Jun 2, 2013

Complexity Leading To Harmony

This week we are going to make dishes from Thailand (pad thai) and Vietnam (spring rolls).  Having lived in Singapore and Thailand for quite a few years I am a devotee of these cuisines, and also the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar (formerly Burma).  Of course all these cuisines are subtly different but in one fundamental aspect they resemble each other: they all juggle disparate elements of flavors and ingredients to create a harmonious finish. I think of the analogy of the duckling swimming on a pond: looking from above it seems to glide effortlessly across the pond with no effort at all, but look underneath the surface and the little webbed feet are paddling furiously. So it is with these Asian cuisines: many ingredients, painstakingly prepared, with complex seasonings, all intended to achieve a final and peaceful harmony.


Thai meals always include a balance of the essential four flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and, my favorite, spicy.  Although not officially one of the Thai flavors Thai meals also include umami, that Japanese soy flavor which is at once mouth filling and meaty.  If you’ve had a perfect piece of “maguro”—sashimi tuna belly—you know what I’m talking about.  A rare steak will give you the same sensation but not a well done one, sorry,


I would characterize Vietnamese food as similar to Thai but perhaps more delicate. Other than cilantro the favorite herb in Vietnamese cuisine is mint, and this herb will almost certainly be part of our spring rolls. Incidentally some of you might wonder how spring rolls fit into Cooking For Life?  They fit in because unlike egg roils spring rolls are not fried, indeed not cooked at all, just beautifully sliced vegetables and herbs wrapped in a rice paper wrapper and dipped in a delicate sauce.


If pad thai, the noodle dish we’re making, is perhaps the Thai dish best known and loved by Americans, then the Vietnamese equivalent might be pho, a beef noodle soup that comes from the region of Hanoi, the capital in the North.  There are many varieties of pho but all of them feature rich beef broth, some part or other of the cow, and lots of veggies and herbs. It’s classic street food in Vietnam.


I recommend you YouTube “street cooking in Bangkok” and “street cooking in Vietnam” to get a first hand look at these wonderful cuisines and how they are prepared.  Even as I write this I have nostalgia for the many wonderful meals I had in Southeast Asia. I’d like to go back right now,