Ever since I finalized my recipe for Duck Confit, I felt like this blog has lost its purpose. It was a good thing I had the business of experimenting on macarons and cupcakes while I decided on what would get me cooking again.
Lately, I’ve been having the hardest time getting the “Hungry” Hubby to eat Asian food with me at restaurants. He said he didn’t like Japanese cuisine because all it is is sushi (how wrong is this man?) Then he did not like Chinese food because all it is is soy sauce (well he is partly right there.) He is okay with Vietnamese dishes because they use a lot of herbs like cilantro and mint and he would eat Thai food like Pad Thai every now and then. But he is the last to suggest having shrimp fried rice for dinner.
The turning point for myself came when I ordered pan-fried shrimp from a West End Chinese restaurant and it arrived overflowing with thick starchy sauce…my stomach literally turned. No wonder HH is starting to rebel against the whole culture…I would too. How can I remind him that he absolutely loved the Katsudon I made from homemade dashi if that happened eons ago? When we ate the stir-fried noodles from my friend’s aunt, HH asked me where we could get food like this and that's when I saw an opportunity and knew all was not lost.
First I should at least have a good repertoire of food from own heritage like Chinese (Cantonese Cuisine) and Filipino. It is easy to learn both together because there is a strong Chinese influence on Filipino cooking and they use relatively the same ingredients. More than a couple of times, when people discover I am from the Philippines they ask: “ Do you know how to make lumpia?” or “ I love pancit bijon..can you show me how to make it?” These dishes are not hard to make but unfortunately, I am more of an expert in the eating of them.
The two techniques I want to learn and be comfortable with is the art of stir-frying and steaming. With the former it is more of timing and with the latter it is knowing when it is done – my dad actually could tell if a fish had been steamed half-a-minute too long.
When I go to gatherings, I realize how diverse the ethnicity of my extended family is and what a wealth of food knowledge there is waiting to be tapped – Persian and Puerto Rican home cooking – wouldn’t you all like to learn how Koresh Bademjoon and Arroz con pollo are made? I know I would!
But for now let’s stick with what I have grown up with and device a plan to navigate the jungle that is the Asian Food Supermarket: TAN A.
One can easily be intimidated when walking into a store where variety is an understatement. I get especially confused in the produce area where some of the herbs are packed and not labeled. I mean it’s easy to distinguish cilantro, mint and basil but what if you wanted to try out something new. Thankfully for now that is not much of a concern as Cantonese and Filipino cooking do not use much herbs.
My reference for my basic pantry ingredients comes from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s The Chinese Kitchen and I followed her recommendations when possible. There is a myriad of sauces and one must learn to tune out the ones that are too specific like garlic-flavored or shrimp-flavored. There is one exception, which I shall point out later. I cleaned out my pantry to restock it afresh – Lord knows when I opened that last bottle of oyster sauce.
Soy is the cornerstone of Chinese cooking and has been used for over 3000 years since the Chou dynasty. It is a product of the fermentation of soybeans mixed with wheat flour, water and salt.
Soy sauce from Hong Kong is considered superior to the ones made in the United States and Japan. Also, the best sauces are fermented under the sun not in factories – dark soys are best for meat, light ones for fish. Miss Lo prefers the ones made by the Koon Chun Sauce Factory (#1 and #2) and #4 Pearl River Bridge dark soy with mushroom. The best oyster sauce even if it is more expensive than the other brands is #3, Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster sauce ($4.75)…NOT its Panda brand. The other soys are for seasoning and should be used sparingly – my favorite is #6, which I use as a quick fix to dishes gone wrong.
It is also important to taste your soy sauce. I have not used the Koon Chun brands and Pearl River yet. But in the taste testing I am most impressed with the Pearl River soy sauce, the consistency is almost like syrup and has a mild sweetness most likely from the mushroom added and this is my exception to sauces that are specifically flavored. Kikkoman’s flavor is very tame and pleasant on the palate and I have used it as my main soy before but I now question that choice because I noticed how pale my dishes looked and how quickly they get salty without any other depth of flavor. It still remains a good dipping soy especially with Japanese food.
And to round up the Chinese and Filipino pantry:
#1. Shao-Hsing Wine is the common cooking wine used especially for marinades.
#2. Rice vinegar – not really used in Chinese cooking, may be more for Japanese…it is a mild tasting vinegar.
#3. Cane Vinegar – this is a very popular vinegar in the Philippines made from sugar cane for adobo dishes and for dipping sauces.
#4 & #5 Sesame oil – I don’t like to buy big bottles of these because they can go rancid pretty quickly. From time of opening they should last about 4 months. They are usually added at the end of cooking for aroma.
#6. Three Crabs Fish sauce – is considered the best all around fish sauce but I prefer
#7. Rufina patis for Filipino dishes and for dipping.
And let’s not forget the triumvirate of Chinese vegetables:
#1. Chinese broccoli (also known as kai lan) #2. Choi sum #3 Bok Choy – this is from Whole Foods – I couldn’t find it at Tan A as the girl stocking the vegetables said that the Choi sum was Bok Choy – NOT! Thanks from a quick lesson from Bee at Rasa Malaysia who by the way has a great recipe for Choi sum recently posted. I bet it was the Shanghai tips but I shall go back and check…but I was very impressed with the baby bok choy from Whole Foods (now if it tastes as good as it looks – I don’t know yet.)
Other ingredients and spices:
#1. Bean Curd sheet – also known as tofu skins. Love them in tofu skin dimsum and in soups.
#2. Dried Black mushroom – these are known as shitake mushrooms outside China. I prefer these to fresh shitakes because the flavor is more concentrated. They need to be soaked for ½ an hour in warm water, stems removed and caps' underside thoroughly cleaned before using.
#3. Star Anise – my favorite spice that the HH loves to hate. An aroma and flavor treasured from favorite childhood dishes. It goes specially well with black mushroom.
#4 and #5. White and Black sesame seeds
(*NOTE: Richmonders, sesame seeds are on aisle 5 at the lower shelves, $1.25 for 8 oz. and $1.39 for 6-oz respectively )
* Another ingredient worth buying from TAN-A is garlic which is $1.00 for a bag weighing about 11oz – 5 bulbs.
Okay..okay…I’ve rambled quite enough. Time for a quick recipe….something I just threw together. It’s a comfort dish from the Philippines called Tinolang Manok (Manok means chicken…dunno what Tinola means.) I’ve had it with chayote but I’ve seen it made with green papaya and I was curious. I couldn’t find fresh chili leaves but managed to get some from the frozen section.
1 green papaya (around 1.5 to 2 lbs or 2 –3 chayote, cut into 1.5 inch cube)
1 knot of ginger (skinned and sliced into large chunks)
1 small onion, diced
1 whole chicken, cut into 10 pieces
6 cups of water (or low sodium broth)
4 oz chili leaves
2 tbs. fish sauce or salt to taste
black peppercorns (optional)
Saute onion and ginger until the onions are transclucent. Add the chicken and cook briefly (not necessarily to brown). Take care not to burn the ginger. Add the fish sauce and cook for another minute. Add the water/broth and bring to a boil and then simmer until the chicken is just done. Add the green papaya and the chili leaves and continue to simmer until the papaya is cooked – a fork will go through easily.
Serve with steamed rice and some fish sauce for dipping.
*A note when using fish sauce for dipping. For those not familiar with using fish sauce as a dipping condiment, proceed VERY lightly. I had a friend dip a whole piece of meat in the fish sauce and was forever turned off. Just touch your spoon lightly to the sauce and touch that to the food – that is all you need as pure fish sauce is very potent.
Watercress for detox…
I love watercress soup – it is considered “cold” food (Yin) and good for someone who has had too much “heat” (Yang) in the body as I have had by consuming two mangoes a day for a week. Ginger (considered “hot”) is added for a bit of balance. I usually put meatballs in it but decided to just keep it simple and used some spare ribs so the broth can get some body from the bones.
I usually simmer the ribs in some water mixed with fish sauce for about 1.5 hours. Bring 6 to 8 cups of water/broth to a boil add the minced ginger, watercress (about 3 bunches), and bunch of chopped green onions. It is important to add the watercress with the water at a boil so it does not get bitter. Add the spareribs, including the mixture it simmered in, to the rest of the pot. Salt to taste
I usually have this for a couple of nights in a row. If the soup by itself is not sufficient to keep me full, I’ll eat it with a small amount of brown rice. Watercress needs to be washed thoroughly as its compact cluster of stems and leaves tend to hide some uninvited guests.
Thanks for putting up with my musings, didn’t expect it to get this long – actually this was greatly shortened - but as the HH said, looked like I had a lot to say J. I guess my pantry is pretty well-stocked for some cooking, don't you all think? Some items above may change as I evaluate their usefulness. This is a learning experience for me and I welcome any correction and suggestion!