Monday, June 7, 2010

Asian Cooking (food by Guest Reviewer Kristen Enkvetchakul)

During challenging economic times, food can be a central issue. Too often cutting back on the food budget can mean saying “no” to special food that your family enjoys. If you looking for ways to cut back on your food budget, and enjoy cooking, I would suggest experimenting with Asian cooking.

Thai and Vietnamese food in particular lend themselves to cooking on a budget. These countries offer many dishes that use inexpensive ingredients and yet are packed with delicious flavor.

Asian spices and ingredients are generally low cost, and keep just short of forever. For example, the tamarind paste that I use to make pad thai is in a 17oz jar that cost around $5. The tub can used for multiple batches of pad thai, and has a long expiration date.

While making Asian food may seem intimidating, it’s really not that hard. The ingredients may seem very different at first, but new ingredients are like new people: they are only strangers until you know their names and see them a bit. Soon they are as familiar as the ones you previously knew.

If your children will try new things, there are many great Thai choices. You may want to try to make pad thai, which is a mild Thai noodle dish. Chicken satay also tends to be very popular with kids and less adventurous adults. It is a simple Thai grilled chicken dish that is served with a mild peanut sauce. Thai sticky rice may sound complicated, but it is actually quite easy to make, and never fails as a crowd-pleaser with its cool coconut taste. While Thai sticky rice does require a special Thai sticky rice steamer, and special Thai sticky rice, which is different from regular white rice, it is well worth it. As a bonus, I have often found Thai sticky rice steamers to be interesting conversation pieces, as they have an exotic look.

Vietnamese cuisine offers many great possibilities, including fresh spring rolls, which are a delightful, healthy addition to any meal. There is a learning curve to getting down the mechanics of rolling these delicious appetizers, but it is a satisfying task when accomplished, and well worth the bit of effort.

Here is a brief description of how to make them: The outside of spring rolls is dried rice paper soaked in warm water for a few seconds. Place the softened rice paper wrapper on a plate that has been covered by a damp paper towel. Place two peeled, de-veined, and cooked shrimp (with tails off) on the wrapper in a vertical column, one above the other, both flat on the rice paper (you can also slice the shrimp in half long ways to conserve the shrimp, using only two halves). Place some cooked (previously boiled to soften) thin rice vermicelli noodles (sometimes called dried rice sticks) on top of the shrimp. Then place a couple of fresh cilantro sprigs on the noodles, a couple of fresh bean sprouts on the cilantro, and then place a piece of lettuce (boston or green leaf) on the bean sprouts. Fold the top of the wrapper down, the bottom up, and roll the wrapper to one side as tightly as you can without tearing it. If the wrapper breaks don’t worry, just try again with a new wrapper. I have broken many wrappers, especially when I was first learning. The spring rolls can be served with a fish sauce or hoisin sauce based dipping sauce (a version can be found in my book, “Introduction to Asian Cooking”, or many other cookbooks). The spring rolls can be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated in Tupperware, with damp paper towels between layers of rolls. As you are making the spring rolls, keep the finished spring rolls covered with a damp paper towel to avoid them drying out as you make more.
If you are unfamiliar with Asian ingredients, finding where to buy them may seem like a large barrier. I have found to be an excellent on-line source of Thai and Vietnamese ingredients. You can find Thai sticky rice and sticky rice steamers, as well as excellent fresh Thai produce such as lemongrass, there.

Fish sauce is a very common ingredient in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Three Crabs brand is my all-time favorite. It is available at, and also at some Asian grocery stores. Some western supermarkets carry fish sauce, but I have found Three Crabs brand to be by far superior. Please don’t let the name, or pungent smell for that matter, make you wary of fish sauce. It is not meant to be used straight, but rather it is mixed with sugar or other ingredients.

I hope you will consider embarking on the adventure of exploring Asian food this summer. It’s a great way to save money without sacrificing great taste.

Kristin Enkvetchakul is a self-taught chef of Asian cuisine. Her book, “Introduction to Asian Cooking”, features classic recipes of Thailand and Vietnam, as well as recipes for Chinese dim sum and Japanese sushi instructions.


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