My whole personal brand is Enthusiastic Amateur. I am not from Southeast Asia, I have never lived in Southeast Asia and I don’t have a good handle on what ‘authentic’ Southeast Asian food is (1990s American midwestern Chinese probably wasn’t the ne plus ultra). But after a little travel in the region I realized that they were painting with a much more varied culinary palette than I thought. We sampled various Asian eateries in the U.S., but when we moved to Germany, the restaurant offerings seemed to be far more muted in flavor than what we were used to. Between meeting some folks from China, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore in the immigrant communities here, getting to talk food with them and doing a great deal of research, we managed to come up with a few dishes that satisfy our far eastern cravings.
I’ve found Southeast Asian cuisine to be a real skill-builder. Don’t be intimidated by long ingredient lists. And always read ALL THE WAY through the recipe or I guarantee you will forget something important; getting an idea of when things get added will help you consolidate effort. You’ll learn time management and mise en place. You’ll familiarize yourself with subtle and varied flavor combinations. You’ll have a cache of gluten- and dairy-free options that aren’t boring. Let’s head east!
For deep flavors, these condiments really up your game.
- Shao Xing wine
- Sesame oil
- Black bean garlic sauce
- Rice vinegar
- Chinkiang vinegar
- Light and Dark soy sauce (they’re both necessary!)
- Hoisin sauce
- Chili oil
There are a couple of things I have not been able to obtain from my local Asian market. When that happens, I ask myself: what flavor element is the missing ingredient supposed to bring in? Is it salty or tangy or sweet or umami? If you can answer that, you can sub successfully. At least until you break down and order it from Amazon 🙂
Spicy Peanut Chicken
This started as a take on General Tso’s Chicken, but morphed into this oddball creation. It’s extremely flexible: sub vegetable broth for chicken, use pork instead, or eliminate meat altogether and turn to tofu or just double the broccoli. Tinker with the sauce until you get the flavor profile you most enjoy. And it’s especially great if you’re a spicy fan, but you can adjust the spice level to your liking. This makes A LOT but halves wonderfully.
3 T cornstarch
1/4 c/60 g peanut butter (I like creamy for extra velvety texture)
1 T Hoisin sauce
2 T sugar
2 c/500 mL chicken broth
1 c Shao Xing wine
1 t dark soy sauce
1/4 c/60 mL light soy sauce
2-4 T rice vinegar (depends on how tangy you like it)
1 lb/500 g broccoli, cut into florets
1 lb/500 g chicken breasts or thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
ground white pepper
12-15 green onions, sliced thin
5 cloves garlic, minced
ginger, julienned, as much as you like
2-3 hot red chilies, minced (optional)
Large deep skillet
Steamer insert (optional)
Rice cooker (if you are incapable of making rice on the stovetop like me)
Every bowl you own
First assemble the sauce: this is a little obsessive, but yields a great texture and keeps the cornstarch from getting clumpy. You need a medium mixing bowl, deep enough to whisk the sauce when all ingredients are added. Add the cornstarch, peanut butter, Hoisin and sugar and beat it together with a fork until uniform. Switch to the whisk and add the chicken broth a few tablespoons at a time, fully mixing between additions. As you go along, you’ll be able to add more each time. Whisk in wine, dark and light soy and vinegar and set aside.
You do you regarding rice (amount and cooking method) and blanch or steam broccoli until your favorite texture is achieved. Heat enough vegetable and sesame oil to cook chicken in deep skillet to medium high. Sprinkle a little white pepper and ginger over chicken pieces and toss lightly. Cook chicken to just browned on all sides (but don’t cook through) and remove to bowl, set aside. Add a little more vegetable oil and add green onions, garlic, ginger and chilies. Cook until onions are tender, stirring frequently. Turn heat to medium, give sauce mixture one more whisk and pour into skillet, stirring carefully and constantly. The hotter the pan, the faster the sauce will thicken! When sauce simmers, reduce heat to bare simmer and add chicken and juices back in. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes. Test a piece of chicken for doneness. When serving, layer rice, broccoli and sauce.
Sichuan Dry-Fried Green Beans
Green beans in Germany have been a bit of a challenge for me. They’re snappier and firmer than I like. I found this preparation which seemed very quick (no boiling!) but yielded a pleasing texture. The blog author is a Chinese woman living in the U.S. and has a wonderfully thorough but accessible style of recipe writing. These beans are excellent as a side or as a main over steamed rice, with or without the meat. I sub in black bean garlic sauce for the Sichuan pickled mustard greens (Sui Mi Ya Cai) because I haven’t been able to find it in the Asian markets near me. It’s a pretty major ingredient swap, but the end result doesn’t taste like it’s missing anything. The link leads to the original, below is what I do.
1/4 c/60 mL Shao Xing wine
1 T light soy sauce
1 T dark soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 lb/500 g green beans, rinsed, trimmed and dried
1 t Sichuan peppercorns
3 dried red chilies
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 in/2 cm ginger, minced
1/2 lb/250 g ground beef and pork (Hackfleisch gemischt)
2 T black bean garlic sauce
Skillet or wok (a flat skillet is better, you can cook more beans faster with less crowding)
Pour all the sauce ingredients into a small bowl, stir until the sugar dissolves and set aside. Heat a little oil in a deep skillet or wok over high heat; you want enough to coat the beans but not pool up. Add a couple handfuls of the beans to the skillet and stir them well, making sure they’re not crowded. Cook, stirring frequently, until dark brown blisters appear on all sides, then remove to a bowl. This usually requires 2 batches, adding oil as needed. I like to use tongs to make sure every bean gets blistered and removed at the optimal time.
Set beans aside, reduce heat to medium high and add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil. When oil shimmers, add peppercorns to skillet and cook for a few minutes until dark brown and fragrant. Remove peppercorns and add dried chilies, garlic and ginger to oil. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until fragrant, then add in ground pork and beef. Break up meat and stir often until just beginning to brown, then stir in black bean garlic sauce, distributing completely. Next add green beans back to skillet and pour in your prepared sauce. Cook, stirring frequently, until beans and meat are well coated but no liquid is pooling in skillet. Serve as a side or over steamed rice.
All cultures have a dumpling and Chinese dumplings are an absolute delight. Delightful to contemplate, delightful to make and deeply delightful to eat. There’s a learning curve to the folding, but the internet is here to teach you how. And the more you do it the better you get!
Got leftover steamed rice? You’re halfway there. This recipe is a mere suggestion, throw in whatever you like.
Dan Dan Noodles
Another one from the Omnivore’s Cookbook. This recipe is great, but that peanut butter sauce is VERY versatile.
This one seemed like it was much harder to explain than to actually do. And don’t get too wigged out by the insistence on sterilization and constant handwashing. If you’re not a garbage person, just follow the instructions and you’ll be fine.