As you probably know by now, Sara and I both love the fresh flavors of a lot of ethnic foods. And with ethnic foods, there often come a lot of questions and misconceptions. We decided that we, being the go-to girls that we are, would give you a run-down on some things you may find yourself cooking with. Or not cooking with, depending on how much you love fish sauce!
Cilantro. Cilantro is a common herb (especially where Sara and I are involved! Seriously, the cilantro people should pay US!) sold cheaply in bunches and found near the parsley. Now…I’ve found that people either love cilantro or they hate it. And a lot of people who hate it think it tastes like soap. If they don’t think it tastes like soap, they think it tastes like something gross and non-food-like–like shoes or pennies or rubber bands. I’ve heard that people who don’t think it tastes like food are allergic in some degree to cilantro and that it’s genetic; however, this is largely based off information I’ve retrieved from the Internet, which, as it turns out, is also a good place to learn how to identify and treat meningitis at home without a doctor or to find all sorts of sordid government conspiracies. If you really don’t like it, you can often replace it with parsley (or Italian parsley). It won’t be exactly the same, but if it were the same as cilantro, you haters probably wouldn’t want it!
Coconut milk and coconut cream. Coconut milk is simply the result of processing raw coconut and water. It’s slightly sweet (although no sweeteners are added), high in fat (unless you buy “light”), and adds tropical flair to sweet things like desserts, puddings, and pancakes as well as savory things like rice, Thai soups, curries, and noodle dishes.
When you open a can of coconut milk, there will be a thick, nearly-solid layer on top. This is the coconut cream. If a recipe calls for coconut cream, just skim this layer off; if it calls for coconut milk, give the can a good shake before you open it.
Also, these are different from cream of coconut. Cream of coconut is found in the liquor-fixins section of the grocery store. It’s very sweet and used in tropical drinks, alcoholic or not.
Fish Sauce. Fish sauce is the extract of fish with salt and water left to ferment in the sun. And I don’t mean to prejudice anyone here, but I really don’t like it. I’ve had countless people and cookbooks tell me that it doesn’t taste like fish (and I actually like fish, just not fermented ones), but I can always taste brewed fish juices. Especially since I was pregnant with my daughter, I’ve had a super-sniffer and I can smell the fish sauce in dishes at Asian restaurants. It doesn’t bother a lot of people, but I don’t like to cook with it. If you don’t like it or if you’re in a pinch, you can substitute soy sauce because both are brewed, salty sauces similar in color.
Galangal. Galangal is Asian (Thai) ginger; if you can’t find it, you can substitute regular ginger.
Hoisin Sauce. This is found in little jars in the Asian section of your regular grocery store. It’s made from fermented soybeans along with spices, vinegar, sugar, and garlic. It’s sweet and tangy and seems a little weird if you taste it by itself, but it’s fantastic in salad dressings or on pork chops.
Mung Bean Sprouts. You find these a lot in Asian food–you might even remember them from Chow Mein night when you were a kid. They’re long, skinny, semi-translucent, and a little bit crunchy. I love them in salads. You can find them with the other weird Asian produce (like fresh ginger and the funky mushrooms), usually in bags. When you get them home, wash them and keep them in an airtight container to prolong their little lives.
Oyster Sauce. Ditto back to fish sauce. I don’t like oyster sauce, either. In fact, I once threw out an entire recipe of sauce made primarily from oyster sauce because the person I got it from PROMISED me that oyster sauce didn’t taste like oysters. That was a big, fat lie. It’s a thick sauce made from dried oysters, salt, water, cornstarch, and caramel. I’ve often seen it on vegetable dishes at Chinese restaurants. And I stayed far, far away.
Rice Paper. These thin papers are used to wrap things like spring rolls. You moisten them individually in a plate of water for a few seconds so they become bendy and then you fill them and roll them. They’re very delicate and versatile and a perfect wrapper for veggie appetizers.
Rice Vinegar. This tastes a lot like traditional white vinegar, but it’s milder and slightly sweeter.
Soy Sauce. More fermentation. I think there’s a theme here. Soy sauce is made from soy beans, salt, and water, fermented. I’ve mentioned this before, but I LOVE Aloha Shoyu soy sauce. It’s milder, tastes less salty, and is less ferment-y than your traditional soy sauce. When I lived in Utah, I could find it at the grocery store (Walmart, no less!), but where I live now, I can’t find it so I actually make Sara buy it and send it to me. If I didn’t now have to pay for my baggage to be checked, I’d totally bring an empty bag and load it up with soy sauce when I go to Utah in a few weeks.
There are lots and lots more interesting Asian ingredients, but these are what you’ll most likely encounter in day-to-day cooking. If you want to try some of these ingredients on for size, check out…