Tracey Paska

Turning Over a New Leaf for Asian Flavors

From salads and seasonings to wrappers and garnishes, there are as many kinds and uses of leaves in cookery as there are – what else? – leaves on a tree. And that’s just the tree in your own backyard, so to speak. For every familiar bay leaf or sprig of mint used on one side of the globe, there’s an equally common counterpart on the other.

Abundant in markets and often found in home gardens throughout Asia, the following three cooking leaves are used in a variety of recipes ranging from drinks to desserts. In the West, they are most likely available at Asian grocers either frozen or as extracts, although they are increasingly being offered fresh as well. For a different flavor in your next recipe, consider adding these aromatic leaves to your pantry.

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Raw but Cooked: Kinilaw

Cooking is simply defined as the preparation of food, typically using heat. In a biochemical process called denaturing, high temperatures from various methods such as grilling, braising or steaming alter proteins in meat and seafood, making them firmer (as with egg whites) or breaking down tissue to make them more tender (as with tough cuts like shanks). But heat is not the only way of achieving this denaturation.


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A Trio of Asian Spices Goes Beyond Ginger

When it comes to yielding flavorsome herbs and spices, the most productive parts of plants are usually above the soil: leaves (basil, sage, cilantro); seeds (mustard, nutmeg); fruits (chiles, tamarind); and even flowers and buds (saffron, cloves, capers). However, just below the culinary sight line and no less robust in taste are seasonings derived from roots and stems.

Some, like cilantro roots, are often discarded despite having as much flavor as the leafy or fruity parts more commonly used for spices and herbs. Others are mainstays of the pantry, such as bulbous onions and garlic, and root-like ginger. But if you’re looking to liven up your spice repertoire with new down-to-earth seasonings, give the following tasty trio a try.

Sensational Stems

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The Savory Side of Cooking with Fruits. Recipe: Chicken Pochero.

Salt may be the ultimate flavor enhancer, but sugar is no slouch when it comes to balancing flavors in savory dishes, and one of the best ways to do so is by cooking with fruits.

Using fruit in savory dishes is not new fashion. In fact, it’s downright old hat - if we’re talking about botanically-correct fruits that are more commonly considered ‘vegetables’, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, to name a few. As for the sweet varieties of produce that are not as ambiguous, they have also found their way into main courses. From succulent pork loin paired with spiced apples to roast turkey dressed with cranberry sauce, a bit of fruit can add another dimension to full-flavored recipes.

Perfect Pairings

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A Brief Guide to Five Flavorful Asian Greens. Recipe: Kangkong in Spicy Coconut Sauce.

Perusing the array of exotic vegetables available at farmers’ markets and Asian groceries is a bit like meeting distant relatives at a family gathering – they look vaguely familiar, but you don’t know their names and aren’t quite sure if you’ll get along. With proper introductions, however, you just might end up bringing them home for dinner.

While Asian products like oyster sauce and rice noodles have become as familiar to non-Asian shoppers as tomato sauce and pasta, others such as the vegetables in the produce section are still a mystery. Leafy greens, for instance, are common in Far Eastern cookery, but the typical varieties differ from those found in Western cuisines and leave even the most adventurous cooks occasionally wondering how they are used.  

If you’re left limp by iceberg lettuce but still baffled by bok choy, let this quick market guide help you get acquainted with some tasty Asian greens:

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Have Yourself a Filipino Christmas

According to that old chestnut of a Christmas song, everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright. That is, everybody except those of us celebrating in the Philippines, where mistletoe is a mystery and the fowl most likely to grace a holiday table is a pork-stuffed chicken.

Here, snowflakes are made of paper, brightly colored lights adorn palm, not pine, trees and Jack Frost is probably nibbling on mangoes instead of nipping at noses. Nevertheless, some of the trappings and customs of Yuletide, such as colorful light displays and the exchange of gifts and greeting cards, have been adopted in many parts of Asia. But nowhere else is it celebrated with such a fascinating combination of religious adherence, secular exuberance and multicultural touches as it is in the Philippines.

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The Healthy Taste of Sour Foods

Like bitter flavors, sourness is Nature’s way of waving a red flag over a substance that is unripe, spoiled or otherwise inedible. But for those of us who don’t mind a bit of tartness on the tongue, this warning signal may actually be the first sign of some healthy benefits.

Tip of the Tongue

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The Bitter Melon Truth

“Why so blue, Red?” Spinach asked ironically.

“They called me a vegetable wannabe,” replied a less-than-cheery Cherry Tomato, pointing to a group of gourds nearby.

“Ignore them,” Rhubarb tartly advised. “They’re just Bitter Melons.”

You’ve probably come across them at the farmers’ market - strange produce that look like cucumbers with a bad case of warts. Perhaps you stopped to examine them, wondering how they would taste. Maybe you even asked the friendly vendor what they were, only to turn away at the word ‘bitter’, leaving behind those lonely knobby gourds for another curious shopper to find.

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Goat: The World's Favorite Meat

If the current over-industrialized state of beef, pork and poultry production is getting your goat, then you may want to consider doing just that.

Many Americans may be more familiar with goat products made from its milk, like specialty soaps and artisanal cheeses (chèvre), and its fibers, which produce luxurious goat hair yarns such as Cashmere and Mohair, but for most of the world, it is goat meat that is top choice. Now, with growing demand from immigrants for whom goat meat is part of their food culture and savvy foodies interested in authentic ethnic cuisines and local sustainable food sources, Capra hircus is starting to stand out from the herd in the US as well. 

The Other Red Meat

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Local Mobs Gone Global: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

One of the best ways to experience a different culture is through its food, and one of the most fun ways of doing so is to travel to its place of origin. But that does not simply mean flying to Naples and enjoying an authentic pizza margherita in a real Italian osteria. If you truly want to get your hands on the roots of local food during your explorations, then get ready to dig in the dirt … literally.

Tapping into travelers’ insatiable appetites for gastronomic vacations, holiday tour companies offer everything from hawker stall hopping in Singapore to vineyard adventures in the Loire Valley to mole-making classes in Oaxaca. For many people, however, good food is not just about authentic flavors and traditional cooking techniques – it is also about the sustainable practices used to produce the ingredients that make up these regional cuisines. Now, there is a way for them to know exactly where their food is coming from, even when they are on vacation.

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