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The Zen of Easy Asian Cuisine-Part 1
Posted by Lori Ross - Viewed 68062 times

Story and Photography by Lori Ross

I adore Asian – whether Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese or even Burmese!  In every place I visit, I seek out the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai neighborhoods for restaurants that served delicious Asian food.  When I was asked to accompany a friend to Shanghai, China for a week where she was to speak at a conference, I researched the best restaurants and even impressed our hotel concierge with my knowledge.  And the meals were amazing! 

However, despite my passion for Asian food, I rarely cooked it at home or on the boat!  I found the prospect of stocking my galley with lots of new products and equipment daunting – especially when my cupboards are already bursting.   And I wasn’t sure that I could successfully balance the tastes– sweet, salty, acidic and spicy -- along with the wonderful textures -- crispy, tender, soft and crunchy, that I enjoy in restaurants.  Plus, how would I ever find all these exotic ingredients while cruising?

So I went on a search for delicious Asian recipes that use typical American equipment and easy to acquire ingredients (e.g. available at a well stocked grocery store).   I found some classic Chinese appetizers, like those I had in Shanghai in some of my Chinese cookbooks, plus several of my favorite chefs actually cook some great Asian dishes with few exotic ingredients and I discovered some new chefs and cookbooks.  From an Australian chef, Donna Hay, I learned the Asian philosophy of balance in flavor and texture and how to use the fewest ingredients to create the best flavors. 

Happily, I have become a good basic Asian cook; I have a repertoire of appetizers and main courses that each takes about 30 minutes of less of active preparation.  I especially like grilling and sautéing aboard the boat because it is quick, easy and not too messy. Best of all, most of the recipes are adaptable to a wide range of ingredients (e.g. meats, veggies, rices, noodles)

So join me in exploring the Zen of Asian cooking aboard!

The Principles
Asian cooking is all about balancing flavors and the ingredients that produce those flavors.  The four basic flavors of most Asian dishes are:

  •  Sweet – sugar, brown sugar, sweet chili sauce, honey or molasses
  •  Salty – Soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, salt
  •  Sour – Vinegar, lemon or lime or grapefruit
  •  Hot – Pepper, Chilies, Chili paste, horseradish

Most critical is the sweet/salt ratio; if you taste a dish and it is too sweet, add more salt and the opposite applies – too salty, add sweetening.  Sour and hot ingredients add another layer to the flavors -- use sour to enhance the salt and use hot flavor as a counterpoint to the sweet.

In addition to contrasting flavors, Asian dishes are constructed around contrasting textures that complement the flavors.  The three basic textures -- that can be hot or cold – are:

  •  Tender  – braised meat, poached fish or chicken, noodles, shrimp, raw fish,
  •  Crispy/crunchy – nuts, seeds, vegetables, herbs, batter-fried, poultry skin, fried noodles, lettuce
  •  Silky – tofu, sauces, glazes, fruit, noodles

Even something as simple as fried spring rolls, in Vietnamese cuisine, have complex texture.  The deep-fried finger-shaped rolls are served with lettuce cups, a sweet sauce and either mint or cilantro.  I was instructed to top each spring roll with some sweet sauce, place a sprig of mint or cilantro on top and wrap the roll in the cold lettuce.  Each bite has a cool, crunchy beginning as you bite through the fresh, cold lettuce.  Then the fragrant mint or cilantro flavor emerges and the hot crunchy crust of the spring roll hits your palate and enhances the flavors blending the cool flavors and warm silky interior of the spring roll (usually made up of cabbage, mushrooms and shrimp or crab).   Another way to serve spring rolls is to place them in a bowl of delicate, silky noodles and top it all with mint or cilantro and hot or sweet sauce.  You can use lettuce leaves or not, but the crunchy spring roll stuffed with tender shrimp or chicken with silky noodles wrapped in lettuce leaves is a revelation!

Final Recipes:  All serve 4 people
Chinese Crispy Walnuts
These walnuts are similar to what I had in Shanghai.  They are sweet, crunchy and a great contrast to the cucumber salad I loved to order.  They are really delicious!

1 cup walnut halves
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbs granulated white sugar

Place the nuts in a saucepan with the sugar and water and boil for 10 minutes. Let sit for 2 hours or longer. Drain well.  Put 1 inch of fresh oil in a small heavy skillet over medium heat. While the oil is still tepid, add the walnuts and cook slowly, stirring frequently. Do not leave the stove!! When the walnuts are golden remove to a plate. While still very hot, sprinkle a tbsp of granulated sugar.

Sweet and Sour Chinese Pickles
2 medium cucumbers, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
2 tsps salt
4 tsps sugar
2 tsps rice or cider vinegar
1 tsp chili oil, 1 fresh red or green chile seeded and thinly sliced or 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
½ tsp sesame oil

Combine, sugar, salt, vinegar in a medium bowl. Whisk until sugar dissolves. Add cucumber, sesame oil and Chile (or chili oil). Toss until evenly coated. Let sit for 15 minutes. Garnish with peanuts and serve.


Thai Fruit Salad 
This is a tangy salad with lots of complex flavors and textures.  Make it a main course light meal by adding seafood or chicken.  Add chile for spicy contrast with the sweet fruit. 

2 cups assorted fruits (apples, pears, orange, grapes, strawberries, papaya, mango) cut into bite sized pieces
2 tbsps oil (peanut or vegetable)
1/2 cup onion (or shallot) sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 ½ Tbsps of lime juice 1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar

½ lb. cooked shrimp, lobster, crab or roast pork poached chicken (cut into bite sized pieces)
2 tbsps peanuts
1 fresh chile, seeded and finely shredded
1/3 cup fresh mint leaves
Using a small saucepan to fry onion and garlic in oil on medium heat until lightly browned and take off heat.  Add lime juice, salt and sugar; stir to dissolve sugar.  Add the fruits, and toss to coat evenly with dressing.  Top with chopped peanuts and chile.


Vietnamese Caramel Shrimp
1 -1 ½ lb medium peeled shrimp (raw or cooked)
2 tbsps oyster sauce
½ tsp each of salt and pepper
½ tsp flour
3 tbsps vegetable oil
3 minced garlic cloves
3 tbsps sugar
¼ cup water
4 scallions chopped
1 small onion quarter and sliced
1 red chile pepper seeded and thinly sliced
4 Sprigs of cilantro

In a large bowl, combine shrimp with oyster sauce, salt, pepper and flour.  Marinate 5-10 minutes. In a small heavy skillet, cook 1 tsp. of sugar over medium/high heat until sugar melts and turn golden brown.  Watch it carefully or it will burn.  Remove skillet from heat and add 2 Tbsps water stirring until caramel dissolves.   In a large skillet, over medium heat, cook garlic in oil until golden brown. Add onion and scallions and stir-fry for 2 minutes.  Add caramelized sugar from small skillet and the rest of the water and sugar.  Drain shrimp, discarding marinade and add to skillet, stirring occasionally until shrimp turn pink.  Simmer for 3-4 minutes until about water evaporates and sauce thickens.   Garnish with cilantro and chile if you wish.  Serve on rice with steamed vegetables.


Hainanese Chicken Rice
From Hainan, an island off the coast of Singapore comes this poached chicken with rice, garlic and scallions.  The poached chicken is dipped into a delicious ginger scallion sauce and accompanied by a small salad of cucumber, tomatoes and cilantro. 
1 whole cut-up chicken
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled then crushed
2 spring onions bruised and chopped
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sesame oil
31/3 cups uncooked rice
2 tsps salt
4 ½ cups chicken stock (from poached chicken)
2 chopped scallions
2 in. piece fresh ginger chopped then crushed (in garlic press)
½ t. salt
2 green onions finely chopped
2 tbsps peanut oil

Mix sauce ingredients and let marinate while the chicken cooks.

Fill a stockpot with enough water to cover chicken; add ginger, green onions and salt.  Bring to a boil and add chicken; cook on high until pot boils again then reduce heat to low and cover, cooking for 35-40 minutes until just cooked (don’t overcook).  Remove chicken and set aside.

Place rice in pot of broth with 2 tsps of salt and bring to a boil.  Cook uncovered on medium high heat until surface liquid is absorbed, then cover the pot, reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes undisturbed.  Take off heat, add chicken back to pot to reheat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.  Serve on large platter and top with chives.  Serve ginger sauce on the side.

Chinese Barbeque Pork
Although this pork will not look like the bright red barbeque pork in Chinese restaurants, it tastes much the same.  Serve alone, as an ingredient in a stir-fry dish or to top salads or noodle soups.  Dice for use in fried rice or noodle dishes

1 ½ lb. pork tenderloin or boneless pork cut into long 2 “ wide strips
¼ cup hoisin sauce
2 tbsps soy sauce
3 tbsps honey
1 ½ tbsp Chinese rice wine or sherry
1 Tbsp Chinese 5-spice powder
Mix ingredients and marinate pork for 3 hours.  Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or grill for 10 minutes per pound.  Slice thin and serve on top of steamed rice and stir fried vegetables.  (recipe below).

Sticky chicken with steamed rice
1 small piece of ginger, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/4 tsp five spice powder
3 whole star anise
3 Tbsps brown sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1 whole cut up chicken bone-in
4 cups steamed rice 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the ginger, garlic, five spice, star anise, sugar, soy, stock and oyster sauce in a small bowl and whisk until well combined. Place the chicken in an ovenproof dish, pour over the ginger mixture, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 1 hour or until tender.  If the sauce is too thin when finished, simply pour it into a small pan and cook on medium high for 10-15 minutes until thickened.  Serve with the rice and steamed vegetables.  This chicken is great the next day, even cold!

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Garlic
1 lb. spinach, watercress, bok choy, sugar snap peas
2 Tbs peanut oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 slice fresh ginger, peeled and crushed
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs chicken stock
Pinch of sugar
Asian sesame oil, to taste

Heat a skillet wok over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, garlic, ginger and salt and toss and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Increase the heat to high, add 2 or 3 handfuls of pea shoots or greens, and toss and stir until wilted, about 30 seconds. Add the stock and sugar and toss and stir until the liquid is reduced to a few tbsps, 1 to 2 minutes. If using bok choy or sugar snap peas, cook for 2-3 minutes until just tender.  Season with sesame oil. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.

Spicy Vegetables 
1 lb green or wax beans.  snow peas, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage or other quick cooking vegetable
2 Tsps sesame oil
3 red chiles chopped (seeded)
2 cloves garlic, sliced
½ tsp each salt and pepper

Sautee chiles and garlic in sesame oil for two minutes on medium.  Raise heat to high and add vegetables and sauté for 3 minutes stirring frequently.  Lower heat, add 2 tbsps of water and let vegetables cook until tender 3-4 minutes.

Variation:  You may want to microwave vegetables until tender then simply sautee with chiles and garlic for 1-2 minutes.

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