Archive | March, 2011

SOK on hiatus

23 Mar

I’m off to Tokyo today for my deferred trip to se my mom and grandma. As my grandma does not offer high-speed Internet access, and wifi is hard to come by in Tokyo, the blog will be on hiatus until I get back in April. See you then!

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Staples

19 Mar

Regular readers may have noticed that SOK has been on a bit of a hiatus. Tom’s parents came to visit us a couple of weeks ago, which really cut into blogging time (though not eating time). And then last Friday, the twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region of Japan, followed closely by the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis. Most of you probably know this already, but my mom is from Japan, and my grandma, uncle (plus wife and son), and Tom’s aunt and uncle and cousin (plus husband and son) still live there — thankfully, in Tokyo and Hiroshima, so they’re safe. Still, with the threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown, and who knows what kind of aftershocks, I’ve pretty much spent the last week glued to liveblogs and Twitter feeds about the news. And writing about food seemed hollow and frivolous when I was worrying about my grandma (and my mom, who flew into Tokyo the day before the earthquake) having power outages or who knows what else.

It was actually a conversation with my mom that inspired this post. She was talking about how she’d gone out to get groceries, only to find stores sold out of most staples. Some of it was stuff you’d expect to sell out in the US: water, milk, eggs, bread. And some weren’t: tofu, instant ramen, and even natto. Why natto? I think it’s because it’s a protein that doesn’t spoil and doesn’t have to be cooked. Her story made me think about how varied the “basics” of a kitchen can be across cultures. Most Americans probably don’t have a container of miso knocking around in the pantry, and I don’t think the average Pakistani household has a stockpile of mac’n’cheese. A quick look at the Salvation Army’s site shows that a typical soup kitchen meal is going to be something like chili or sloppy joe’s; in the Japanese evacuation centers, they’re serving rice balls and miso soup. It’s not just about nutrition, it’s about what’s familiar and comforting.

Because it is bitter, and because it is my melon*

6 Mar

I’m cheating a little with this post, because bitter melon isn’t completely new to me, but I bet it’s new to a lot of SOK readers. Bitter melon (also called balsam pear or goya) is one of those daunting vegetables you often see in Asian groceries, and is widely eaten across Asia, but hardly at all by Westerners. It’s supposed to be one of those superfoods, and has been credited with everything from treating diabetes to curing cancer to even preventing malaria. So why hasn’t it gone all trendy, like açaí? The main reason you’re not going to find bitter melon smoothies at your local Jamba Juice is that bitter melon is, as you might guess, really, really bitter. Like, possibly the bitterest in the known vegetable universe, although I don’t know how they quantify that sort of thing; do they have a bitterness equivalent of the Scoville scale? And it’s not your run-of-the-mill bitter, like coffee or beer, but a bitterness with a vegetal bite, as if you were chewing on leaves.

Eat me. I dare you.

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Azuki-bean cured bacon?!

4 Mar

The Chicago Reader has been doing a series on chefs using unfamiliar (to them) ingredients, like natto. A number of these have been Asian staples that I’ve grown up eating, and it’s been interesting to see what they come up with — it’s usually something totally bizarre. Like this azuki-bean paste bacon:

As I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese like their beans for dessert, and azuki-bean paste is a common filling for things like sweet rolls and mochi cakes; I think it’s also a Kit Kat flavor. So the thought of using it in a savory context is as weird to me as, well, eating sweetened bean paste is to most Westerners, I suppose. And the puree with the bean paste and kim chee?! Next thing you know, they’ll be putting wasabi in chocolate!

Here’s a link to the full article, complete with recipes, should you want to recreate this perversion in your own kitchen. Next month’s ingredient is fish eyeballs, which is supposed to be the best part of a fish head. (Watch for the fish head curry post, coming soon.)

*Thanks to the Chicago Reader’s Key Ingredient series!

Rojak

3 Mar

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about rojak yet. It’s one of the quintessential Malaysian dishes, inspiring both a short film and a book of short stories. The word means “mixture” in colloquial Malaysian, and it’s kind of like chop suey imagined as a fruit salad. (Though neither marshmallows nor Cool Whip make an appearance in rojak. Thank goodness.) Rojak is typically a mixture of fruits like pineapple, guava (the green type, not the pink, sour type), cucumber, something called kedongdong (really), and green mangoes, dressed with a thick, spicy, sweet-and-sour sauce made from palm sugar, tamarind pulp, shrimp paste (again, really), and chili. It’s frequently garnished with crushed peanuts and a prawn cracker, though usually not as large as the one pictured. The taste is somewhere between savory and sweet, and surprisingly refreshing for something so strongly flavored.

Sometimes Malaysian culture is likened to rojak: a mixture of disparate elements coming together in a pleasing whole, even as each ingredient retains its distinct flavor. It’s probably a more apt description than the melting pot, and besides, what’s more Malaysian than eating fruit with shrimp paste and chilis?