Category Archives: Asian food

bangladesh by way of hamtramck: aromatic fish curry

This summer, in between trips to the florist and the seamstress and the hairdresser, I was working on a feature article accompanied by some listings of  Hamtramck’s many ethnic grocery stores and markets. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Detroit area, Hamtramck (and no, I’m not missing a vowel, that is the correct spelling!) is a roughly 2-square-mile city, surrounded on all sides by Detroit and situated pretty much right in the middle of it. Originally settled by Polish immigrants, it is now home to a whole host of ethnic communities, Albanians, Bosnians, Yemenis and Bengalis being the most prevalent these days. Here’s a slideshow of images taken by Marvin on our excursions there:

Coincidentally, I also recently purchased the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  Excited that I had finally obtained some ingredients I hadn’t previously been able to locate (amchoor, asafoetida, curry leaves and more), and in honor of the many Bengali stores I visited, I decided to make not just “Indian food” but a specifically Bengali/ Bangladeshi meal.*

*NB: Bengali is an ethnic designation and Bangladeshi is a regional designation. Some of the recipes were labeled “Bengali” in origin and some were labeled “Bangladeshi”. Bangladesh is made up of 98% Bengalis (so it’s fairly safe to assume a Bangladeshi is Bengali), but Bengalis are found in other regions besides Bangladesh. Got it?

According to Jaffrey, fish is the main animal protein consumed in Bangladesh, whose occupants are fond of eating the many freshwater river fish in the region. I figured this was as good a place as any to start, so I selected a fish curry recipe, and then a dal recipe since they’re so easy and I never feel an Indian meal is complete without one. I wanted one more vegetable dish, and would have chosen something green or crunchy or salad-y for more contrast, but I already had a butternut squash in the house and lo and behold there was a recipe for Bengali squash with mustard oil (another Hamtown purchase). The dal recipe did call for a handful of greens though, so I managed to use up some chard that was threatening to get wilty, and get a little more color in the meal.

I would make all three recipes again, especially in light of how easy they were, but the fish was far and away my favorite. The main flavoring came from curry leaves, which have a wonderful nutty, toasty aroma that you just have to taste or smell to understand how good it is. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a dish in a restaurant which used curry leaves, so it was exciting to be exposed to a totally new flavor. If you ever come across curry leaves, buy some and put them in the freezer in a zip-top bag with the air squeezed out like you would kaffir lime leaves. I lucked out and bought a bag at the Eastern Market this summer for a dollar. The flavor may have been diminished slightly from their time in the freezer (not sure since I’ve never used them fresh), but they were still plenty aromatic.

Can’t wait to delve a little deeper into Bengali cuisine- I still have a few more ingredients I have yet to try out, such as the amchoor (a sour powder made from dried green mangoes) and screw pine (pandan) essence. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried or used either!

Bangladeshi Fish Curry (adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey)
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According to Jaffrey, in Bangladesh this would be made with a freshwater river fish; she calls for flounder. Any mild-flavored fish will work. Jaffrey also calls for kaffir lime leaves as the “first choice” and curry leaves as a substitute, but the curry leaves are definitely worth trying if you can get your hands on some. As a last resort, use basil.

1-1¼ lbs fillets of mild fish such as flounder
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1½ teaspoons crushed or very finely minced garlic
1½ teaspoons micro-planed ginger
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons mustard oil (substitute 3 Tbs vegetable oil + ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder)
⅓ cup thinly sliced shallots
10 kaffir lime leaves or curry leaves, lightly crushed

Sprinkle the fish on both sides with the salt. Cut into 3-inch pieces and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and mustard powder (if using) with 3 tablespoons water; stir to form a paste.

Heat the oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry until lightly browned and softened. Add the spice paste and fry for 1 minute. Add 1 cup water and lime or curry leaves; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes. If other dishes are not yet ready, remove from heat.

When ready to serve, bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat. Place the fish pieces in the sauce. Cook 1 minute; turn the fish pieces over gently and cook an additional 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, spooning the sauce over the fish as it cooks. Serve immediately.

book review & book signing: “a tiger in the kitchen” by cheryl lu-lien tan

I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!

After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.

Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.

Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.

Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.

Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.

The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).

One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.

it’s so easy eating green {les culinettes}

In June, I had the honor of hosting les culinettes, the cooking club I’ve been participating in for the past few months. Back then- a whole month ago!- my schedule was just free enough to accommodate a dinner party, but as the weeks fly by and freelance work* and wedding planning have been ratcheting up, blogging has sadly been relegated to the back burner (non-intended food pun, I swear).
*I’ve been developing and testing recipes for holiday food the last several weeks… strange but fun!

But rather than lament my absence here, I’d prefer to reflect on what was a beautiful balmy spring eve with good friends and great food. Our theme was “green”, in honor of fresh green vegetables finally being in the markets. Seems funny to think of it now, with temps in the 90s all week, but in mid-June we were just starting to see peas, asparagus and the like. Several people did use spring vegetables in their dishes, but the menu was surprisingly diverse, with others interpreting the “green” theme more loosely.

I had gotten up at 7am that day to get the house in order; in addition to cleaning, I wanted to hang a few pictures and curtains (nothing like company to get you motivated to do things around the house… I should entertain every weekend, I’d be so productive!). I was a machine all day, with just enough time to start getting my dishes ready as the dinner hour approached. Fortunately the theme wasn’t the only thing that was loosely interpreted, as most of the ladies arrived about 45 minutes after the appointed time, giving me a welcome opportunity to chill in the kitchen with a glass of wine and prep my food a bit more leisurely.

We decided to break up the meal into courses and eat the first round outdoors- it was one of those warm evenings with the barest of breezes, that elusive weather we long for in the depths of winter’s chill and summer’s scorch. The food was sublime, in every way a worthy match for the splendid weather. For appetizers, we had pea pesto and pea hummus on crostini made by Meghan, and a gorgeous grass-green fava purée topped with feta and kalamata olives that Abigail made with favas from her garden. The favas, which we spread on Zingerman’s baguette (only the best!), had the most amazing velvety texture that I was obsessed with, and a little spicy kick.

Also served in the first half of dinner were pieces of flank steak with an uber-garlicky, emerald green chimichurri that Sarah made, and a shrimp dish in a light citrus sauce with basil and capers brought by Amy that I had to force myself to stop eating so I’d have room for the remaining two courses. She had gotten the shrimp at an Asian grocer and they were huge and tasty; their heads lent flavor to the sauce, as well as providing some mid-meal entertainment.

As it got dark, we headed inside as the mosquitoes started to make themselves known and spoil an otherwise lovely setting. Marvin had cleared off our little patio (the previous owners had seen fit to use it as storage for a large pile of logs for the fireplace), and set up a table for us as well as some string lights to lend a bit of ambiance. Thanks hon!

There was a short respite from eating while the ladies chatted in the kitchen and I prepared my dish, mussels in a simplified coconut green curry sauce. We ate those with gusto while waiting for the pasta water to boil for the final course of the evening, Molly’s homemade spinach pasta with peas and asparagus. The pasta had a wonderful chewy al dente texture and Molly shared that she uses a bit of spelt flour in her recipe (note to self for future pasta making endeavors). A salad of cucumber and avocado with lemon, probably the easiest salad in my repertoire and so refreshing in hot weather, accompanied. I put cucumber slices in our ice water, too- a nice change from the usual citrus. (And what can I say, I’m a sucker for a theme!)

Our designated dessert-maker Jess was out sick so we missed out on her green tea desserts (those in Detroit can sample her wares here though), but we were all plenty sated by the end of the meal. It being Friday, some of the ladies had worked that day and we petered out a bit earlier than our usual midnight-ish, but between the food, the company and the perfect temperatures I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Greatly anticipating our next gathering chez Abigail to fête the venerable summer tomato!

Mussels in a Quick Green Curry
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I threw this together on the fly because I had some kaffir lime leaves to use up. Technically the summer months are not supposed to be a good time for mussels, but the ones I purchased were fine. If you’re unfamiliar with purchasing, storing or cleaning mussels, this article is very helpful. This sauce could be used to simmer a pound of shrimp or scallops as well if you don’t want to wait for mussel season again. To make it a meal, just add some rice and a grated carrot or cucumber salad.

2 lbs mussels, washed and debearded
1 large shallot lobe, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
6-8 fresh kaffir lime leaves
½ tsp brown sugar
1 cup coconut milk
2-3 serrano peppers or similar green chiles, de-seeded and minced (more if you want it spicy)
a dash or two of fish sauce
about 1 Tbs neutral vegetable oil
a couple Tbs each chopped cilantro, basil and/or mint for garnish (cilantro is essential; the basil and mint are nice touches if you have them. If not using one of the herbs, increase the others proportionately.)

Heat the oil (enough to thinly coat the pan) in the widest and shallowest pan you have that has a lid. Add the shallot, garlic and all but 1 Tbs of the peppers and sauté over medium heat until the shallot becomes translucent. Add the coconut milk, sugar  and lime leaves. Cook at a very gentle simmer for about 20-30 minutes to infuse the flavors, stirring occasionally. If the sauce gets too thick, add a splash of water, or cover the pan to prevent further evaporation. After the sauce has cooked down, season with fish sauce to desired level of saltiness.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the cleaned mussels to the pan. Cover the pan and cook, shaking the pan a few times to allow more even cooking. The mussels are done as soon as they have all opened. (There may be a few stragglers that don’t open; these should be discarded.) Sprinkle the fresh herbs and remaining chiles on top of the dish and serve immediately in shallow bowls with some of the sauce spooned over.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 2-4 as a main course.

GUDetroit really gets my goat… (kebabs, that is)

June 11 (only 10 days ago… it seems like months already!) was the second Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic on Belle Isle. I won’t call it the second annual picnic, because I’m secretly hoping we’ll have another one before the year is out. Nomenclature aside, it was a grand old time- you can read my post about it and see some of Marvin’s photos on the GUDetroit website. Some of the highlights were: tree climbing, willow swinging, mint spanking, cornholing (ahem), hula hooping, river gazing, and getting to finally meet Warda (who I wrote about here) and her beautiful family.

My contribution to the gluttony was a platter of kebabs and kefta, with some raita and a sort of tomato-cucumber-herb relish/chutney on the side. I’ve been eating a fair amount of goat meat lately, for a few reasons: first, I just wanted something other than the “big three” of chicken, beef and pork (we’ve run out of venison); second, because goats aren’t a large scale factory farmed animal; and third, because they have a flavor similar to lamb (which I love) but are milder and less fatty (not to mention cheaper). I will say that goat leg meat is a huge pain in the ass to cut up, unless you’re ok with a lot of sinew; I tend to get obsessive and remove as much of it as I possibly can, which explains why my prep time was three times as long as it should have been. But while goat can sometimes be a little tough, mine was pretty tender as a result of the extra trimming. If you’re using it in a long-cooked dish, you wouldn’t need to go to that trouble.

I also made kebabs from ground lamb with a little beef mixed in, and tons of spices and vegetables blended in for flavor. I’m used to anything with ground meat being called kefta rather than kebab, but the name of the recipe was “chapli kebab” or “slipper kebab”, because the patties are in the shape of a chappal, or sandal. The recipe originates from Peshawar in India, not the Middle East or North Africa, but you’d never know it from eating it- the flavors are quite similar to kefta I’ve had in Middle Eastern restaurants but with a little less onion/garlic flavor and more herbs and spices.

Recipes are below for both items, but first, here are some photos from the picnic. Although I’m not the photographer of the family, I think these capture the spirit of the day.

Tikka Kebabs (adapted from Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid)
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This kebab can be made either with lamb or goat. The yogurt marinade adds moisture and its acidity tenderizes the meat, giving even a lean meat like goat a succulent texture. The original recipe did not call for any herbs or chilies, but I had them on hand and I love the way the little green flecks look in the marinade as well as the fresh taste they impart.

2 lbs boneless goat or lamb
½ cup plain yogurt
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 serrano chilies or one jalapeño, de-seeded and roughly chopped
large handful fresh cilantro leaves
optional: 6-8 mint leaves
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
a few turns of black pepper

Cut the meat- if using goat, I’d aim for about ¾-inch pieces; if using lamb, you could go a little larger so the insides will stay pink.

Combine all other ingredients in a blender and pulse until the solids are blended. Combine the meat and marinade in a bowl, stirring to coat all of the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.

Skewer the meat about 4 or 5 pieces to a skewer. It’s OK if it touches, but you don’t want it squeezed one piece against another.  Grill over moderate heat until the outside is nicely browned and the meat is cooked through but still tender (if using lamb, cook to your preferred doneness; we cooked the goat to medium well).

This is traditionally served with flatbread such as naan, but you could serve it over rice as well. I made a cucumber raita (yogurt, shredded cucumber, salt, mint) and a finely chopped salad of tomato, chilies, scallion, cucumber, cilantro and mint to accompany the kebabs.

Peshawari Slipper Kebabs (adapted from Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid)
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Because ground lamb can be very fatty and therefore cook down quite a bit, I like to mix ½ lb lean ground beef in with my lamb to stretch out the recipe a bit. If you choose this option, just adjust the other ingredients upward slightly.

1 lb ground lamb (+ ½ lb ground beef, if desired)
1 medium yellow onion, grated
1/2 cup finely chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons grated or minced ginger
2 green cayenne chilies, minced
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar or cider vinegar
½ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup chickpea flour (besan)
lemon or lime wedges

Place all of the dry ingredients (salt, spices, flour) in a small bowl and stir to combine.  Put the tomatoes and onions in a bowl and remove any excess liquid by pressing them with a spoon or spatula and pouring off the watery  juices.

Place the meat in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer.  Knead or mix in the vinegar, tomato, onion, peppers, ginger and cilantro; then add the dry ingredients. Mix for a couple minutes or until the meat becomes smooth and almost paste-like. Fry up a tablespoon or so in a skillet to check for salt and seasonings, adjusting as needed.

Let the meat rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to blend the flavors. When ready to cook, form into either small patties and pan-fry or broil, as in the photo at the beginning of the recipe, or form onto skewers in short cigar shapes (2 per skewer) for the grill. The mixture could also be formed into smaller meatball shapes and served as a cocktail appetizer. Whatever your method of cooking, use moderate heat and cook until the surface is well browned and a little crunchy. Serve with lemon or lime wedges.

achieving wok hay

Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than  dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.

With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.

So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.

Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.

I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:

  • Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
  • Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
  • Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.

Scallop & Asparagus Stir-Fry (adapted from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young)
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Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.

1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other  vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic

Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)

Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.

Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.

book review: “shark’s fin & sichuan pepper” by fuchsia dunlop

The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France.  It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was  nonetheless a challenge.  However, France is one thing; China is quite another.  I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture.  Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing.  Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others.  She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and  to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan CookingRevolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time.  In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies.  She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek.  Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns.  Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst.  She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.

In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners.  In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female.  However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.

The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school.  Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes.  Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation.  The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed.  Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat.  In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.

I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food.  In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best.  Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”.  Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal.  Dunlop describes it thus:

Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me.  When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:

Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)

The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them.  They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).

Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc.  At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted.  In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind.  If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.

sesame soba noodle salad

Confession time: I’m not much for TV food personalities (I don’t even have cable!), but when I was first really getting into cookbooks, I was pretty into Nigella Lawson. There was just something in her breezy “if I can do it, anyone can” manner that was very appealing, and I enjoyed reading her cookbooks as much as I did cooking from them.  Nowadays, I’m at a point where most of her recipes (with the exception of baked goods) are things I could whip up on my own without having to consult a cookbook.  But there are a few dishes that have stuck with me and become part of my regular repertoire.

This soba noodle salad is one such dish.  I’ve made it for countless potlucks and barbecues, and almost always get asked for the recipe.  The two great things about it are that it’s ultrafast to make, and that it’s pretty healthy as far as “pasta salad” goes.  The original just calls for noodles, scallions and sesame seeds (in addition to the dressing), but I’ve taken to add-ins such as the peapods pictured, or carrot matchsticks, or any raw veg you see fit, really, to make it a bit more salad-y and substantial.

Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour, which can also make this salad a good gluten free option if you substitute tamari or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for the soy sauce (I’ve been told tamari usually does not contain wheat gluten, but check labels!).  It’s also vegan.  I’m not gonna lie, it’s not really substantial enough to have as a main dish, but it makes a great component to an Asian-style meal.  We had it the other night as part of a Japan-esque motley dinner of salmon sashimi with yuzu juice, an heirloom tomato, tofu and shiso salad from the Momofuku cookbook, and a mess of stir-fried purple-tinged leafy mystery greens we bought from one of the Asian produce vendors at Eastern Market.

Sesame Soba Noodle Salad (adapted from Nigella Fresh, aka Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson)
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8 oz dried soba (buckwheat) noodles
¼ cup sesame seeds
3-5 scallions, sliced thinly on the bias
6 tsp soy sauce (or sub Bragg’s Aminos for gluten free)
2 tsp honey (non-honey-eating vegans, just sub brown or regular sugar)
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
optional: 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
optional: additional vegetables, such as peapods or julienned carrot pieces

Notes: The soba noodles I buy come in little 3.5-oz bundles (see photos), so I just use two bundles- close enough. The ginger is optional but a nice touch if you have some on hand.  If you’re using additional vegetables, depending on quantity you may want to lightly salt them or toss them in a bit more soy sauce prior to adding them to the salad.  This recipe doesn’t make a huge quantity of salad, but it can easily be doubled if serving more than a few people.

Directions: Put a large pot of water on to boil.  Toast the sesame seeds in a dry nonstick skillet over low heat, taking care not to burn them. Remove from heat when toasty and fragrant, and allow to cool. Combine all the dressing ingredients (including the ginger, if using) in a large bowl and mix well.

When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the noodles and stir them so they don’t clump.  The noodles will cook VERY quickly- test for doneness after 3 minutes.  The package instructions (and Nigella, in her version) say 6 minutes but in my experience this yields gummy, overcooked noodles. As soon as the noodles are cooked through, drain in a colander and immediately rinse with cold water until thoroughly cooled.  Shake to remove excess water. Toss the noodles in the bowl with the dressing.  Add the sesame seeds, scallions, and any other vegetables and toss again to distribute.  If you have time, allow the salad to sit for 30 minutes or so before serving for the flavors to develop.