Mid-Autumn, Mooncakes, and Fermentary Madness

We will be spending this weekend at our in-laws', where we'll celebrate the Chinese mid-autumn festival in great style (I imagine), reciting poetry and eating special cakes under the moonlight as inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom have been doing for at least four thousand years. My mother-in-law knows how to prepare all sorts of delectable Cantonese dishes and sides, and I can only imagine that, as always, the spread and board will be abundant for the four of us.

This year, the timing for the Mid-Autumn festival couldn't be better, culinarily speaking: in the last few weeks Chuan and I have sampled almost every Asian culinary tradition except his own. We have eaten pad thai and bubuh injin (Indonesian black sticky rice pudding, above), soba with mushrooms, beef satay, kimchi and ramen noodle soup, daikon pickles, Japanese zucchini salad, and Korean-style vegetables (below). These recipes are all courtesy of Corinne Trang's Essentials of Asian Cuisine,and were all made in a New York kitchen the size of a mid-size SUV. But oh what flavor! And what surprise, too, for both of us, that such meals should be so easy to prepare. 

This happens to me again and again: I imagine that a dish or cuisine that I have eaten at a restaurant is somehow impossible to replicate on my own, as if those chefs or cultures held some special knowledge that I don't possess. Now I know the truth, and it is so simple: if I can find the ingredients and read the recipe, I can make just about everything -- and it is usually better than what I find in the stores. 

With Asian food, unlike some forms of European cuisine, it is not the recipe that presents the difficulty here, but rather sourcing the ingredients. It makes all the difference in the world, I have found, to have the right kind of soy sauce and to have, on hand, all the sorts of things that a pan-Asian kitchen calls for, such as: fish sauce, tamarind, sesame oil, Thai chilies, mung beans, etc. I went to a lot of effort last week finding these ingredients in different neighborhoods in Manhattan, from the little stretch of Japanology on Stuyvesant Place to Kalustyan's Asian emporium in Murray Hill ("Curry Hill"). I had never been into most of the stores that I visited, so part of the fun was being able to wander the aisles and discover things that I had never imagined eating before. Have you ever tried candied squid? Fermented plum paste? Pink sea salt? When I think of the American diet, the variety and the fusion of different cultures always comes to mind, but stepping into a Japanese or Korean market and seeing the staple foods of these communities makes me aware of just how much more food is out there, and how many more ways there are to eat.

I am especially intrigued by the use of fermented foods in Korean and Japanese cuisines. Not only are they easy to make (Can you slice vegetables? Can you pour water? Can you measure salt? Then you can make Asian pickles -- seriously!), inexpensive, and tasty, but they supposedly aid in digestion. All that, from cabbage and carrots and peppers and bean sprouts! You can just see our pickled daikon in the upper right-hand corner of the photo above, peeking out of a white ramekin. I'm sure we'll finish the lot off tonight, along with some beef broth and bean starch noodles.

When my digestive problems first began about four years ago, at the same time that I was emerging from my eating disorder, I received advice from a dietician to eat as many (naturally) fermented foods as I could, to help stabilize my digestive enzymes. Whether or not this actually did anything to get my juices moving again, I'll never know for sure, but a funny side effect was that I was probably the only person living in Brazil who was making huge vats of kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage) for her own consumption. I love this about cooking: that by making food from another place, you establish a connection with that place, no matter where you happen to be, geographically- or metaphysically-speaking. In Brazil I made Asian pickles; here in New York, I long for the scallion pancakes and mutton skewers of Beijing's streets, the coconut moqueca stews of Bahia, and the polenta of Argentina. 

The kitchen beckons. What will I make tonight? Where will I visit? Which memories will I stir up?


Tiptoe said...

You are right that the ingredients for Asian cooking are really important. Here, I have fairly decent store with many Asian ingredients. Have you ever been to the Lotte store in northern VA? It is huge and has so many different items.

I agree with you about kimchi and its probiotic values. I really love the stuff and eat it with many of my dinners.

There's an interesting theory with kimchi. Koreans think it is one reason why the SARS outbreak did not occur there, but native Koreans also have a high rate of stomach cancer. Some scientists have said it is due to the high consumption of kimchi (average is 2.8 micrograms/day) and the high nitrate/ethyl carbamate concentrations and sodium.

Lastly, cooking can invoke a lot of memories, just like certain smells and tastes. It can be quite an empowering experience.

Victoria said...

Another beautiful - and personal - post.

I spent a lot of time in England when I was growing up as my mother was English. We would go "home" every other year and stay for six months, so, of course, I got plopped in school and each time acquired a British accent, which I worked to get rid of when I got home to NYC so the nuns wouldn't drag me from class to class "to talk." Even though - before the newest British invasion of chefs instead of rock stars - English food used to get panned, I always considered it a bum rap because we always ate well there, and I can remember the sights and sounds and smells of my grandmother's kitchen as clearly as if I left it five minutes ago. Oh, crumbly Cheshire cheese and buttered Hovis bread and soft boiled fresh-from-just-under-the-chicken eggs and cups of hot delicious tea. And Victoria sponge cakes, which I have never in spite of trying mighty hard been able to reproduce.

Reading your post evoked these memories. Thank you.

Ai Lu said...

What fascinating (and unfortunate) news about kimchee and stomach cancer! I will have to look into that research more closely. Can you provide me with any leads?
~Ai Lu

Ai Lu said...

How interesting that my post on Asian food would provoke memories of English cooking! I love how wide-ranging the associations connected with food can be.
Any suggestions for good British fare here in NYC? I am New English rather than English, so my fancy leans more towards lobster and Indian pudding.
~Ai Lu

Victoria said...

My favorite place to eat out is Pearl Oyster Bar on Cornelia Street. Rebecca Charles who runs Pearl used to summer in Maine so I think this place would be right up your alley. The lobster rolls are famous, but I always eat the same thing - 6 oysters on the half shell with mignonette sauce, salt crusted shrimp, and chocolate mousse for dessert. I either drink white wine or champagne. Then I walk out the door, turn left onto Cornelia, then turn left onto Bleecker and go into Rocco's, an Italian pastry shop. If it's summer, I get a small lemon ice (even though I have just had dessert) and get 1/4 pound of three different kinds of cookies to take home - biscotti regina (sesame seed cookies, very plain, not sweet), pignoli nut cookies (like macaroons) and quaresimale (hard almond, cinnamon cookies originally made for Lent - they might not have any flour in them).

I must tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts. Your blog is beautiful and very interesting.

Ai Lu said...


How funny that you mention Rocco's -- we got our wedding cakes there (they made a mean cheesecake -- gluten free!). Now that I have spent some time in Italy I feel that I understand their offerings better, however. And their espressi and cappuccini, al banco (at the bar), are excellent, far surpassing Starbucks.

And now I will have to find this oyster bar the next time I have a hankering for good seafood.

~Ai Lu

Tiptoe said...

This link: http://www.zhion.com/kimchi_cancer.html
discusses the kimchi/cancer link and provides citations of journal articles.

Here's a few other articles: http://www.reflux1.com/news/mainstory.cfm/122


You might also be interested in this article about the differences of cancer within the Asian population since your DH in Chinese. I know I was incredibly surprised by it.