What do you know about food? I thought I knew quite a bit about food having attended culinary school, worked in several restaurants, contribute to a couple different food blogs, read several other food blogs and hell…there was that time when I spent two months in Europe when I was 18! Ok so the only thing I learned about food in Europe then was how to say beer in five different languages and currywurst doesn’t wash out of sneakers so well… or maybe it would have if it wasn’t mixed with the beer and power hurled onto them the night before by yours truly.
I’m sorry for the technicolor-yawn reference to all my happy and gentle readers, I guess what Pav is trying to say is damn…how strong does Doppelbock really need to be?! Ok, so suffice it to say I have got a lot of different styles of beer covered. I even thought I knew a thing or two about ethnic foods of various cultures. After yesterday it has caused me to go back and reconsider how much I really do and don’t know about food. I now reasonably believe that I know exactly Jack-Squat about a lot of things food related.
OK, so I grew up in a town about as culturally diverse as Barrow, Alaska…I get it. That being said I have since moved on and have been to almost every state in the US, several Islands in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, All over Europe and have had my share of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Indian food. Heck, we even had one whole week of Asian cuisine studies at culinary school, so even if I missed a lecture… I couldn’t have missed much?! I mean after all there can’t be but what, fifteen or so cultures and several billion people that make up Asia…right?
Well, just when you get to feeling good and smug about your culinary knowledge I’ve got something fun planned for you! Might I suggest you get your fanny perpendicular and haul it into your nearest Asian market, as this will cure any delusions of grandeur you’ve been having about knowing S**T about shine-ola!
It started off easy enough; I was bored and decided I wanted to check out this Asian market. Because like an idiot I get up at 4 am every morning and as a consequence my weekend days take forever. (Thanks to baking shifts from 3 years ago 4am is like sleeping in!) So to make it to a point in the day where others would find it socially acceptable to be chug a lugging Jameson and Ginger with the ferociousness of an Irish dock worker, I have to find things to do to make it to that slowly approaching hour.
I went with a friend of mine who is a bit of an amateur wanna be cook, who does his fair share of good dishes and the occasional abomination, but all things being equal he’s actually getting to be a pretty good home cook. So being bored, and he being my part time weekend drinking buddy (when we can secure him a kitchen pass) I thought I’d broaden his horizons with a trip to the Asian market. This was in an attempt to introduce him to the mysterious cuisine of my Asian friends as being something that wasn’t always served on sticks dripping with teriyaki. There should be no overcooked pieces of deep fried dough with cream cheese something surprise in the middle on a pu-pu platter with a scorpion bowl for two just $19.95, at the local happy family Chinese restaurant.
I wanted to show him Asian ingredients were diverse and could, if used right, elevate his own modest attempts at cooking to another level. I have several Asian Ingredients I use every week including fish sauce, black vinegar, soy sauce, miso paste, and various noodles, vegetables and spices….that I would be lost without. So we enter the store and the first things we come across are the different rice which I am able to explain some of the differences and uses. Next are the noodles, and he is surprised with sheer variety with regards to shapes, sizes, thicknesses and colors from clear to black.
Some of these I can’t help him with but offer a couple of starter noodles to wet his whistle with and some tips I learned the hard way on the use of each. Soba noodles for instance if not drained well enough, will retain just enough of that mealy doughy quality to roughly mimic the delicacy and flavor of mop water. So then we move onto Ramen noodles….this was a no brainer as seriouseats.com guru J.Kenji Lopez-Alt is somewhat of a ramen Jedi warrior. I’m gonna have to assume that’s a good thing as I’ve never seen star wars.
Anyway, in the winter time Kenji comes up with some killer cheats (additional things to put into your basic packaged ramens) and the best kinds of ramen to buy (yes people there are more to these than the 12 for a dollar kind) to make this one a grand slam. So feeling particularly good about my Asian food knowledge, we turned the corner and hello…What in the name of Cheese-n-Rice do we have here?!
No seriously, what the hell is that?! For that matter, what the hell is that, that n that there?! I was suddenly over my head so far all the arm flailing and kicking in the world weren’t gonna get my head back above water on this one. I could tell some of this stuff was the Asian equivalent of ring dings and ho-ho’s combining fruits, beans and vegetables in cane syrup. But seriously, what in thee holy hell was I gonna do with fermented squid paste?
Yes I know people, and my Asian brethren, I know it’s a flavor component …but a westerner like me trying to wrap his head around fermented squid paste as a flavor is akin to good and kind German folks wrapping their heads around a sense of humor. Easy Gunter, you know what I’m saying…group hug later.
Aisle after Aisle of just staring and wonderment was what we were in for. I would occasionally come across something I recognized and found a nugget of info I could offer on said product, but for a vast….and I mean vaaaaaaaaaast number of these products, I was gob smacked!
How could this be I thought to myself? I’ve literally spent years around food and I surround myself with websites, books, friends, and people who know a great deal about food. This just made me angry, how could I be missing out on foods that two thirds of the planet is eating?! Tiny little round eggplants that looked to be more like a pearl onion than an eggplant are apparently being consumed by… everyone, as there were several varieties of these from several regions of the Asian world represented here. I myself had never seen them and until today, never knew existed…HOW?!
I was so happy to get to the end of the market and have my friend say…. “Hey look, Submarine rolls!” Except he’s from Maine so they call them Italian rolls.( I wanted you to understand what I was talking about and since only the people from about 10 towns in Maine even know what an “Italian” is, we will call them by their most popular name Submarine rolls.) Anyway, I was able to finally with confidence say…no actually those are Bahn Mi rolls…. But they are for sandwiches.
I’m scared; there… ok I said it. I’m scared to delve into a cuisine I know precious little about. I kid myself by saying I’m making faux-Pho… but in reality it isn’t even close to being as good as someone’s who only has a rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese food. Cold noodle salads, dim sum, gyoza, Curries, Hot Pots, Etc…you name it.
I’ve been scared of them all. The sad thing is, a vast majority of these wonderful foods are foods of the people, made by peasants with simple tools and simple ingredients but somehow through a few flavorings and technique… they have really big beautiful flavors…there’s a big double serving of humility, knowing an 80 year old shoeless woman from Guangdong China can out cook me with a what amounts to one pot and a knife that’s older than probably both of us combined.
So I’m making myself a promise right here and now. At least every other week I am going to start using different ingredients, and different recipes to do the kinds of food I love to eat, but have been either too proud to ask for help with, too scared to try and even dumber for not starting sooner. I’m gonna get off my keister, get to the Asian market, stop being a baby, and start asking my Asian friends for the help I so desperately need. So the next time I bring someone to that market, I’ll be able to put them at ease and not pass my phobias on to them with regards to Asian food.
How about you, are there things you’re scared to cook, or maybe haven’t cooked because you weren’t comfortable with the technique, cuisine or ingredients? Go ahead and tell me, I’d love to hear…. Or are you just a scared little GIRLY MAN! Sorry…OR Girly woman. Perhaps you have a great starter recipe of any Asian cuisine that would help to build my confidence? Of course this will be just before you bring the hammer down with some three day long juggernaut of a recipe designed to break my will. Either way, I welcome your suggestions!
Sincerely, thanks for reading.