If one does have to work over a holiday weekend, this is not a bad way to do it: Eating and, well, talking about eating.
On Labor Day, at the Asian Feastival in Queens, I had the privilege of spending a lovely hour on a panel with New York chef and restaurateur Andy Yang (of Rhong-Tiam Express, a tiny Thai takeout place that he opened after closing his one Michelin-star restaurant Rhong-Tiam in January) and Kian Lam Kho, a private chef and caterer who blogs about Chinese home cooking at Red Cook. The food festival, which included tasting booths and cooking demonstrations by experts such as the effervescent blogger Maangchi, was designed to showcase Asian food from all regions.
Outside our cozy conference room, the booths and cooking displays meandered through Taiwan, Korea, China, the Philippines. Inside, however, our panel had a specific angle: Deconstructing Southeast Asian Flavors.
While I had felt that I had already learned a lot in the year I spent traveling to my native Singapore to learn to cook for my upcoming memoir, A Tiger In The Kitchen, I ended up picking up a few handy tips from our lively discussion …
For starters, the experts shared what they felt were essential cookbooks and Web sites for any amateur cook looking to try Southeast Asian cooking.
Kian, who grew up in Indonesia and Singapore, offered up “Taste of Indonesia: Recipes From The Spice Islands” by Helena Soedjak, as a book that he’s cooked from “a lot.” Another book that he recommends: “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking From Asian American Kitchens” by Patricia Tanumihardja. (Full disclosure: I went to high school in Singapore with Patricia — although, I haven’t checked out her book yet.)
Andy heaped praise on “Thai Food” by David Thompson, calling it “the best cookbook ever” on Thai cuisine. Andy, who learned how to cook from recipes handed down from a great-grandmother who was a cook for the King of Thailand, said he liked the “soup to nuts” explanation of Thai cooking in Thompson’s book. “In order to experiment” with a cuisine, he noted, “sometimes you have to understand the basics of what you’re making, the ingredients, where they come from, how is fish sauce made etc.”
As for me, before I began my cooking lessons with my aunties in Singapore, I leaned on a few trusty books: “A Singapore Family Cookbook” by Violet Oon, “Singapore Heritage Food” by Sylvia Tan and “Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From The Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia” by Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland. It turned out Kian and I are both big fans of Mrs. Lee’s Cookbook — which was first published in 1979 and was recently updated by the author’s granddaughter and republished as “The New Mrs. Lee’s Cookbook.”
(An interesting aside: Lee Chin Koon — a.k.a. Mrs. Lee — is the mother of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister and founder of modern Singapore. But as Kian and I both noted, that is not the reason we are fans of the book. Really.)
Blog-wise, I have a few favorites: Rasa Malaysia, which features both Malaysian and Singaporean recipes and Rose’s Kitchen, which has a lengthy list of recipes that walk you through how to make dishes like ayam penyet, an out-of-this-world Malay fried chicken, as well as desserts like ang ku kueh, a glutinous rice flour cake filled with sweet ground peanuts.
On brands, we each had a few favorites to share. For fish sauce users, Kian recommended Flying Lion, saying it’s especially packed with “fishy umami.” Andy, who naturally uses a lot of fish sauce at work, favors two other brands: Squid and Tipparos. Both have intense flavors, but he said he uses Tipparos in his restaurants because it comes in plastic (instead of glass) bottles, which makes it less dangerous in busy kitchens.
When it comes to dark soy sauce — a molasses-like sauce that’s similar to the Indonesian kecap manis and is used in many Southeast Asian Chinese dishes — my absolute favorite is those by Tiger. (Unfortunately, Kian and I noted that neither of us have seen it sold in New York grocery stores — I smuggle bottles of it back from Singapore whenever I fly home.) If you can’t get your hands on a Tiger, try the Elephant brand if you see it — it isn’t bad either. And Andy suggested using Dragonfly dark soy sauce for Thai dishes.
When someone asked about the best kinds of noodles with which to cook, Andy urged everyone to only use fresh noodles, not packaged ones, for soups and stir-fries.”Go to Allen Street,” he instructed, directing people to a place in New York’s Chinatown. “Next to the Lobster Farm (at 40 Allen Street), two doors to the left there is a small store and they’ll sell any kind of fresh noodle that you want. That’s where I get my noodles every morning.”
To close, some of us shared a few easy yet impressive recipes. I offered my Auntie Alice’s braised duck recipe while Andy shared a recipe for a versatile dipping sauce: take one bottle of sweet Thai chili sauce by Mae Ploy, mix that together with half a bottle of Sriracha sauce, three bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro (with roots) and three ounces of sesame oil. “Blend that together in a blender and it’s a great dipping sauce for chips, any kind of meat or vegetables,” Andy said, noting that it can be used as an alternative to blue cheese dips for buffalo wings as well.
While our advice and proddings may have been intimidating to some, we felt the important thing to remember about cooking — whether it’s Southeast Asian or any other kind of food — was that there is beauty in imprecision. Tasting and relying on instinct is essential — if you like things saltier, add more salt. Same thing with sugar, or ginger, or sesame oil. It should be that simple.
“Cooking is like drawing or painting,” Andy noted. “You may like something but someone else may not like it — you can’t please everyone.”
Asian Feastival: http://asianfeastival.com/