Southeast Asian Squash Curry Unites Exotic Flavors with Local Sensibilities

There were baby sea urchins and shark fins and banana leaves and duck eggs and shrimps with eyes! And these candies you whistle through and real pig heads! And black chickens! And live snails that you catch with a scooper! And we got Chinese restaurant spoons! My kids were all talking at the same time, clambering all over each other to get my husband’s attention, while I sat back feeling mighty proud of myself.

I’m not gonna lie. A day off school is a double-edged plastic pirate sword. On the one hand, everyone gets to sleep in and you avoid the stressful morning rush of packing lunches, making breakfast, wetting down crazy hair, wiping up syrup, and making sure homework makes it into backpacks. On the other hand, especially if the day off happens to fall on a Monday as it does on Presidents’ Day, you’ve got your kids all up in your business on the day you usually spend picking up the rubble of the weekend’s hurricane.

And then there’s the pressure to DO something. Something special. Because unlike a weekend day, filled with sports, birthday parties and other activities, days off school yawn open and empty, begging to be filled with something memorable, something a little extraordinary. For a seasoned and slightly jaded mother of three, something a little extraordinary will never again include fighting the crowds at the Children’s Museum, the zoo, or God help me, the belly of the beast: Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America. I refuse to go to these places when everyone else goes to these places. Laziness and a short fuse have forced me to be a little creative.

Late on Monday morning, we all climbed into the minivan and headed over Shuang Hur Supermarket on "Eat" Street. It’s actually kind of touching how game kids are to try something new. I’m their mama and they still follow me around like little ducks. I know it won’t always be like this; someday they will slump and shuffle and roll their eyes, but for now they were as happy can be and I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn't be a bust.

As soon as we walked in the door, we were richly rewarded with a glass case full of beautiful burnished roasted Peking ducks and pigs’ heads. Whoa, my kids exhaled in unison, pressing their noses to the glass. Are those ducks? Are those . . . ducks feet?

We hadn’t moved but a few feet before they were at it again. Whoa! Check out these tiny bananas! And then again. Whoa, these eggs are huge! When I guessed that they were duck eggs, my three-year-old reached her chubby hand towards the eggs and asked: Are dere ducks in dere? They peered at the wee speckled quail eggs, at bags of tiny salted fish. Their eyes and fingers were everywhere, but not once did I hear the word “gross.” My son gingerly handled a giant prickly Thai durian. We should buy this and Google it and eat it, he announced, putting on his ski gloves so he could lift it into the cart. How am I supposed to say no to that?

Shuang Hur is the kind of store where you can get anything from a wok to a package of Mexican donas (donuts) to a plastic laundry basin to a jar of sauce for roasted eel to a daikon radish to a package of frozen milk fish balls to something called Monkey Melon Balm. Walking down the crowded, colorful aisles, I couldn’t help but wonder: Who buys this? How do they use it? What do their kitchens look like? What do they smell like? It’s exotic and a little chaotic: a teensy whiff of what I consider to be a perfect vacation, all right here in our own back yard. I would like to believe that as long as a store like Shuang Hur makes these ingredients available, there will be wizened grandmas squinting into steaming pots all around town, with grandkids underfoot sneaking bites and soaking up the stories written in those flavors.

Walking around the store gave me so much to think about. When is the last time my kids saw anything they identified as food with a head still attached? Eyes? Feet? When is the last time they heard anything other than English spoken in a store? It was a good reminder for them (and me) that many other cultures have resisted disassociating themselves with the origins of their food as we have, due, in large part, to the corporatization of food in this country. It’s a lot easier to ignore inhumane animal husbandry practices if your meat always arrives in neat blocks wrapped in cellophane. When your duck looks like a duck, you’re going to be more mindful about eating that duck. But where did those ducks come from? And all those fresh Chinese greens and exotic fruits?

My enthusiasm was slightly muted by a little nagging voice -- the same one that screams in my ear at the supermarket: those apples are from New Zealand? NEW ZEALAND? Do you know how far New Zealand is? It would be unfair of me to speculate as to whether any of the produce, fish and meat sold at Shuang Hur is local or organic because I was unsuccessful at finding someone there who would talk to me about the store. On the one hand, I was enchanted with the availability of such alien ingredients in Minnesota and what that means for our immigrant communities. On the other hand, I cringed at the thought of just how far those ingredients had traveled. As my colleague, Tracy Paska, wrote in her recent post about coconuts: “... the need to protect the environment can run into the need by others to preserve heritage.” Indeed. And here, perhaps, was bricks and mortar proof.

Perhaps, as often is the case, the answer to a dilemma lies hidden in a dish. I decided I could still love everything about Shuang Hur and play at being a wizened Chinese grandma, but I could do it on my terms by using as many locally sourced or organic ingredients as possible. I remembered a recipe for Southeast Asian Squash Curry that had been languishing in my “to try” pile for ages. With fish sauce, red curry paste, cinnamon and cloves, the recipe allowed me to pluck from those crowded, colorful shelves. But using organic ingredients from the Linden Hills Co-op, such as butternet squash, coconut milk and spinach, let me feel really good about it.  The dish married the exotic flavors Shuang Hur left me craving with my growing attempts to cook seasonally, locally and organically. It was warm and velvety and spicy -- comforting, yet, with its rich glowing ochre color, redolent of a sunny far away place. Just the thing for a cold winter's night in Minnesota.

Southeast Asian Squash Curry (serves 4)

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (do not stir), divided
  • 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons Thai Kitchen red curry paste
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 (2- to 3-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 5 ounces baby spinach (5 cups packed)
  • 1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup salted roasted cashews, chopped
  • Accompaniment: lime wedges

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers.

Sauté squash with cumin and 1/4 teaspoon salt until beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add remaining 2 teaspoons oil to skillet and cook onion over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add 1/4 cup coconut milk from top of can and cook, stirring, until fat starts to separate and look glossy, about 2 minutes.

Add curry paste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Add squash, water, cinnamon, cloves, and remaining coconut milk and simmer, covered, until squash is tender, about 8 minutes.

Stir in spinach and cook, covered, until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in fish sauce. Sprinkle with cashews. Serve with jasmine rice.

Gabriela Lambert is a former lawyer who, after 10 years of practice, decided to stay home with her three kids and pursue a life of leisure. Given the choice between salty and sweet, Gabriela will hit the salty every time. Given the choice between pig and cow, she will clutch her chest and whimper that it’s like asking her to pick her favorite child. On her birthday, she is most likely to choose a trip to the farmersmarket with her family, but that’s one of her favorite things to do on any given day. In addition to minding her brood, she spends her time practicing yoga, driving around in her minivan, and blogging at