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?