Ok first – the obvious. I’m not Asian, and I’m not a chef. So if you’re looking for some hoity-toity post or highly-developed fusion style, this is not your blog. However, I’ve loved Asian food since I was a kid. When I was very small, we lived in Suriname (known as Dutch Guyana), a small country in the northern part of South America that has heavy British influence and a culture of strong Asian and African descent.
I first remember eating at Sarinah Restaurant on Verlengde Gemenelandsweg (!!) in the city of Paramaribo – in fact, I was elated to find it still in existence after doing a little checking for this post! In retrospect, I found that the true style was Javanese/Indonesian, but it was certainly one of my earliest experiences with food of that style – i.e. a stir-fry approach with a grain base.
In subsequent years when we lived in Wenatchee in Washington state, I grew fond of a local Vietnamese place called Cuc Tran Cafe after following my nose and discovering their food cart during the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival when I was in middle school. I continued to eat there for years, and it is still going strong.
All that to say that those places had exceptional impact on my food tastes, and I seek out Asian food in all its forms. As a matter of fact, my very first cookbook was this one:
I received it from my Mom for my 18th birthday, and she registered me for a Chinese cooking class taught by a local woman we knew named Jenny Wong. I had given up meat at age 15, and so I read a lot (probably too much) into such a thoughtful gift: it was equal parts resignation to the vegetarian thing, appreciation of my deep love for Asian food and a little nudge as I prepared to head out into the world on my own. Needless to say, I LOVED it, although I’m certain most of my first efforts were disastrous. Sometimes I’m not even sure they’ve improved, but I still try my hand at Asian cooking at least once a week.
As with any effort in the kitchen, the right tools (but not an over-the-top arsenal) can make all the difference. My Mom bought me a really high quality stainless steel wok a few years later, and I always use it to stir fry. Here it is in action during prep of minced garlic in sesame oil for my lettuce wraps post from last month:
It’s pictured along with an Asian-style stir fry spatula. I use wooden utensils almost exclusively for cooking on the stove top (except when cooking meat, to avoid contamination) – you can find a similar item from Joyce Chen on Amazon for a few dollars.
An array of Asian spices is also a good idea – and happily, they are VERY inexpensive. In fact, I stock my spice rack with a lot of Asian, Hispanic and ethnic spices because they are high quality, less costly, come in larger quantities and use less packaging. You can find plenty of cooking implements, dishes, spoons and spices at any Cost Plus World Market. Two of my basic seasonings are above, and they can be found at your local Asian market or ordered online. Fresh ginger can easily be found at any grocery store and stores well in the fridge wrapped in cloth.
Finally, sauces are the best way to take any Asian meal to new flavor heights. I love Mae Ploy Sweet Thai Chile Sauce, hot Thai Sriracha sauce as well as basics like low-sodium Kikkoman soy sauce and La Choy sweet and sour sauce – not particularly authentic but a treat for kids with lettuce wraps and other meals that may otherwise seem threatening.
Unfortunately, the Asian market and grocery store a few blocks from my house has recently closed – tragic! Let me know if you are aware of others in northwest Arkansas. There is a Manna Oriental Market listed in Springdale, but I’m not certain it is in operation. So in the interim, here’s a summary of some great online spots for Asian cooking implements, spices and sauces:
Pearl River – my very favorite online Asian resource, sprung from New York’s Chinatown. Amazing prices on items like sesame oil and spices (for example, my white pepper pictured above was $1.10) and you’ll find all sorts of great kitchen goodies, dishes and serving utensils there as well.
Cost Plus World Market – the nearest one to us is Kansas City, and I go out of my way to visit whenever possible. World Market has been one of my favorite stores since I was a teenager, and I still love checking out all the import goodies at great prices – a great source for items such as roasted sesame seeds, jasmine rice, woks, chopsticks and so forth.
Import Food – Thai Online Supermarket – cooking sauces, canned goods, spices, ceramics, curries and even recipes! This site has literally hundreds of items – it’s an excellent one stop shop. There’s even a recipe app, a street vendor game and an e-newsletter!