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When you think of Asian food, do you picture Chinese stir-fries and dumplings, Thai hot and sour soup and fire and ice salads, Japanese whisper-light tempura and miso-tofu soup, or Vietnamese noodle soups (phos) and spring rolls? Or do you lean toward the skewered tempeh and the marinated vegetables of Laos, the spicy satays of Indonesia, the empanadas and ponsit (sautéed rice vermicelli) of the Philippines, or the Indian-influenced curries of Singapore? While you're thinking, don't forget the potato pancakes and hotpots of Korea, the mild curries of Burma, and the roasted spices and vegetable fritters of Sri Lanka. One word can sum up what connects all Asian cuisine - seasoning!
A MANY-LAYERED PALETTE
Asian cuisine relies on the skill of the chef. The Asian chef selects from a multitude of spices to heighten the interest of menu items. Some seasonings hit the taste buds immediately, some release their flavors gradually, and some don't become evident until several minutes later after they've been eaten. You'll find no simple steak-and-potato meals in Asian cuisine; there is always a nuance waiting to be discovered.
The Chinese five-spice mixture is a perfect example. Containing dried star anise, black pepper, fennel, cloves, and cinnamon, this mixture is a balance of heat, smoothness, aromatics, and spice. Mix your own or purchase commercial mixtures. To add a Chinese accent to soups, sparingly add five-spice to vegetable broth, along with minced ginger and minced fresh garlic, chopped green onions, and snow peas. With the addition of tofu cubes and white rice or rice vermicelli you will have created a delicate yet flavorful appetizer. Indian, Moslem, and Chinese influences can be found in the cuisine of Singapore and Malaysia. Create a curried mixed vegetable dish by steaming summer squash, green beans, green cabbage, and onions, and serve it with a sauce made with sautéed onions, tomato, and garlic with fresh chili, lemon zest, coconut milk, and vegetable stock. Build this side dish into an entrée by adding rice noodles and pieces of smoked or grilled tofu or seitan. Looking to add Japanese flair to your menu? Purchase tempura flour (which is more finely ground and seasoned than most Asian flours). Coat sweet potato strips, zucchini, and carrots with tempura flour, dip into beaten silken tofu, and deep fry in hot oil until golden brown. Serve with preserved ginger and soy sauce. Offer tempura as an appetizer, as a light entrée, or as a garnish.
PRIME INGREDIENTS IN ASIAN CUSINE
Many of the ingredients in your kitchen, such as cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, vegetable and mushroom stock, chopped peanuts, fresh ginger and garlic, and fresh and dried chilies are prime ingredients in Asian cuisine. To capture authentic flavors, you may want to stock some of the following items:
GOTTA GET GINGER
Ginger is perhaps the singular flavor that everyone associates with Asian cuisine. This homely root is probably the key ingredient for boosting the popularity of Asian cuisine in the United States. Ginger's aromatic and "heat" qualities add flavor and intrigue to entrées, sauces, accompaniment dishes, and desserts.
No one is really certain where ginger originated or even how old it is since it has not been found growing wild. The earliest ginger cultivators were in India and China; ginger comes from the Indian Sanskrit word for "antlers" (you can see the resemblance). During the Middle Ages, ginger was traded as actively as salt and pepper, and introduced to Western culture in gingerbread and cookies. Ground ginger was used as a condiment to enhance the flavor of beer in medieval England; this ginger beer was the forerunner of ginger ale.
Fresh, Powdered, Dried
Fresh ginger has a clean, palate-cleansing property. Fresh ginger, also called green ginger, is essential in Asian and Indian cuisine. It can give a subtle heat to sorbets and dessert sauces (think: ginger-mango sauce for a lemon sorbet) and piquancy and warmth to braised vegetables (think: bok choy braised in mushroom broth with ginger and garlic) and stir-fries. To get the most from fresh ginger, peel it, and mince, thinly slice, or grate it. Large pieces of ginger do not release much flavor and can be too intense if bitten into. Fresh ginger (unpeeled) will last up to one month in the refrigerator.
Dried ginger, usually ground into a powder, is usually a combination of several types of ginger, giving a different flavor and heat to recipes. Ground ginger shows up the best in baked goods. Add an Asian flair to your breakfast menu with tangerine-ginger muffins or ginger-kumquat crepes. Crystallized ginger is a dried, sweetened form of ginger and can be eaten as candy or used in cooking. This form is made when green ginger is allowed to soak in sugar syrup, then dried and coated with sugar, creating a sweet-but-hot candy. Crystallized ginger can be chopped and used in baked goods, added to sauces to provide a counterpoint for fiery entrées (think: three-chili tofu stir-fry with ginger-pineapple sauce), or can be served with soy or rice ice cream or sorbets.
Aficionados of veggie sushi (think: cucumber, avocado, tomato, soy beans, and sprouts instead of fish) will recognize preserved ginger. Pretty in pink, preserved ginger is green ginger that has been thinly sliced and stored in light syrup. This salmon-colored ginger has a sharp, concentrated flavor and is traditionally served as a condiment for sushi, but has lots of applications in vegetables and rice and grain dishes. Serve it on the side instead of a sauce or toss it in at the end of cooking to give a clean Asian flavor.
ACID IS GOOD
Sourness and tang are important to the many-layered complexity of Asian flavor building. Asian countries were producing vinegar long before European cooks had discovered it. There is a large variety of Asian vinegars from which to select, and they can be used either as a condiment or cooking ingredient. Chinese vinegars, made largely from rice, are used for dipping sauces, marinades, and dressings. Shanxi vinegar is the balsamic vinegar of China. It is a black vinegar made from sorghum, barley, and dried peas and is popularly used for pot stickers, soups, and noodle dishes. Japanese vinegars, also mostly made from rice, are milder than Chinese vinegars. (Vinegar trivia: "sushi" translates as "vinegared rice.")
Tamarind, a fruit that produces flavorful seed pods, is very widely used in Asian cuisine. If you have enjoyed the sour tang of Chinese, Thai, Indian, and even Central and South American cuisine, you have experienced the versatility of tamarind. In Asian cuisine, tamarind is used just like lemon in American cuisine, for acid flavoring. Purchase tamarind as an extract, powder, paste, or concentrate (it is available fresh, but is too labor intensive to use easily) and include it in hot and sour soups, sauces, curries, marinades, and even beverages (think: tamarind-strawberry lemonade).
DIPPING ALL THE WAY
A small bowl of dipping sauce can heighten the enjoyment of Asian finger foods (see next page) and fresh vegetables. Be they simple or complex, dipping sauces should be served with won ton, spring rolls, noodles, tempura, and satays (skewered, thin slices of tofu, tempeh, seitan, carrots, mushrooms, or water chestnuts).
Have a tasting of commercial dipping sauces and serve as is, or add your own signature ingredients. To whip up some fast sauces, try the following:
Asian cuisine has a range of finger foods, served with fragrant teas and cool beers. So, in addition to the dim sum ("little bits"), be sure to offer a menu of teas and beers (if you serve alcohol) to complement the multiple flavors.
Spring rolls are large won ton, filled with an assortment of chopped and wok-fried or steamed vegetables, salad greens, and a variety of sprouts. For a Thai flavor, add fresh ginger, garlic, cilantro, fresh chili, and brown sugar. For a Vietnamese flavor, use Asian basil and lemon grass. For Chinese, use bean sprouts, soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper. Spring rolls can be fried or steamed and should be accompanied with dipping sauces.
Won tons have traditional names that are meant to be as much fun as the savory bites, such as "money bags" and "son-in-law pouch." Fill won tons with the same ingredients as spring rolls and steam or fry them, offering several different types on one plate.
Tempura can be purchased frozen or ready-to-fry, or can be made from scratch. Sweet and white potatoes, summer squash, butternut squash, whole green beans, carrots, onions, and mushrooms can be used for tempura, served with dipping sauces, soy sauce, and preserved ginger.
A BOWL OF YUM
Every country in the world has soup to offer! Here's an Asian tour. Think about setting up a soup and salad bar with Asian-accented soups.
YUM is a flavor unique to Thailand; it combines sour, salty, spicy, and aromatic all in one bowl. This taste bud heaven is made with lime or tamarind, fresh chili, lemon grass, and fresh ginger cooked into a vegetable or mushroom stock with a little coconut milk and some shredded cabbage, TOM YUM is the vegetarian Thai answer to that age-old concept of a comforting bowl of soup. Not only will it comfort, but is will also surprise, delight, and cheer.
Chinese vegetarian sweet corn soup is almost an entrée in a bowl. A creamy appearance can be made without any dairy. Tofu pieces are cut and added to boiling vegetable or mushroom stock, stirred and thickened with creamed corn and corn flour. Flavor comes from soy sauce and fresh green onions. Just as a note, creamed corn is made by puréeing cooked corn and mixing it with a slurry of cornstarch and water.
Vegetarian Japanese Udon noodle soup can be made from prepared miso broth by adding soy sauce, minced green onions or leeks, and udon noodles (thick wheat noodles). This soup can be garnished with scrambled tofu and fresh peas.
From Burma we get "Twelve Varieties Soup." Vegetable broth is loaded up with tofu pieces, mushrooms, garlic, onions, ginger, green beans, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, bean sprouts, and green onions, and flavored with cilantro, soy sauce, and lime!
Korean dumpling soup uses rice paper wrappers to enrobe minced garlic, cabbage, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and onions. Wrappers are then simmered in a broth flavored with soy sauce, onions, and fresh ginger. Sometimes served with sautéed spinach, this soup is sure to chase away the blues.
You can use everyday produce to create many Asian accents to your menu. Think seasoning and be creative!
Excerpts from the Spring 2001
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Converted to HTML by Stephanie Schueler.
April 16, 2001
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