it over. When it's completely opaque and pink, but still vibrant in color, take it off the heat. Depending on the type of shrimp, further cooking could make it too firm or mealy and dull the color.
sound: Food speaks. My clay pot "sings" to me when I am cooking rice. When the rice and water come to their first gentle boil, the pot's lid rattles, and I know the rice is halfway through its cooking process. At that point I lift the lid once to stop the boil, replacing it immediately, turning down the heat, and allowing the rice to absorb the remaining moisture through its finish. Listen for a loud sizzling noise when stir-frying ingredients — this will ensure that the items will be crisp and firm. A strong, sharp sizzle says, "I'm ready to take on the food." Anything less, and your stir-fry will be soggy.
smell: Most foods smell like essences of themselves when they're ready to eat. Garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, and meat release their perfumes as they finish cooking. Cooking smells can guide you through the transformation of each ingredient. Take any food, whether vegetables or animal protein. When you first smell a vegetable or animal protein, it should smell fresh. When it comes into contact with the heat, its natural essences are released. When cooking garlic or onions, for example, their natural sugars are released through chemical transformation, and they soon smell sugary. When they have overstayed their welcome, they start smelling burned.
touch: When choosing food at market and when cooking, touch the food. A gentle squeeze can tell you whether fruit is ripe or vegetables are fresh. Meat becomes firm to the touch as it cooks through, fish becomes tender; vegetables and starches soften. Many great cooks consider the tactile sensation of handling food one of the greatest joys of cooking. When steaming carp, I touch it at the end of the steaming process. If the flesh is firm and springs back, it needs more cooking; if the flesh gives under light pressure without falling apart, the fish is perfectly done.
taste: Even the best recipe cannot guide you as much as your taste buds. Tasting as you go is critical. If at all possible, always taste your ingredients before you use them. Taste your food as it cooks. Taste your finished dish before it is served. This is not only to correct for seasoning; it is also to ensure that all the ingredients have come together. When I am making a dish such as caramelized pork shank, in which there is great play between the various flavor notes, especially in critical sweet, savory, and spicy notes, it is important that I taste several times during the preparation process. The type of ginger I use can make a difference. Young, juicy, bright-colored ginger is spicier than more mature, dull, yellow ginger, so I take that into account when adding ginger to the pot. Similarly, Chinese dried red chilies are spicy, but less so than dried Thai chilies. Different types of fish sauces differ in salt intensity; some taste more of salt than fish, so I compensate with the amount of caramel I use. By proceeding in this way, tasting and adjusting as I go, I can be confident that the dish will be as it should be when served.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of this sensualist approach. It is for me the core of my cooking. It is the only way to be intimately connected to your food, and the only way to really learn how to cook. Structure and organization of your ingredients and cooking sequence are important, of course, but always remember, especially as you become more experienced, your five senses are the ultimate guide. In the feng shui of Asian foods, multiple notes must be balanced and the refinement of the dish is critical. Echoing my husband's view of the art, you must pay attention to and be comfortable with all points in the process.
CHINA: LINCHPIN OF THE EAST
To get at the complexity of Asian cooking, the key is an understanding of the central role of Chinese influence in Asia. China is part of the largest continent on earth, the site of extraordinary diversity in plant and animal life, experiencing near arctic to tropical and subtropical climates, and possessing vast mountain ranges, high plateaus, and mighty rivers that fall across lowlands toward thousands of miles of varied coastline. Chinese cuisine reflects this diversity, having filtered it through thousands of years of culinary development, racial, religious, and cultural diversity, and numerous foreign influences.
For our purposes the subject of Chinese cooking will be considered through four main categories: north, south, east, and west; or Beijing (Peking), Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, and Szechwan, respectively. Each of these has numerous internal differences, subtle variations, and items that break the very rules that define them. Some developments are unique enough that they may be considered separate cuisines, as is the case when considering Fujian (Fukien) in relation to Canton; or superior cuisines, as is the case when considering Shandong (Shantung) in relation to Beijing. Despite these differences, China had, for a period some scholars date back as far as 2000 B.C.E., a penchant for refined cuisines.
Chinese intellectual and political leaders had, more than any other ancient civilization, a pronounced interest in and dedication to the culinary arts, connecting them, as we have seen, not only to satisfying hunger, but to notions of health and the very nature of existence.
The power of this idea was enormous, and it spread through commerce, exploration, and war throughout the Asian continent. Thai cooking shows a powerful connection to the cooking of Szechwan, for example, the two peoples being racially related. Southeast Asia in general reflects the influence
not of the immediately adjacent provinces of southern China but of the Mongol invaders from the north, who also exerted historical influences there. Japan took critical clues in terms of ingredients and philosophy from trade with eastern and northeastern China, as did Korea. Cooks in the Philippines include the Chinese kitchen among their influences. Indonesia has a significant number of Chinese among its population who continue to influence cooking technique and ingredient preference.
This flow of ideas and techniques was never only outward. China was invaded in the north by Mongols, who brought a taste for beef, and the Manchus, who brought components of Islamic food culture. Japan occupied large sections of China for periods, as did a once imperial Tibet. In more peaceful times, China's rulers sent explorers westward, along what we now remember as the "Spice Routes," traveling thousands of miles, reaching Persia, Turkey, the greater Middle East, and North Africa, crossing the Balkans, and trekking even to Rome. Others were dispatched south, into India, with its similarly long history, diverse cultures, and varied climates; others into mountainous Southeast Asia. Still others, it is now believed, traveled east by ship, well into the Pacific. Each brought back new ingredients, new ideas for cooking; these were absorbed by the chefs at court and eventually by the population as a whole. Sesame seeds, for example, reached China this way, as did refined sugar, coconut, jackfruit, and even MSG, to name only a few foods.
In addition to internal and regional invasion and voluntary exploration, China has absorbed items from external European military invasion and colonization as well. The English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Portuguese had long and powerful colonial presences throughout Asia. To a lesser extent, there were German, American, and Russian influences as well. Much of Filipino culture comes from Spanish culture; Vietnam and Cambodia have clear French tendencies; Macao served as a gateway for things Portuguese, and the Dutch presence is still felt in Indonesia. Potatoes, chilies, yams, tomatoes, and corn all came to China this way. As the twenty-first century dawns, the influences of globalization, including international trade, modern electronic communications, and corporate economics remain to be seen. Still, over four thousand years China has absorbed and fused it all, remaining the Middle Kingdom, the center of Asia's culinary world.
northern or beijing cuisine: For many centuries Beijing has been China's seat of government as well as its intellectual and cultural center. Home to the Forbidden City, it was the seat of the nearly four-hundred-year rule of the Manchus, the last dynasty to rule China before Communism. Chefs from all over China migrated to the capital, and it was for centuries home to some of the finest restaurants and most elegant dishes in the world. Beijing also became the center of cooking instruction, where chefs practicing China's other regional schools of cooking established themselves, setting up restaurants there.
Although rice is the main staple in most of China, peoples in the north are more likely to eat other starches, saving the rice for special occasions. Wheat is their primary crop, with sorghum, millet, and potatoes being cultivated as well. All sorts of noodles and breads are made, including deep-fried scallion pancakes, various wheat noodle dishes (stir-fried or in broth), and vegetable and pork dumplings with wheat-flour skins. The antecedent of the dumplings now enjoyed worldwide in Chinese restaurants, these are boiled or steamed, and dipped in a gingery and vinegary soy sauce mixture before eating. Historically, Beijing was invaded by the Mongols and Manchus and eventually absorbed their culinary traditions. Primitive beef barbecues and lamb cooking were transformed into sophisticated dishes, but the nineteenth-century Peking duck is perhaps the city's most famous contribution to gastronomy. An exquisite three-course dish, it represents a particular level of refinement seldom achieved in any cuisine.
Many people hold that Shandong, a province just south of Beijing, is actually the heart of the region's cooking traditions. Home of Confucius, one of China's first epicures and father of the region's sophisticated cuisine, Shandong cooking dates back over two millennia. Suffice it to say that the cooks of the imperial palace had to please emperors who sometimes requested new dishes every day, relying on hundreds of cooks, year in and year out. They also had to prepare elaborate court banquets, where each of several successive refined and exotic dishes had to both complement and out-do the last. Whether you consider Beijing proper or the surrounding provinces the font of all things culinary in the north, the city certainly had to pull and mix and fuse dishes for centuries in a role befitting its imperial stature. Aside from Peking duck, Westerners may also know Tientsin or white (napa) preserved cabbage, and Tsingtao beer, both of which also come from the north.
southern or cantonese cuisine: Cantonese food is by far the best-known Chinese cuisine in the West. This is due to the fact that over the past several hundred years Canton and its surrounding province of Guangdong and neighboring Guangxi have been the major source of emigration out of the country. This has not always worked to the advantage of the cuisine's reputation, however, as a lot of the dishes originated in the poorest, most rural, and least developed areas, or — in the case of chop suey — were just thrown together stir-fried leftovers. Having experienced these basic dishes, Westerners may be surprised to learn that in China, Cantonese chefs have had a status not dissimilar to that of French chefs in the West.
Canton, along with the other major southern city, Fukien, has a tropical climate in which virtually anything will grow in abundance. Two rice crops — as opposed to the one in most of China — grow each year, and a multitude of plant-based foods are supplemented by plentiful meat and fowl. Historically known as merchants and adventurous seafarers, people from throughout the region enjoy a long, bountiful coastline, and many have access to extremely fresh fish and seafood items. The Cantonese in particular have a reputation for culinary eccentricity as well as sophistication; their chefs prepare snake, shark's fins, abalone, and dried seafoods, cat (wild and domesticated), tiny buntings (also known as rice paddy birds), and worms. These dishes are delicacies and not eaten every day, however, and, in general, the food can be said to rely on extreme freshness and very little spicing. Soy sauce, oil, and garlic, and little else are most often employed, and many dishes are stir-fried or steamed, as the Cantonese prefer quick cooking methods, exposing the foods to as little heat as possible. Food prepared in this way retains its natural texture and flavor, rather than being radically transformed, as occurs in slow-cooked preparations. While they may not have invented dumplings, the Cantonese offer several hundred variations on the theme, usually served in their dim sum restaurants.
The Hakka, a displaced people from China's north who eventually settled in the southern regions, practice the art of peasant dishes raised to high cuisine. These are often of humble, labor-intensive origin, and require multiple cooking techniques and long cooking times. Salt-baked chicken, for example, began as a meal prepared outdoors, baked in a hole in the ground. It has now evolved into a refined kitchen preparation.
Chiu Chow is also an important culinary region of the south (and where my father's parents were born). It is known for both fresh and preserved mustard cabbage specialties. Closely related in culinary terms is the city of Fukien, whose food is sometimes considered a separate cuisine, and whose cooks prepare rice noodle soups much like those appreciated in Vietnam. Fukien lies in the southeast corner of China, close to Taiwan, to which it has close links through emigration. I include it in the southern region because its climate is closer to that of Canton than that of Shanghai, for example. Fukienese cooking also includes shredded fish, shredded pork, popia (delicate crêpes, used in Shanghai for making spring rolls), and special bean curd skins filled with meat and vegetables.
Hong Kong is known as an international food capital, and it is perhaps in this wealthy cosmopolitan metropolis that the best Cantonese cuisine can be sampled. Hong Kong's chefs are also known for their restless ability to fuse various of China's cuisines with those of the West. One of my greatest pleasures when visiting the city, however, is to drop into a dai pai dong, a small, inexpensive, often loud and crowded eatery where I can join the unembarrassed patrons gleefully slurping away at their simple bowls of noodle soup. I have also enjoyed a spectacular meal in the Lei Yue Mun district in Kowloon, where the ritual is to select your own fresh items from a local fisherman at the dock, carry them to your dining spot of choice, and have them prepared immediately by the chef. I once selected a medley of fresh seafoods and ate it lightly steamed or stir-fried in the Cantonese fashion, with only a subtle hint of black bean and garlic sauce or with pungent ginger and scallions. I remember the meal to this day.
eastern or shanghainese cuisine: Shanghai is unique among China's cities, having been a major commercial center and Chinese port city for hundreds of years and occupied by the Western powers during the twentieth century. It served as a sort of Asian New York, London, and Paris rolled into one, complete with corruption, armed insurrection, and extraordinary cuisine. Surrounded by fertile plains and some of antiquity's most developed canal systems, its environs were considered China's garden spot. The city is known for its seafood dishes, including two specialties employing yellow eel and hairy crab, the latter enjoyed steamed, and valued for sweet roe that is reminiscent of caviar. Among other regional eastern cities, Yangchow (Yangzhou) has particular historical importance, for it was here that Marco Polo experienced China's varied cuisines, declaring the city to be the most spectacular in the world. Fried rice may have originated in Yangchow, but its most famous dish is lion's head, a ginger- and tangerine-flavored pork meatball casserole cooked with cabbage. Shaoxing (Shao-hsing) is another eastern city of note, famous, especially, for its rice wine. Shaoxing wine is used in lightly cured and raw seafood or steamed poultry dishes such as Shanghainese drunken prawns, crabs, or chicken. Shanghai's cuisine, in particular, is rich, oily, and sweet, and includes special red-cooked dishes, which employ a lot of soy sauce mixed, again, with Shaoxing wine. Other robustly flavored items from the region include a vinegar and soy sauce dip fragrant with ginger and served with special crab-and-pork soup dumplings. The same dipping sauce also accompanies deep-fried Shanghainese spring rolls.
western or szechwanese cuisine: Szechwan, the largest of all of China's provinces, lies on the west central high plateau. The province is rather hot and humid and is known for its spicy food and the use of Szechwan "peppercorn," a spice that distinguishes its cuisine from all other regional cuisines of China. This is supplemented by chilies brought to the region by seventeenth-century Spanish and Portuguese traders. Despite the strong, hot chilies in their cuisine, Szechwanese cooks are known for their ability to balance all five flavor notes within a single dish, particularly in the capital of Chengdu (Chengtu). Examples of Szechwanese food include hot and sour soup, and ma po dofu, a spiced tofu and pork-flavored dish. The province's preserved vegetables are also very spicy; some of the best examples are chili-laden cabbages. The Szechwanese are also famous for their smoked meats. Yunnan, which is southwest of Szechwan but still considered part of western Chinese culinary tradition, is home to the famous Yunnan ham (often incorrectly referred to as Hunan ham), a salt- and air-cured ham used as a flavor enhancer in many dishes. Unlike the foods of neighboring Szechwan, Yunnan food is not particularly spicy but is very fragrant, as seen in winter melon and ham soup, for example.
Japan is an island nation that lies five hundred miles east of China and one hundred miles from Korea, and is surrounded by the East China Sea and the Japan Sea. A land with several active volcanos and high mountains, it experiences both hot summers and severe winters. Japan was historically influenced by Chinese culture (filtered through Korea), a powerful connection to the sea and fishing cultures, and a strong sense of its own cultural and aesthetic identity. Japan was closed to the rest of the world for significant parts of its history, remaining in virtual isolation until the mid-nineteenth century, when the West intervened militarily, forcing Japan into international trade and leading to a period of military expansionism.
Japan has an assortment of culinary influences, transformed over the centuries into a cuisine uniquely Japanese. Vegetarian Buddhist monks had significant influence on the culinary culture, as did the highest manifestations of its imperial court cooking, centered in the old capital of Kyoto. Developing out of the highly ritualized tea ceremony, the cuisine, known as kaiseki, features elaborately minimal presentation of bite-size items (a single baby fish on a special platter, for example). Shojin-ryori is a traditional Zen Buddhist meal, presented in the same fashion as any Japanese meal (several small dishes of various food items with a broth for sipping and rice) but all vegetarian. The sixteenth century Portuguese brought techniques that developed into wheat flour-dredged and deep-fried morsels known as tempura. The relatively recent presence of beef in their diet is, in large part, due to the influence of European cultures, and other dishes categorized under nabemono (foods that are essentially "dropped and retrieved"), which are represented by such famous specialties as shabu-shabu (beef hot pot) and sukiyaki (shallow-cooked beef). Japanese noodles in general have been an influence of the Chinese.
The Japanese have a strong preference for raw seafood, served as sushi and sashimi. "Sushi quality" fish has been frozen rock solid to kill any worms or bacteria, then thawed before being precisely sliced. Sea vegetables such as wakame, konbu, and processed agar-agar are most often used in creating salads, or added to soups or stir-fries. The cuisine is seasonal, in terms of both items served and aesthetics: carrot may be carved into a red maple leaf and served with classic autumn dishes to recall the colors of turning leaves. Occasionally meat items are served raw as well; chicken sashimi is offered in some restaurants. The Japanese penchant for exotica is strongly mirrored in food culture, too: still living, raw lobsters being consumed at table, for example.
Aesthetics in Japanese food is not simply the artful presentation of dishes. Rather, it is an expression of an aesthetic system called wabi sabi. Somewhat difficult to understand with a non-Japanese set of values, it is rooted in Zen Buddhism and describes a worldview that holds steady, even as the Japanese absorb outside influences. More broadly, it manifests as an impulse to perfect what is absorbed, rather than to create new forms. As pervasive as Greek notions of ideal beauty in the West, for example, it advocates a refined and minimalist sense of nature and humanity's place in it. Wabi sabi permeates Japanese life, finding expression in everything from meditative rock gardens to evocative haiku poetry, to the ritualized tea ceremony, to food preparation. No Japanese food item would be presented without consideration for its appearance and its effect on the diner, for example.
Elizabeth Andoh, an American lecturer who has lived in Japan for decades, has said that "Japanese food looks so beautiful you're afraid to dig in." A bowl of rice in Japan is never a plain bowl of unornamented rice. The bowl and its underplatter are selected for visual effect, and the rice is visually enhanced with a colorful garnish such as sesame seeds, or matcha, a green tea powder, for example. Whether you are eating in a Japanese restaurant or at home, the same concept holds true: beauty, especially as it reflects, embodies, or complements nature, is an integral part of life.
Korea juts dramatically from the Asian landmass, southward into the Yellow Sea. Known as "the land of morning calm," the peninsula's sheer eastern coastal cliffs rise to rocky peaks of the Ta'aebaek mountain range, then fall to the western and southern plains, where the land seems to come apart at its edges, fracturing into more than 3,000 islands. Hot summers and cold, dry winters are balanced by exquisite springs and autumns. Rivers and streams abound, spilling like watery necklaces across the land.
The Korean people are descended from the Mongols, who occupied the peninsula at various points in history. They have a stronger preference for beef dishes than seen in many other parts of Asia; these are enjoyed on special occasions. Such dishes include numerous barbecue items such as bulgogi and kalbi gui served with kimchi, often served in special restaurants with grills built into the table so that diners can cook in a comfortable setting. Imperial Korean foods include kujolp'an (nine-sectioned dish), an array of colorful julienned vegetables, seafood, and meat delicately rolled in small crêpes; and shinsollo, an equally colorful, slow-cooked hot pot. At outdoor markets, you can pull up to street-side food stalls to sample such classics as chap chae, translucent potato starch noodles stir-fried with vegetables and shredded beef; p'ajon, a sizzling scallion pancake; or bimbim pap, a classic rice, vegetable, and meat dish seasoned with a pungent chili paste and nutty sesame oil. With these dishes, you can drink roasted rice water.
Kimchi, the traditional staple of preserved vegetables and fish, always accompanies meals. Robust and complex in its flavors, the dish exists in hundreds of variations, ranging from napa cabbage, daikon, and spring onions, to baby crabs, shrimp, and squid. Kimchi evolved from Chinese techniques, using salt and other spices as preservatives and flavoring agents, and matured as part of the national cuisine about five hundred years ago, when chilies (brought by the Spanish) were introduced into the mix. In addition to being served as a side dish, kimchi is added to soups, stews, and stir-fries.
Korean food also mirrors certain aspects of Japanese food (the Japanese occupied the country for periods of time) and includes simple versions of raw fish sushi and sashimi, for example, and, occasionally, raw pork liver items as well. The Japanese tendency toward minimalism and refinement is also present, although it is mediated by Korea's own sense of identity and different history. A unique expression of these is the tendency to display five critical colors in many circumstances, reaching even to the level of ingredient selection in food. Shinsollo, for example, uses color-selected foods such as bell pepper (green), egg white (white), carrot (considered to be in the red family), shiitake mushrooms (black), and egg yolk (yellow); representing the five elements — wood, metal, fire, water, and earth — that originated in the Chinese yin yang principle.
The mountainous, river-raked, and somewhat inaccessible geography of mainland Southeast Asia is such that ancient patterns of northern Asian civilization lagged there to a certain extent. By contrast, its southern, insular reaches are fingers of land and island archipelagos that reach from the Bay of Bengal to the Pacific Ocean and extend into the Indian Ocean and the Java and South China seas; this facilitated ancient patterns of east-west trade. The northernmost regions were strongly influenced by China. The racial stock of Vietnam, for example, has much in common with the same Yue peoples associated with Canton, and with the Mongols, who conquered China hundreds of years ago. Similarly, the Thai have connections to the peoples of Szechwanese high plains. The southern portions of the region had much to do with east-west trade routes connecting Southwest Asia, especially Persia, India, and the amalgam of island states now known as Indonesia. The Philippines, lying several hundred miles east of the Asian mainland, were also somewhat isolated from the continent's evolution, their largest outside influence the result of colonization by Spain.
Empires existed within the region, however, notably the Malay, Annamese, and Thai. Little is known about the early Malay or Srivijaya kingdoms, save that they comprised Malaysia and much of what is now modern Indonesia and parts of the southern Philippines. Contact between the area and China was not established until relatively late (the fifth century), but Indian influence flourished there for about a thousand years, and there is some evidence that its sailors reached as far west as the coast of Africa. Taking most of its religious and cultural clues from the Indian subcontinent and Southwest Asia, the legacy of the Malay empire includes the enormous influence of Islam in the area, as well as lasting connections to Indian culinary cultures. From the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, the classical civilization of the Annamese or Khmer comprised much of what is now Thailand, Cambodia, and central Vietnam, manifested in the extraordinary Angkor Wat in the Cambodian highlands of Siem Reap, and the cuisine of the imperial capital of Hue in Vietnam. The Thai empire, reaching from Burma in the west to what is now Laos in the east, flourished from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century. Because its ruling classes were, like the Chinese, interested in gastronomy as an expression of their sophistication and stature, its cuisine is complex and highly structured.
The cuisine of Southeast Asia employs raw-ingredient dishes and the marked influence, principally, of Indian cuisines, and Chinese cuisines in terms of methodology, as well as the legacies of Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese colonization. Having emerged in a rainy subtropical climate, the most important ingredients unifying the area are the coconut, which is used in all of these countries; rice, which is a basic food everywhere; and strong spices and herbs, especially garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and chili. Despite the commonalities, however, the skillful use of condiments by inventive cooks over the centuries makes each of these countries gastronomically distinct.
A tropical island nation, the Philippines comprise two large and numerous smaller island groups lying about five hundred miles southeast of the Asian continental landmass. Colonized briefly by the Chinese in the eleventh century, and historically visited by Chinese, Indian, and other merchants, the character of the modern nation was cast by the Spanish military conquest of the islands in the late 1500s. Spain dominated the country for four hundred years, using it as a production base for sugar and other agricultural crops, and as a trading port of some significance within Spain's global empire. The United States won the country from Spain in the late nineteenth century and eventually granted it independence after World War II.
Filipino food is quite different from that of the rest of Southeast Asia in that the intense herbal notes and spicing are largely absent from their food, with the exception of Bicol food, where the use of coconut and finger chilies is pervasive. Garlic, onion, and ginger compose the foundation of Filipino cuisine. A blend of Spanish colonial cooking mixed with the traditional foods of the indigenous people, it enjoys regional variations, but is, in general, a simple, hearty cuisine. Exotic foods are often used in this cuisine, including grilled chicken offal, and insects, such as rice paddy crickets.
The Filipinos are a warm people, quick to smile, and in touch with a sense that life is to be enjoyed.
Remembering the half-century of American cultural domination, as well as Japanese military occupation in the mid-twentieth century, they have adopted and adapted the ways of outsiders to a certain extent. Jessica R. Avila, a restaurateur and cooking instructor on the resort island of Cebu, prepared a delicate sour soup called sinigang, which she served to me in a young coconut shell. She explained that "the lightness and delicate presentation in the dish is a direct influence of the Japanese." She recounted additional centuries-long influences on the cuisine, including, by her account, Islamic Malaysian, Catholic Spanish, Buddhist Chinese, and modern secular American influences.
The Chinese influence is obvious in the national dish, pancit, a noodle dish often served on birthdays and at weddings, and lumpia, a fried spring roll. From the Malays they have the pork blood stew called dinuguan baboy, meat and intestines cooked in blood and vinegar. Kinilaw is a modern version of a Filipino dish derived from the Caribbean Spanish ceviche. Originally part of a fisherman's rite in which freshly caught fish were vinegar-dipped and eaten raw, kinilaw is now prepared with coconut vinegar and kalamansi juice, with red chilies and green mango adding color. Sinigang is a sour soup that appears throughout Southeast Asia, but here it is distinctive in its use of kamias, a small sour fruit resembling carambola. Spanish-influenced chicken or pork adobo is eaten everywhere, seasoned with Filipino fish sauce known as patis (similar to Thai nam pla, Vietnamese nuoc mam, or Cambodian tuk trey) and, uniquely, brown sugar.
An island archipelago located off the Southeast Asian mainland in the Indian and Pacific oceans, Indonesia sits between China and Australia. It is the largest and most populous nation in Southeast Asia, comprising thousands of islands that range from the international, predominantly Hindu resort island of Bali, to the main, predominantly Muslim island of Java (with the capital city of Jakarta), to Sumatra, parts of Borneo and New Guinea, and numerous other islands. In its early history, what is now modern Indonesia was pulled to the west, to India and Persia, rather than China. It was also a draw for Near Eastern and Indian trade through the rest of Southeast Asia, in whose cuisines the spicy, curried Indian influences are felt to this day. Chinese traders visited the islands with increasing frequency from the sixth century onward, seeking trade and safe harbors for their long, adventurous sea journeys. For centuries Indonesia was a part of the Malay empire and, after the advent of Indian Hinduism, also saw the influence of Buddhism. From the thirteenth century to today, Islam has been ascendant, and Indonesia is now the largest Muslim nation on earth. In the early seventeenth century Indonesia was cruelly subjugated by the Dutch. The British and French also had interests there during the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century; they were eventually supplanted by the returning Dutch, who persisted into the twentieth century. The country was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and gained its independence after the war's end.
Despite the diverse religious and cultural influences of its history, Indonesian cuisine is relatively consistent. Largely defined by the use of coconut, cooking throughout the archipelago employs the fruit as a vegetable, main course, ingredient, cooking fat, relish, fruit, and beverage. Despite the inevitable influence of Dutch colonization, a significant Chinese population, and trade with the Near East and Portugal, Indonesia still can boast of a unique cuisine.
Rijsttafel, a Dutch word meaning "rice table," is formalized as an almost endless procession of beautifully arranged, carefully organized dishes, ranging from sweet to sour, mild to very spicy, cold to hot. Nationally popular is nasi goreng, or fried rice, which originated in China. The Indonesian version is sometimes served with a pan-fried egg on top and perhaps some grilled skewered meat, satay, on the side. One of the most essential elements of an Indonesian meal is sambal, sauces that can be used in the kitchen or at the table. Few Indonesian meals are served without gado gado, an interesting mélange of raw and cooked vegetables and tempeh (a coarse tofu cake) with a spicy peanut and coconut sauce.
With Burma and India to the west, Malaysia to the south, Cambodia to the southeast, and Laos to the east, Thailand (formerly Siam) offers one of the most exotic cuisines in the world. Thai food is complex, rice-, rice noodle-, and coconut-based, with a counterbalanced array of sweet, spicy, salty, sour, and bitter flavors occurring in dishes throughout a meal. There is a strong Indian influence, especially in the use of spices, and particularly curries. The Chinese influence, too, can be seen in the use of woks, bamboo steamers, and cooking techniques in general, as well as stir-fries such as Chinese sweet pork sausage fried rice, for example. The Thai use chopsticks to eat noodle soups in the Chinese fashion; their fingers to eat sticky rice with dipping sauces in the Indian fashion; and a fork and spoon to eat many other dishes in the Western fashion.
Thai chilies (finger chilies), palm sugar, galangal (lesser ginger), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass are used in dishes such as tom yam gung (spicy sour shrimp soup), and rice noodle stir-fries such as pad Thai, a dish now familiar in the West using dried shrimp, shredded egg, peanuts, pressed tofu, mung bean sprouts, lime juice, sugar, and spices.
Despite their name, Thai curries are markedly different from Indian versions, and include red, green, and yellow curry pastes that are the backbone of the cuisine. Haeng lei powder is similar to Indian curry powder, and is used in some curries. These versions omit the coconut milk often used with the pastes. It is also combined with a red curry paste for making the egg noodle soup called khao soi, a complex but balanced egg noodle and seafood or meat soup.
Bangkok is perhaps more famous for its temples than its cuisine, but its floating market is a noteworthy curiosity, with fresh produce and snacks sold by boat vendors. Street vendors also offer freshly prepared noodles, dumplings, fried foods, grilled foods, soups and sweets, available all day and night.
Chiang Mai, arguably the culinary capital of Thailand, is located at the foothills of the northern Mae Rim mountains. The magnificent Buddhist Doi Su Thep temple dominates and to a certain extent defines Chiang Mai. (Buddhism was spread from here across mainland Southeast Asia and into southern China.) Street hawkers line the climbing path to the temple, displaying all sorts of food, including meatballs, chicken, sweet sticky rice cakes, and fried bananas. These are bought initially as symbolic offerings to Buddha, then eaten. As an interesting aside, Thai food carvings, vegetables and fruit made into floral garnishes and decorative serving vessels, have an international reputation for elaborate artistic excellence.
Some Western (and indeed, Eastern) food scholars discount Cambodia's culinary heritage, assuming it is, like that of Laos, an offshoot of Vietnamese, or, perhaps, Thai cooking. Cambodia was, however — until its precipitous collapse in the twelfth century — the seat of a large, prosperous empire. Indeed, the only imperial court cooking in Vietnam is that of the Annamese or Khmer, who had sophisticated kitchens in what is now Hue. There is evidence that the massive effort required to construct the civilization's most lasting monument, the temple city of Angkor Wat, may have bankrupted the empire and rendered the area a vassal state of Thailand for centuries. Like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was also colonized by the French in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after which it was occupied by the Japanese, granted its independence, then plunged into a genocidal civil war, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.
Like Thailand's, much of Cambodia's culture stems from that of India, including its Hindu-Buddhist belief system. Seventy percent of the country is jungle, but rice, maize, vegetables, fruit, and tropical nuts all grow plentifully in the lowlands to the south. Salt, which has enormous importance in subtropical lands, is extracted from the sea near Kampot, on the Gulf of Thailand.
While pork, chicken, and small birds are part of their diet, fish — both saltwater and particularly freshwater varieties — is the most important Cambodian dietary protein. Cambodia's most important contribution to the culinary world is a pungent fermented fish paste called prahoc. Cambodian cooking at its base evidences both Indian spicing and Chinese rice- and stir-fry-based cooking, and, as such, echoes the cooking of much of Southeast Asia. There are enough differences, however, to justify treating it as a separate development here.
Cambodian cooking is savory, sweet, and spicy, but not nearly as sweet and spicy as Thai cuisine. Prahoc is used in such dishes as pleah saiko (raw beef salad), where it adds a curiously subtle fermented note. Kroeung, an herbal paste made of lemongrass, galangal, and other herbs is the basis for the fragrant and succulent steamed freshwater fish and coconut custard specialty called amok. Sour and acid notes from lime juice and tamarind extract are widely present in the cuisine. Ginger is also employed in copious quantities when stir-frying chicken or pork, to aid digestion as well as add a refreshing finish to the dish.
Sitting like a pearl necklace along the eastern edge of Southeast Asia, Vietnam is bounded by the Gulf of Tonkin to the north, the South China Sea to the east, the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Geographically a spine of steep mountains that fall to plains and to the sea, the country has been a crossroads of civilizations for centuries, resulting in both the tumult and diversity associated with its long history. The Viet (also Yue-Viet) were an ancient race who, over the centuries, mixed with more than fifty other ethnic groups to form the country's modern racial stock.
Chinese cooking is an enormous and lasting influence, more directly here, perhaps, than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The pervasive use of woks and chopsticks, as well as cooking methods such as stir-frying and deep-frying, can be traced from southern China, especially the Red River delta. Specialties such as beef and rice noodle soups known as pho, and spring rolls called nem ran (or cha gio in the South), and mi xao don do bien, crispy egg noodles topped with a seafood stir-fry, were all direct influences. The pronounced use of beef can be traced directly to the twelfth-century invasions of the Mongols, who remain an important racial type in the north to this day.
The Cambodian, or Khmer (Annamese), empire extended from Thailand to the coast of central Vietnam in the eighth to twelfth centuries, contributing to the development of an imperial Vietnamese cuisine. Its primary gastronomical contribution was to combine traditional Chinese-influenced northern and indigenous southern Vietnamese cuisines, producing a refined hybrid suitable for noble families of Hue. In essence, this presented as an array of bite-size morsels, delicately styled, not unlike Cantonese dim sum. The Khmer also provided a conduit for other Southwest Asian and Indian influences, notably mild Indian curry powders. To this day, India's spicy cuisine is most purely felt in the south, where sea trading routes, the Gulf of Thailand, and the delta cultures of the Mekong River have fused to form a distinctive regional cuisine.
France colonized and dominated Vietnam culturally from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. French culinary influence can be seen in the use of baked breads such as banh mi (baguette), certain desserts such as banh gan, essentially crème caramel made with coconut milk instead of cow's milk, and beverages such as ca phe, a sweet, strong version of café au lait, made with condensed milk.
Vietnam may be one of the world's finest examples of fused cuisines, hybridized versions of ancient and modern taste cultures, Eastern and Western cooking techniques, ingredients, menu styles, and structure. Variations are subtle, never coarse. Ingredient substitutions are intelligent and evolved, never extravagant or employed solely for effect. Dishes are greater than the sum of their parts, and in this way, closer to the art of cuisine than the theatrics of what passes for "fused" dishes in much international contemporary restaurant cooking. Ironically, perhaps, this poor, war-torn, bedeviled country has set the bar very high, indeed.
A CLOSING NOTE
Asia is so vast, variations in its cuisines so numerous, internal and external influences so complex, that it is difficult to claim that any one recipe is "definitive." Recipes can be authentic, however, reflecting traditions, respecting structures, and using proper ingredients in proper proportions. Complete is another word I do not readily associate with descriptions of a cuisine. The idea that any listing of recipes could make for a complete embodiment of a cuisine is preposterous. It would take volumes to describe virtually any cuisine, and even then it would not be complete, simply because cuisines are constantly evolving. This has been historically true in Asia, where history has gathered almost all the nations of the earth in some form or another, where all extremes of the human condition have been lived out among the billions of her people, and where the culinary melting pot has been boiling for thousands of years. And it has never been more generally true in our ever-shrinking, more closely knit world. That is the joy, the mystery, and the adventure of cooking.
And on that note...chi fen! (eat rice!).
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
FRESH AUTUMN MUSHROOM SOUP
SERVES 4 TO 6
Autumn is the season for harvesting and eating beautiful wild mushrooms. This particular mushroom soup was served to me at a dinner in Kyoto. It was delicate, a perfect complement to the other dishes: pan-fried fish, egg custard, fu (wheat gluten), and pickled eggplant and daikon. The soup contained wild pine mushrooms (page 317), which are indigenous to Korea and Japan. They are not available in the United States, but you can substitute fresh shiitakes and oyster mushrooms with confidence. Although not as earthy in flavor as their wild cousins, oyster and shiitake mushrooms are also used in Japan for making similarly delicate soups, and for making stir-fries. Fresh shiitake soup is perfect for any Japanese breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Unlike Western meals, Asian meals often tend to be similar throughout the day. The Japanese in particular enjoy a light soup, a bowl of rice, pickled vegetables, fish, and fresh fruit at any meal.
8 cups KONBU DASHI (pp. 124-25)
Pour the dashi in a stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in the mirin and the soy sauce, add the oyster, shiitake, and cloud ear mushrooms, and cook for 3 minutes. Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with some scallions, ginger, and daikon.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
FUN SI LO HAN JAI BRAISED CELLOPHANE NOODLES WITH SHRIMP AND MUSHROOMS
BRAISED CELLOPHANE NOODLES WITH SHRIMP AND MUSHROOMS
Serves 4 to 6
Fun si, cellophane noodles made of mung bean starch, originated in China. They are also called crystal noodles because they become transparent when cooked. The noodles, when cooked, are springy and slippery. Naturally bland, they absorb a great deal of flavor. For this reason, they have been traditionally used in braised dishes such as this one, incorporated into dumpling stuffing, and added to soups such as Indonesia's classic soto ayam (pp. 136-37). These same Chinese cellophane noodles were the inspiration behind Korea's tang myon, potato starch noodles, which are used in making chap chae (page 250). Although grayish in color, the potato starch noodle becomes transparent when cooked, just like the Chinese cellophane noodle, but with a light grayish hue.
Fun si lo han jai — braised cellophane noodles with dried shrimp, dried shiitakes, and napa cabbage — is a family favorite, and I never get tired of making it.
Three .7-ounce packages CELLOPHANE NOODLES
1. Place the cellophane noodles, shrimp, and shiitakes in 3 separate bowls with water to cover, until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain all three. Place the shiitakes between the palms of your hands and squeeze to get rid of the excess water. With a paring knife remove and discard the stems and julienne the caps.
2. Heat the oil in a sand pot or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir-fry the garlic, ginger, and scallions until fragrant and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp, shiitakes, and cabbage and stir-fry until just cooked, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. To the same pot, add the stock, soy sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sesame oil and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the noodles, and cook until they have absorbed all of the stock, 3 to 5 minutes. Return the cabbage stir-fry to the pot and stir to distribute the ingredients evenly. Cover and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes more. Divide among individual plates and serve with a bowl of rice on the side.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
NUOC CHAM SPICY, SWEET, AND SOUR FISH SAUCE DIP
SPICY, SWEET, AND SOUR FISH SAUCE DIP
Makes about 2 cups
Nuoc cham (also nuoc mam cham), a clear, light dipping sauce, is the most important table condiment of Vietnam. It combines fish sauce, lime or lemon juice, garlic, chilies, and sugar in perfect harmony. Its refreshing sweet and spicy character complements dozens of foods, ranging from a simple bowl of rice, which is transformed when drizzled with nuoc cham, to a myriad of grilled and deep-fried foods, including grilled lemongrass shrimp (page 223) and spring rolls (pp. 284-85). In Cambodia, where the sauce is called tuk trey (also the generic name for the bottled plain fish sauce), it commonly accompanies fried fish (page 394) and a Cambodian version of Vietnamese summer rolls (pp. 286-87).
The northern Vietnamese like their food mild, so they slice the garlic and chili to produce less dominant flavors. The southerners prefer their garlic and chili minced, yielding a more pronounced flavor. The Cambodians like to add crushed peanuts to their sauce for a richer flavor. In the West, Vietnamese restaurants often serve nuoc cham with julienned carrots, a way to further sweeten the sauce and give it additional color and texture.
1/2 cup GRANULATED SUGAR
Whisk together the sugar, fish sauce, 1/3 cup water (or more depending on how strong the fish sauce is), and the lime or lemon juice in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the garlic and chili, and let stand for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Sprinkle with crushed peanuts (if using), or julienned carrot (if using), just before serving.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
KAMJA NAMUL EXOTIC STIR-FRIED POTATOES
EXOTIC STIR-FRIED POTATOES
Serves 4 to 6
Potatoes are very much enjoyed in Korea. While in Kyongju, considered to be the historical capital of the country, I ate in several restaurants, one of which offered vegetarian meals. One of the dishes on the table looked very familiar yet exotic. A small celadon bowl of crispy fried potatoes flavored with sesame oil and soy sauce, pungent with garlic, was garnished with julienned shiso (perilla leaf). It was unusual, but I loved it. I rarely prepare potatoes Asian style; in fact, I use them only to make chicken curry (page 499) or potato and rice dumpling dough (page 523). Mildly exotic, kamja namul and bulgogi (barbecued beef, page 480) are a great way to introduce Asian foods through familiar ingredients to a meat-and-potatoes kind of person. I think of this combination as the ultimate "transitional" meal, familiar yet exotic.
1 tablespoon KOSHER SALT
1. Whisk the salt with 4 cups water in a bowl until the salt is completely dissolved. Add the potatoes and allow to soak for 20 minutes. Drain.
2. Heat the vegetable and sesame oils in a nonstick pan over high heat. Stir-fry the garlic until golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the potatoes and stir-fry until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Stir together the soy sauce and chili paste in a bowl until smooth and add to the stir-fry. Continue to stir-fry the potatoes until any liquid is absorbed and the potatoes become lightly crisp, about 10 minutes more. Transfer to a platter, garnish with julienned shiso, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, and serve.
Traveling through Korea, my translator, Sophie Park, and I enjoyed many delicious meals together. At each meal we were served bowls of rice, clear soup, and kimchi; then twenty to thirty other dishes to choose from and share came to the table: dried fish, acorn pudding, beef, mushrooms, and namul (vegetable dishes). The namul were prepared any number of ways: stir-fried, blanched, steamed, and boiled. They were both vegetables and herbs, some cultivated, others wild, some spicy, others mild. Each dish complemented the others perfectly and I cherished each one, a small bite at a time, throughout the meal. The portions were very small, and while it looked like a lot of food, at the end of the meal I didn't feel uncomfortable and full but most definitely satisfied.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
Miso-Marinated Black Cod
Serves 4 to 6
Part of cooking's pleasure is being inspired by people in your family, people you meet in your travels, or restaurants you visit. I once was served miso-marinated broiled black cod. It was so delicious that I decided to experiment with this recipe on my own. Black cod is not always available. Accordingly, I have tried this recipe using other fish such as regular cod, mackerel, and Chilean sea bass (although this variety is now overfished, so I hesitate to recommend it), and all were very tasty. Marinated in a combination of sake, mirin (sweet sake), and shiromiso (white miso) for a day, the fish takes on a sweet salty flavor and caramelizes while broiling.
If you can find black cod (sometimes it is a matter of asking your fishmonger ahead of time), it is well worth trying.
1/2 cup SHIROMISO
1. Whisk together the shiromiso, sake, mirin, and sugar in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved and the marinade is smooth. Add the fish pieces to the marinade and mix well to coat evenly. Cover with a plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours, turning the pieces 4 to 6 times.
2. Position an oven rack in the center of your oven, about 8 inches from the broiler. Preheat the broiler. Transfer the fish pieces to a baking sheet and broil until the fish caramelizes, turning a rich golden hue, about 10 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook for another 4 minutes. Place a piece of broiled fish in the center of individual plates. Squeeze a few slices of pickled ginger to get rid of their excess pickling liquid and set atop each piece of fish. Serve with short-grain rice and stir-fried daikon.
When I first ate black cod prepared this way, I was surprised at how the texture of the fish had changed after 48 hours of marination. The curing process had actually made the fish firmer! I thought this might be specific to the black cod, so I tested the recipe using Chilean sea bass, which resulted in an equally firm fish. When cooked, the fish has a curious yet pleasantly firm texture and candy-like flavor. Although I love to sip Japanese green tea with Japanese meals, for this dish I recommend something chilled, such as a light Japanese beer or sake or a dry white wine to cut the richness of the sweet and salty marinade as well as the natural fat of the fish.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
Kaeng Phet Kai Thai Chicken Curry
Thai Chicken Curry
Serves 4 to 6
Thailand has long been famous for its spicy coconut curries, which include red, green, and yellow curries. This dish uses the red curry, and is one of the simplest to prepare and serve as a single-dish meal. If you do not have the time to make your own curry paste, you can use the excellent Thai curry pastes available in Asian markets. If you don't have the time to make fresh unsweetened coconut milk, you can use the canned version, cutting preparation time of the dish by half. Although making a Thai curry from scratch helps you understand the food better, sometimes this sort of involved preparation is a bit of a hindrance. Either way, you'll have a memorable meal. Serve over steamy jasmine rice or sticky rice.
I like to use the dark meat of the chicken when making curry because breast meat cooks too quickly in the sauce and dries out. Drumsticks and thighs hold together better when cooked for long periods of time in sauces, so the curry can cook long and slow, allowing the flavors to blend.
1 tablespoon COCONUT OIL or VEGETABLE OIL
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the Thai curry and shrimp pastes and the lemongrass, and stir until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the coconut milk, chicken stock, fish sauce, chicken, potatoes, beans, and eggplants, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the Thai basil and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Serve over jasmine rice.
Variation: Add 4 to 6 shelled hard-boiled chicken eggs to the pot 10 minutes prior to serving. Curried chicken eggs or duck eggs are eaten in Indonesia and are often part of the rijsttafel, or rice table.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
Tofu with Crispy Ginger and Scallion
Serves 4 to 6
Tofu comes in various textures — silken, soft, medium, and firm. It can be fried, steamed, and braised, or included in any number of stir-fries or soups. This recipe is derived from the classic deep-fried soft tofu served with a spicy soy sauce, but when my father complained of too much fat in his diet, I modified the recipe, using firm tofu and pan-searing it. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, the pan-seared firm tofu is drizzled with a delicate soy sauce and nutty sesame oil dressing and garnished with beautiful crispy strings of golden ginger and green scallions. The outcome is a light and beautiful first course.
For fried tofu, see page 363.
2 pounds firm TOFU, cakes, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1. Place a double layer of paper towels on a plate. Gently place the tofu pieces on top and place a double layer of paper towels on top. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, allowing the paper towels to absorb the water from the tofu. Check after 2 hours to see if the paper towels are drenched and need to be replaced.
2. Gently blot dry the tofu pieces. Heat the 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Pan-fry the tofu slices until lightly golden and heated through, about 2 minutes per side.
3. Whisk together the soy sauce, sesame oil, and reserved frying oil in a small bowl.
4. Place an equal amount of tofu in the centers of individual plates. Top each serving with an equal amount of crispy scallions and ginger. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of the soy sauce dressing, making sure to stir so the oil and soy sauce blend well. Serve while hot.
Tofu, or bean curd, is, in essence, soybean cheese. It originated in China as far back as the ancient Han period. Made from soybean milk, it is solidified by gypsum. Easy to digest, low in cost, it is a great source of protein, rich in minerals, especially calcium. The Chinese eat more tofu than anyone in the world, except the Japanese and North Americans.
Text, recipes, and black-and-white photographs copyright © 2003 by Corinne Trang
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