A Chef's Guide to Cooking Asian Cuisine at Home
As a fourth-generation American, my culinary heritage is best described as Shake'N Bake with a dash of Olive Garden. My mother's dinners, while filled with unending love, consisted of the same four meals rotated one after the other until I got so bored that I taught myself how to cook. That spark of culinary curiosity led me to culinary school, where I was classically trained and taught to think in the language of Escoffier and finishing everything with lots of butter.
However, my culinary education focused little on Asian cuisine, and I still feel a rush of kitchen insecurity when it comes to the wide array of flavors, ingredients and techniques that span the continent. After traveling through Asia last year, I wanted to bring the essence of Asian cuisine into my own kitchen. To figure out where to start, I chatted with chef Suchanan Aksornnan, better known as "Bao Bao" of Baoburg in Brooklyn. Bao Bao has a knack for bridging culinary cultures while maintaining tradition, thanks to her Thai upbringing, Japanese stepfather and tutelage under chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.
But before we got into it, Bao Bao wanted to clear up one misconception about Asian food: "People think that Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese cooking requires little craft and that it therefore should be cheap, while Japanese cuisine is hard to master, and thus it comes with a higher price tag. I disagree. Any dish can be a piece of art, and it should be appreciated and judged without a bias."
Stock your kitchen properly from the start.
Available at any Asian supermarket and many standard supermarkets, Red Boat Fish Sauce, Kikkoman Soy Sauce and Panda Oyster Sauce are Bao Bao's go-to staples. She also recommends a good set of knives, bamboo steamers and a wok—even if it's a small one.
Respect your rice.
Not all rice is created equal, and I quickly learned to give my rice a little more attention and TLC. "Rice is the basic thing you'll want to learn to master before you move on to something else," Bao Bao said. "With different shapes, textures and starch content, each kind of rice requires a different cooking method technique depending on the type of rice, its origin and its age." For example, jasmine rice needs to be washed before steaming it to remove any dust and excess starch. Basmati rice needs to be soaked for at least 30 minutes in cold water before cooking in boiling water. And sticky rice needs to be soaked at least one night before steaming.
Don't overdo it.
According to Bao Bao, one of the most common mistakes that people make when cooking Asian food is over-seasoning, especially when they're not familiar with the ingredients. "Using too much of anything can ruin the dish, but a proper amount will brighten the flavor and elevate it. For example, a fish sauce by itself has a very strong taste and smell, but when you add in to your food, it can bring a sweet and salty taste and aromatic flavor that you can't find by using just salt," she said.
But embrace inconsistency.
Asian cooking, according to Bao Bao, is "freestyle with little to no measuring." This flexibility allows for personal experience and tastes to come through, adding an "element of surprise and uniqueness at the risk of some inconsistency."
Brooke Siem is a writer and professional chef currently meandering around the world. Follow her on Instagram at @brookesiem.
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