Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Asia is Big

When friends say they are in the mood for “Asian,” I get a bit perplexed. I mean, Asia is a pretty darned big place. Wiki tells me it’s the largest and most populous continent and contains more than 60% of the world’s human population. So that means it has a heck of a lot of diversity in its food options. To prove just how diverse, I’m gonna take you on a culinary tour of Asia through the food I’ve enjoyed here in Adelaide over the past few weeks.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I happen to live in Chinatown, and Chinatown restaurants happen to offer much more than the cuisine of China. I eat in Chinatown a lot; I eat Chinese a little. So in the interest of organization, let’s travel and eat as the Japanese and Chinese read and write; by moving East to West, right to left through the Asian continent.

Thus we begin our journey in Japan. Are you sick of hearing about all the Japanese food I eat? Yeah, me too. But I returned to Wasai, a restaurant in an alleyway just behind my place, and was once again impressed and find it worthwhile to tell you about. The menu of course has a large selection of sushi and sashimi. The spider roll, with a crunchy fried soft-shelled crab bursting from its seaweed confines, is more than a mouthful and provides crisp and creamy textures in one overflowing bite.

Wasai Japanese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Don’t order a spider roll when you’re on a date. You don’t look very sexy when you eat it and if you eat it properly, in one massive bite, it proves you’re a big mouth.

The girls and I also ordered takoyaki, light spheres of fried batter with a morsel of octopus nestled inside. I used to eat these all the time when I lived in Japan, as they’re served as street food in Kobe, but hadn’t seen them at Japanese restaurants in the States. At Wasai they were served atop a bed of crispy fried onions and sprinkled with paper-thin bonito flakes that did a whimsical jive as they arrived at our table. They’re a little more subtle than the spider roll.

The Wasai gozen, a medley of starters and sushi such as prawn and vegetable tempura, tamagoyaki (sweet rolled egg omelette), shaved beef and onions in a sweet sauce, fried pork dumplings, and a smooth potato salad arrived in a lacquered bowl and delighted us with surprises and sauces in every hidden corner. We are easily amused when it comes to food.

The ishiyaki una-don gratified all our senses, with tender grilled eel served over rice in a sizzling stone bowl. As a delicate sesame sauce was poured over the eel tableside, the dish snapped crackled and popped and a nutty aroma filled the air. We all fought over the crisp layer of toasted rice that formed at the bottom of the bowl. I won. I can be pretty ruthless when it comes to toasted layers of rice. As you shall soon learn more about.

If eel seems a bit too adventurous, there are many mains that appeal to more timid palates, while still being traditionally Japanese. Katsudon is a sliced pork cutlet simmered with a sweet soy-based sauce and served with egg on a bed of rice. Oishiiiiiiiiii!

I took a trip to the Korean Han Kuk Kwan in Chinatown with a friend and we indulged in a hot pot on a cold day. The hot pot overflowed with thin slices of beef, pork dumplings, Napa cabbage, Chinese cabbage, enotaki mushrooms, and tofu skin all in a flavorful broth that got progressively richer as we added more and more ingredients.

Scooting over and down to Malaysia, a quick lunch break turned into a gastronomic delight at Penang Hawker’s Corner. I ordered stir fried noodles in a thick sauce with roasted duck, chicken and pork with crispy cracklin’ skin. The meats were tender and the sauce complex – certainly worth my $8.50.

Jackie’s noodle soup with roasted duck was also a hit.

As you may have read in a previous post, I have become mildly obsessed with Indian cuisine since I’ve been in Adelaide. I suppose I am mildly (I guess some would say absurdly) obsessed with all cuisines but recently a lot of my time has been spent attempting to perfectly toast spices, discovering the veg joys of lentils paneer and cauli, and picking the brains of my Indian girlfriends. Jackie has fed my habit both by purchasing me an Indian cookbook and by working her magic in the kitchen so I can experience firsthand what REAL Indian food is supposed to taste like!

She recently cooked up a feast for the gastro girls…

including a lamb biryani that she allowed to cook in a rice cooker.

Fluffy and spiced rice layered with a lamb curry – perfect!

And once again I fought and won a battle for the crispy rice layer at the bottom of the casserole.

She also served a spicy vegetable curry with eggplant, mushrooms & potatoes in a creamy yogurt sauce (my fave of the evening)…

And tender tandoori chicken.

All served with rajma, (red kidney beans in a tomato-based sauce that reminded me of American baked beans, a major plus since baked beans are one of my top fave foods), fried pappadums (crispy lentil wafers), and a raita whipped up by chef Amy (yogurt with diced cucumber, cilantro, and cumin)…

Yes. Bravo Jackie. Thank you for spoiling us:)

Finally, let’s make a stop in the Middle East. Through an essay I wrote for one of my gastronomy courses on gastronomic tourism in the kingdom of Jordan I was able to learn more about the food of the Middle East in two weeks than I’d learned in the previous 27 years of my life. It is interesting that many foods we eat in the USA on an almost daily basis come from this region. Who doesn’t love a falafel wrap, with ripe tomatoes, hummus, Lebanese cucumbers and yogurt?

Or how about a mezze with infinite varieties of colorful small dishes such as babba ghanoush (roasted eggplant dip), dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with lemony rice), garlicky hummus, spanokopita, sautéed zucchini with a sprinkling of mint and a squeeze of lemon, pickled red onions, falafel, yogurt, and Lebanese bread. I wish I could have invited you over to share with me!!

One of the many Middle Eastern cookbooks I picked up at the public library during my research contained a recipe I couldn’t resist for braised lamb shanks sprinkled with pistachios and pomegranate seeds, served over a bed of couscous.

So what kind of Asian are you having tonight?

No comments: