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Friday, May 05, 2006

Cook Asian Food

Asians constitute more than half the world's population, and the continent they inhabit is the largest on earth. Some 5,000 miles long and 6,000 miles wide, Asia stretches from Pakistan in the east all the way west to China, Vietnam, and the Japanese islands. This is a place of amazing diversity, and to speak of Asian cooking might, on the face of it, seem nonsensical. But the benefits of learning about the connections and variations in different Asian cuisines are definitely worthwhile.
The Basics

Even in an area as extensive as Asia, what strikes one are the similarities. Through much of the continent, rice is the unifying staple, and cooks turn again and again to the same repertoire of flavorings: coconut milk, tamarind, chiles, garlic, and a dizzying catalog of spices. There are other convergences: soy sauce is used in many countries, as is bean curd, ghee (clarified butter), and khir (a variety of condensed milk).

Something else these cuisines have in common is the skill with which cooks treat the materials. It's the preparatory phase--cleaning, washing, chopping, and dicing--that consumes the most time. The actual cooking is relatively straightforward and fast. This way, food comes to the table with its nutrients intact.

That said, though, what distinguishes these cuisines from each other is not so much the elements they have in common, but rather the ways in which these elements have been adapted. Asian cooking is rich and wide-ranging and quite delicious--and it's good for you.

A Little History

Food and medicine

Asians see food as providing more than just sustenance and gustatory pleasure. To an extent unknown in the West, they view it as enhancing health and prolonging longevity. "Your food is your medicine" is a saying heard often in this part of the world. When illness strikes, it isn't to the medicine cabinet the Asian turns; it's to the pantry. The following is a short list of foods and their putative benefits.

Edible acorns: The tannin helps rid the body of oxides.

Ajowan: A pungent seed that relieves colic.

Amaranth: A leaf vegetable for reducing sweating.

Asafoetida: A resinous gum used to treat nervous conditions.

Cloves: Used to alleviate toothaches.

Coriander seed: Eases migraines.

Guava leaves: Prescribed for sore throats.

Okra: Eaten as a cure for heartburn.

Papaya: A treatment for diabetes.

Turmeric: Increases circulation.

Essential Ingredients

Compiling a list of ingredients used in such a wide assortment of cuisines is a thankless task, because something is always going to get left out. Therefore, it is a good idea to go over some basic constants from different countries.

Bok choy: A leaf vegetable also known as Chinese white cabbage, bok choy is delicate and for that reason requires little cooking. Its leaves are distinguished by thick white ribs.

Cassava: The edible root of a plant found in the tropics and an important source of starch, cassava is usually served as a vegetable.

Coconut milk: Squeezed from the flesh of mature coconuts, this liquid is used to enhance the flavor of sauces and curries.

Kaffir limes: Highly aromatic, the kaffir lime is one of the mainstays of the Thai kitchen. An essential ingredient in soups and curries, it boasts a thick, wrinkled skin and is also known as the porcupine orange.

Krupuk: A cracker made of prawns and tapioca flour much loved by Indonesians. Fried in hot oil, the crackers inflate, often to be served with fried noodles.

Lemon grass: A tall, lemon-scented grass and one of the most popular herbs in Southeast Asia, lemon grass is used in such things as soups and curry pastes.

Nuoc nam: A sauce of great pungency hailing from Vietnam, nuoc nam is made by packing fish in salt until they ferment, a process which takes a couple of months.

Palm hearts: The soft core of certain palm trees. Tasting a little like artichokes, palm hearts are eaten raw or used to garnish salads.

Setting the Menu

Each country in Asia has a wide range of great dishes, and you should attempt to try as many as possible. But there are signature dishes for each that can represent an excellent starting point for your culinary adventure.

Indonesia: Nasi goreng--rice garnished with chicken, lobster, peppers, and tomatoes.

Malaysia: Satay--nuggets of meat threaded onto bamboo skewers and grilled.

Vietnam: Pho--a rice-noodle soup served with fresh bean sprouts and lots of mint.

Thailand: Red curry with prawns.

Singapore: Laksa--a spicy soup containing shrimp, noodles and coconut milk.

South Korea: Bulgogi--spicy barbecued beef.

China: The almighty noodle. Made of everything from ground rice to potato starch, the noodle is ubiquitous, not just in China, but in much of Asia as well. Whether it's stir-fried, eaten with a sauce, or added to soup to give it ballast, the noodle reigns supreme.

Kitchen Tools

The following list of tools needed for Asian cooking isn't long, but it does include the vital gear needed:

A wok

A slotted frying spoon for stirring and moving ingredients within the wok

Steaming baskets, or some kind of vegetable steamer

A mortar and pestle in which to grind spices (if you like manual labor)

An electric coffee grinder (if you don't like manual labor)

Wire drainers (if you plan to deep fry with any regularity)

An ice shaver (indispensable if you're making the delicious Indonesian dessert ice kacang)

by Contributor, Eric Lawlor