|My version of Dan Dan Mein, using (gasp) spaghetti noodles - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
There's a definite mystique over Asian cuisine. The ingredients seem exotic and often require your shopping in a market that makes you stick out like a sore thumb, not even sure where to begin on your grocery list of I-Don't-Know-What-This-Stuff-Is. There's something to be said for making a traditional dish according to a good recipe. I think for most meals, you should make something according to standard practice, and then do your swaps when you know what you're dealing with. That's fair, right?
|To "velvet" pork -- shortcuts are good, but always keep learning techniques! - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
I made an at-home version of Kung Pao pork, using the velveting method of cooking, just to make sure it stayed super tender and juicy. I didn't fuss too much over the sauce and traditional ingredients -- this was an exercise in method practice. Even though the sauce was thrown together in a very shortcut/MacGyver way, I was mostly interested in seeing how the texture of the meat was, and I was pleased with the results -- cooked through but remaining soft, tender and flavorful. Tasty food AND learning!
|Traditional cooking methods with shortcut ingredients - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
My favorite shortcut ingredients to always have on hand include: a jar of kimchee (popular enough to where you can usually find it at any grocery store), packages of dry "wrinkly" noodles (even the 99-cent/college special Top Ramen will work, just toss the seasoning packet), miso paste (also popular enough to be in most grocery stores), and balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar? That's not very Asian. No, but many recipes ask for Chinese black vinegar, which isn't always easy to find. I've swapped black vinegar with balsamic vinegar many times; it's similar in its aged, syrupy-intense flavor.
I don't adhere to the Rules of Recipedom. I'm the kitchen equivalent of that no-nonsense, 1980s rebel cop cliche who breaks rules, takes no prisoners and doesn't give a damn. Except nowhere near that cool and badass. My rebellion comes in form of things like, using whole wheat spaghetti noodles in Dan Dan Mein. Gasp -- the Horror. Sure, fresh Chinese noodles is preferred. I've had different versions of the Szechuan spicy peanut noodle dish where the noodles are more firm or soft and freshly-shaved. For myself, I prefer a toothy noodle, and I always wind up with leftovers that get reheated, so heartier whole wheat thin spaghetti noodles are the trick. I use traditional ingredients like canned preserved mustard greens, sesame paste (tahini or plain unsweetened peanut butter works too), and the must-have Szechuan peppercorns. That stuff you'll probably have to get at an Asian market, but with the popularity of such ingredients, you can often buy them online.
|Ever used chao nian gao? Me neither -- let's go for it! - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
Sometimes a shortcut to creating a seemingly exotic dish is relying on one unusual ingredient. You should still peruse ethnic markets of all kinds. If something has a vague familiarity to where you can imagine yourself using this ingredient, buy it. I've bought tamarind syrup at Turkish deli/markets and used that in Thai food, to make my own homemade pad thai -- why not? I was at the Asian grocer, in the noodle section and found a bag of what looked like mini, opaque white tongue depressors. They're called chao nian gao -- Shanghai rice cakes. I've had a version of these chewy rice cakes at Korean restaurants, except those are in cylinder shapes, but the texture is similar. I didn't know what I'd do with them, but I bought 'em. The Interwebs is incredibly helpful -- a search result on chao nian gao came up with this recipe from Saveur magazine. It just confirms what you already assume -- it's like a noodle, so use it in any noodle-style stir fry you want. I read several articles about the preparation of the dry cakes, which just mean soaking them, like other dry rice noodles. The thrown-together sweet/spicy sauce and random vegetables available made for a proper fridge cleanup, but these unusual rice cakes made the meal feel fresh and new.
|DIY spicy ramen - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
|Don't disappoint me, Cookie Wisdom! - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
So I'm giving you my official blessing to embrace shortcuts. Don't totally forgo learning traditional techniques and reading recipes to understand how a dish is put together. But don't let obscure ingredients dissuade you from trying to make something new; a few swap-outs won't ruin a dish, as long as you know what you're doing.