Zoe, she’s here to help

So my women’s group tries to have one session each term run by one of the members because this is cheap called “capacity building” and helps the government justify giving us money.

I put my hand up to do a “demystifying what is in the Asian supermarket” kind of session, and I need your help, because it’s on next Wednesday and I’ve just remembered. For many years now I have been wandering home with random bags of things from the Asian grocery and I’ve lost track of what might freak out your average whitegirl. I don’ t know it all by any means, but I know where to find out and I’ve quite a few Asian cooking reference books. I’ll be concentrating on Chinese and Vietnamese foods, as they’re the cuisines I know best.

I should be able to get whatever groceries we need, and I’ll take a rice cooker, gas ring and wok. I’ll also set up a table with the reference books. Ideally, I’d like it to be part demonstration, part chatting, part Q&A.

When I think about what would be the most useful things to show someone who was starting to learn about cooking Asian-style food, this is what comes to mind for me:

  • why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on a wok and how to season one properly
  • light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, which are very nearly the same shade of black although that’s not the point
  • what “hot” means (hint: fucking hot)
  • that stir fries are much better if they have one or two ingredients (not counting oils or seasoning)
  • bottled sauces that are worth it (eg toban djian, aka broad bean chilli sauce) and those that are not worth anything at all (black bean, plum, lemon, etc, etc, etc)
  • how to make aromatic oils to dress veggies, etc, with
  • the logistics of cooking a Chinese/Vietnamese dinner

I might pre-cook a red-braised dish, take the rice cooker, and do a veggie stir fry and maybe another dish – perhaps the insanely good steamed chicken from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Enough for the 15 or so people to have a taste of a few different styles

I’m also wondering what “novel” ingredients it might be most useful to spend some time on – maybe fresh rice noodle sheets, jicama (aka Mexican yam bean, often used as a water chestnut substitute). dried black beans, kang kong (aka water spinach, aka water convolvulus), frozen edamame and ….

I’d be interested to hear any good or bad experiences you’ve had with Asian supermarket shopping, and what you think it would be useful to teach some noobs. If you and I were wandering through the Asian grocery, what foodstuffs would you be asking about? Would you just be so excited to use the word “foodstuffs” that nothing else mattered?

[Disclaimer: I am 5'11" and of frecklishly obvious Irish heritage]

41 comments ↓

#1 Dr Sister Outlaw on 21.03.09 at 8:49 pm

Fresh rice noodle, because even I, brave and pastry-adoring soul that I am, find it hard to handle them without shameful breakages! I always seem to buy the wrong type. Don’t you just think the best thing about good Asian food is the way it’s all so simple but then something you don’t understand pops out at you, so yes, jicama and kang kong! And maybe a spooky mushroom or two.

#2 enny on 21.03.09 at 10:13 pm

The Hun worked with a girl who came over from Thailand only a few years ago – the most important thing she explained to us was that a fresh garlic, like you get from the The Hub and similar, is white on the bottom…!

That, and that the best type of stirfry is just garlic, fresh chilli, Thai Basil and those lovely salty beans in a jar.

My favourite thing about asian grocery is the amazing vegetarian options – not only the mockmeats, but also how easy it is to steam dumplings and things.

#3 ThirdCat on 22.03.09 at 12:20 am

Tamarind changed my life.

#4 kate on 22.03.09 at 8:10 am

Sadly, my local shops and farmer’s markets don’t sell anything wierd, and I’m starting to forget what they’re called. I reckon you’re on the right track though.

Also, frozen dumplings from the right sort of dumpling house, are the best convenience food ever and got us through six weeks of two parents working fulltime (we’re wimps).

Incidentally, I think the “one or two ingredients” in a stir fry, and the logistics thing are linked. We all feel like we should be getting lots of veg in every stirfry because we only eat veg at dinner time and we don’t know how to do multiple dishes per meal. If on the other hand, you eat veg for breakfast and lunch, you don’t have the weight of multi-veg stirfry hanging over you at dinnertime.

#5 Cristy on 22.03.09 at 8:22 am

Fresh rice noodles – definitely. Steering people away from most of the pre-mix crap in bottles is a great idea too.

Maybe some hands-on ‘fun foods’ like rice paper rolls, wontons, etc…? People are generally shocked by how easy they are to make and it is always nice for being to get in on the action.

A general guide to Asian greens would be fabulous – many people are a bit confused by them (including how to cook them – i.e. don’t boil the sh-t out of them).

Maybe you could give them a taste of fresh tofu (from the munchkins at the markets/Nth Lyneham)? People tend to associate tofu with that stale stuff in the supermarket that tastes awful. Salt & pepper tofu is fun… (I did send you that recipe didn’t I?) (You could grind the mix in front on them – as a guide to working with spices…)

That’s all I can think of. It is too early.

#6 Lucy on 22.03.09 at 8:54 am

Yeah, I second the tofu thought. The differences between the many kinds and how they’re used, p’raps?

#7 Crit on 22.03.09 at 10:16 am

Mmm. Noodles. Tofu. Toban jian. You could show them a veg mapo dofu using some kind of fake meat…

I’ve been meaning to get to the MWG since Ezz was tiny, but it’s never happened.

#8 another outspoken female on 22.03.09 at 10:58 am

Flavour balance – salt, sweet, acid etc, as this is absolutely key to Asian cooking (one I am slowly grappling with).

Gyozas, wantons and the other things your can do with the wrappers in the fridge are fun, hands on and really quick to cook and prepare.

The MSG factor! How so much of the premade stuff has additives including MSG (not always translated as such either, from Japanese they often call it “amino acid”).

Kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar are up there with some of my favourite flavours at the moment.

#9 another outspoken female on 22.03.09 at 11:00 am

PS: am impressed you have government funding for your women’s group. I meet up with a group of witches every week or two at the pub – do you reckon we could get a grant for that?

#10 Zoe on 22.03.09 at 12:23 pm

If you lived in Canberra, probably ;) The funding is partly arts-based and partly mental health based, ie we’d all go nuts if we couldn’t go (which is pretty close to the truth).

And thanks everyone for your suggestions – keep ‘em coming.

#11 dylwah on 22.03.09 at 12:34 pm

My favs from the Asian shops are the Tom Yum soups and the shitake mushrooms.

I think that it is important to get to know your asian grocery store, as they can vary greatly from suburb to suburb, also do not dismiss the instant noodles. watching half a doz viet kids make as many variations of noodles at 2 in the morn by adding greens, shitakes, soups etc was an education.

Dr Honey says that you should embrace the mystery of the Asian shop.

#12 FDB on 22.03.09 at 1:06 pm

Black fungus, fried shallots, dried fishy things.

#13 Zoe on 22.03.09 at 1:12 pm

Black fungus and that little boy’s smi-hile
Black fungus with that slow southern style …

That’s what happens when you have a glass of wine at lunchtime.

#14 Kate on 22.03.09 at 1:25 pm

Since I just wander into my local asian grocery and buy random things and then figure out what to do with them later, I can’t be of much assistance.

However, I do love sechuan peppercorns, deep fried shallots and Laoganma chili sauce (we love the one with peanuts, which is identified by a green stripe).

Unfortunately I think Laoganma does have MSG in it so that’s a downer, if you’re worried about that (I’m not terribly concerned as I only eat the stuff every few weeks by the teaspoonful).

#15 an average white girl on 22.03.09 at 8:37 pm

I request some sichuan pepper. I’ve been dipping into Fuchsia’s book and am ready to spice it up. I think the sichuan pepper in my cupboard is a few years old now.

#16 FDB on 23.03.09 at 9:37 am

I’ve bought two things on two whims which are yet to be attempted in actual cooking. One’s a whole dried cuttlefish, the other’s a jar of chilli crab paste (like a crab-based version of shrimp paste only not quite so rotten smelling).

Any tips? I’m thinking they’ve been languishing more or less together in the cupboard for so long they’ll be firm friends, so I’m trying to devise a way to cook them together.

#17 FDB on 23.03.09 at 9:37 am

Eeek – multiple links!

#18 Zoe on 23.03.09 at 9:43 am

No worries, FDB, and now with pics!

#19 Mindy on 23.03.09 at 10:21 am

Can you blog it with pictures after you’ve finished? I would very much like to have the asian food store demistified. Although I do go there for my sweet potato when I can.

#20 Dr Sister Outlaw on 23.03.09 at 11:07 am

Thanks for the reminder Dilwah, was craving pho and thought I’d have to defrost my emergency supplies of chook and broth but instead just stirred half a lime and a birdseye into a packet of two-minute oriental noodles and got the hit I needed.

#21 Francis Xavier Holden on 23.03.09 at 3:37 pm

Depends on how unfamiliar the capacity less sheilas are. I’m always surprised at the amount of people who don’t realise the “authentic” way to cook rice is with cheap arsed generic Golden somethingorother brand electric rice cooker from the asian grocery shop. I suspect it’s a remnant of the Clive Hamilton austerity and hippie thing of doing everything the calvinist hard way by hand.

The other single thing to grasp is what you said. Stir Fry means hot. Yes hotter than you think and hotter than your stove top flame will go. Although we all have to use the normal stove top. It’s not saute or frying.

#22 Phil on 23.03.09 at 8:29 pm

Dried things are always good mileage for anyone scared of Chinese food – the uninitiated seem generally freaked out by shiitake in their dried form. I second whomever said good tofu.

FDB – The easiest thing to do with the dried squid is soak overnight, take out the cartilage, cut into a few pieces and casserole/hot pot with pork belly, dark soy, fresh ginger, garlic, dried chili and onion/cabbage/whatever other veg is handy.

#23 Sue on 24.03.09 at 1:03 pm

Chinese rice wine – best ingredient ever.

Fresh rice noodles – my mum always said to soak them in hot water for about 5 minutes and drain before using. Also if you get the pre-rolled ones, they are great pan fried in hot oil and topped with sesame seeds and served with a peanut butter/soy sauce dipper.

Ginger, garlic and chilli – the penultimate trio.

and general basic clean Chinese flavours not that packet mix sauce shite that passes for chinese flava.

#24 Nancy on 24.03.09 at 2:35 pm

Here’s what I would be saying if we were walking through an Asian grocery store: “Whuzzat? What’s THAT?! What do I do with it? Will it taste good when it’s done? What’s the texture like? D’you think a preschooler would eat it?”

Ie, curious but cautious. I’m interested to hear anything from someone who clearly knows more about it than I do.

In fact, I’m thinking of coming along to this thing tomorrow, if it’s okay for an interested noob to just rock up….

#25 Zoe on 24.03.09 at 3:35 pm

Nancy, I have emailed you some info. If anyone else is in Canberra and keen to come along, details are here.

#26 Becky on 24.03.09 at 9:00 pm

I head more for the Japanese aisle. I’d be keen to demystify the different varieties of seaweed. I always seem to be surprised — stunned — dismayed at the wide ranges of final sizes & shapes once you throw green dried pieces into miso soup…

#27 Zoe on 24.03.09 at 9:15 pm

Oh, no Becky, I just packed two giant plastic boxes and there’s no seaweed in there! Best fix that now.

#28 byrd on 25.03.09 at 7:23 am

hope it goes well, really enjoying your momentum.

#29 FDB on 25.03.09 at 2:10 pm

Cheers Phil!

Zoe – I reckon you should bust out the good ol’ Japanese seaweed salad. Pretty sure it’s made from reconstituted dried stuff, and pretty common dressing ingredients, and it’s outrageously delicious. I’ve seen kids scoff it down who’d never touched seaweed before.

#30 Zoe on 25.03.09 at 3:43 pm

Too late, FDB! But we might just do it again. I’ll write it up after I’ve watched the episode of Underbooby I taped when I get a chance. Went off very well, I thought, and Nancy came, which rocked.

#31 Amanda on 25.03.09 at 6:28 pm

As a child somehow the family (probably some ad hoc bartering thing) ended up with boxes and boxes of tins of Masterfoods “pastes” — Deviled Chicken and the like. FDB’s Crab Paste brings back all the memories.

I jst got a rice cooker — any interesting ideas welcome.

#32 Penthe on 25.03.09 at 7:27 pm

Wah, I miss having a rice cooker. And wah wah, miss having a too hot for anything else but perfect for wok cooking gas burner.

And wah wah wah I wish I could come to your women’s group. No I mean I wish I knew that such a group existed when I really, really needed one. I can’t believe I wasted so much time in Queensland when I could’ve been living in Canberra. Bleurgh.

I like the smell of Asian shops better than anything else. It’s the smell of potential.

#33 Nancy on 25.03.09 at 8:13 pm

It was fabulous! Zoe’s demo was amazing. And the group–a universe apart from any other playgroup/women’s group in my experience.

#34 Zoe on 26.03.09 at 12:41 pm

Soon Amanda, with the recipes from the day. In the meantime, may I suggest some rice?

Penthe, go buy one. I mean, really. And Nancy has put up a post in which she said nice things, so I encourage you all to go and read it!

#35 Dr Sister Outlaw on 26.03.09 at 9:02 pm

*the smell of potential* – what a great line!

Zoe, you made me go and hunt down a Chinese grocery when I was in Blacktown today. Nothing really amazing, but I did come home with two varieties of dried mushies and 4kg of glutinous rice (which you cannot get for love or money in Katoomba). And about 200g of star anise for $1.85, which will be mighty handy for cooking pho broth. And some fresh rice stick. YUM.

#36 Zoe on 27.03.09 at 10:16 am

DSO, I was very pleased that two of the women who came on Wednesday made stir fries for dinner that night – it’s so easy once you see how to do it properly.

#37 Dr Sister Outlaw on 27.03.09 at 9:05 pm

The rice stick was great – I softened them in water then boiled them up and then fried them. Sort of like rice gnocchi straws … the wee lad and I loved them. Had them with bok choi, coriander and soy, and mine with lemon and chilli. YUM.

And I think you are right – the seeing is the most important bit, and you can’t quite get it off the telly. The thing I want most is a proper wok though, am severely limited without one.

#38 dylwah on 27.03.09 at 11:24 pm

Amanda, id like also to recommend, some lentils. with basmati rice, red ones and with brown rice, puy lentils. ratio of around a cup of rice to 1/4 cup lentils. water as per normal for either white or brown rice.

#39 dylwah on 27.03.09 at 11:28 pm

uh the red lentils ought to be those skinless ones either split or whole, not those red lentils sold as french style, matilda or black, as they are known around south east melb, that are still in their skin and look like puy lentils.

#40 Dr Sister Outlaw on 31.03.09 at 2:50 pm

OK, where’s the write up then. You know, c’mon Zoe, share

#41 Zoe on 01.04.09 at 7:44 pm

CANNOT SHARE WITH DEAD LAPTOP!11!!1

At &Duck’s house desperately trying to do some pre-Melbourne arranging, but will come soon.

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