Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bringing the Far East

After a tiring day in office in the mid-Summer of Bangladesh, I returned my humble room. The guard of my dormitory, whose wife worked as my chief, was unusually excited to present dinner. He burst into my room with the tray of goodies and proudly presented the meal that his wife labored over during the unbearably hot day in Dhaka.
He said,
and pointed one plate.
And there it was: a shredded potato, carrot, and onion, stir-fired and seasoned with turmeric. TURMERIC!!!!!
I was polite enough not to laugh at his face. I thanked him and managed to show my deep appreciation and pleasant surprise. After all, shredding vegetable with the tools his wife had was by all means NOT an easy task. But I have to confess, that day, I laughed till my stomach hurt.

I often wonder what makes dish Korean, Chinese, or Japanese. What is the difference between French cuisine and Italian dish? What is authentic German? What? What? What?

I have read few anthropology books regarding food, Revy-strauss and few others. But I am still looking for an answer. Some people ponder upon more grandeur things, but mine is food. But, let’s leave those for another time.

Here what I want to say is how to bring Far East without breaking ever so thin bankbook.

The base of the Far East cuisine is, as you guessed, soy sauce. Yes, I am over simplifying and also stereotyping which I have all things to say against it. But, I also can not deny that it gives certain characteristic we (the Far East Asia) share.

Thanks to Chinese and influence of Buddhism, fermented soy bean became essential thing in the Far East cooking. With expansion of Buddhism, which anything that involves life of animal was banned, the people got into thinking what could be the alternative of traditional fish sauce. And thank you again, you brilliant Chinese, we have been blessed with fermented soy bean! Even there are some historic record of bringing fermented soy bean sauce and pates as dowry of a Princess.

So, go out and grab a good bottle of soy sauce. It will add every food an Asian flare.
Buying good soy sauce takes little bit of effort, though. You MUST read ingredient list. If you found less than four ingredient (soy bean, salt, water, and unfortunate but somehow essential, some benzoate thingy used as preservative), chances are, it is good one. If it is naturally brewed, meaning fermented in traditional, time consuming manner, it is even batter. The reason why I insist on reading the ingredient list is that soy sauce often contains MSG. If you are not allergic to it, as I am, it wouldn’t be that much of problem. But MSG makes taste little too heavy and dull. So, if you can avoid it, please do. You can flavor soy sauce to your own liking. For instance, I often mix soy sauce with half amount of water, add little bit of sugar, bring it to boil and infuse whatever flavor that I wish to have in. I use shiitake mushroom, ginger, garlic, spicy green chili, cinnamon, Dasima (AKA Konbu), dried anchovy, cinnamon or wonderfully fragrant Sichuan pepper corns. Brew them in the soy sauce and take solids out, pour the liquid in a glass bottle and refrigerate. It makes excellent dressing, base, and seasoning.

For instance, I made zaru soba (the picture above). The deeping sauce is made with soy sauce seasoned with cinnamon. Traditionally it is seasoned with dashi (broath that made from mixture of sea weed and dried and smocked tuna). This is my quick fix when I have no time to make dashi.

There is striking difference in soy sauce depending on the country. Chinese and south east Asian countries like their soy sauce thick but mild in salt. Korean soy sauce is sharp and salty. Japanese one is little sweet and delicate. So choose soy sauce depending on the dish you going to make. However, if you want to have only one, I recommend Japanese one. One, because it is very easy to find and two, you can always add flavor such as mushroom, tamarind, and even salt to it, mimicking the soy sauce from other cuisine.

Sesame oil is another essential in Far East cooking. Look for a toasted one. It usually comes in brown colored glass bottle. Untoasted sesame is also good ingredient. Sesame is high in unsaturated fat- meaning it can and will go stale very fast. So keep them in the refrigerator. In case of sesame seed, freezer is better option.

Shiitake mushroom and Konbu are also good thing to keep, especially for Korean and Japanese cooking. Dried shiitake can be kept several years in freezer and same goes for Konbu. So if you buy them, it would be good investment even if you cook Asian food once in a blue moon. Just put them in air tight container preventing smelling. They can take freezer smell but they also can spread their smell into other food in your refrigerator.

Ginger is quite essential. Again, freezer is your money saver. Though it does not stay as long as the dried shiitake, you can keep them without loosing any flavor up to three to four month. I don’t know what happens after since ginger doesn’t last that long in my kitchen.
Garlic, spicy green chili and green onion are also another thing that can be kept in the freezer. But you can also avoid using them. They are rather optional, in my opinion.

So here they are. I hope this helps you when you try to cook what the other side of globe cooks. Don't be afraid. If you are not sure where to begin, begin with stir fried onion and bell pepper. Add ginger and little bit of soy sauce. And next time add shrimp or firm tofu. And the next next time add Thai basil or Chinese five spice. You will find, bit by bit, a whole new world.


Ninette said...

Great post. When people ask me how to make something Asian, I tell them to use soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, ginger, and garlic to make something Asian style.

KJ said...

Thank you, Ninette. I always appreciate your comment!

daniel john said...

i agree with ninette its a great idea.

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