I have always loved East Asian cuisines. I was very familiar with Chinese and Japanese food, and fell in love with Korean food when I arrived at college. It quickly became one of my favorites, probably in part because of my Korean roommate. She taught me a few phrases in Korean, which came in handy when going to Korean restaurants. Don't get me wrong -- it's not as if I could order a meal in Korean. but I could say enough to curry favor with the waiter or waitress to get extra kimchee or soup for free!
I also remember a trip that my college small group took to Central Square in Cambridge. Our group leader, David Lee, was an aficionado of East Asian cuisines and wanted to us all to go to Kabuki for dinner. I remember David buying all of us bus tokens and having us line up, single-file, outside the bus. As we boarded, he handed us a token. I'm not kidding. Yes, we were all 18, and yes, David really did this. Kabuki used to be located on Pearl Street and was run by an older Japanese woman who enjoyed cooking. Despite the Japanese name, the restaurant also served Korean food. Kabuki became my go-to restaurant my freshman year when I craved Korean cuisine. Going there was like visiting your friend's mom, who cooked a big dinner just for you. Sadly, it went out of business many years ago, but the fond memories linger.
East Asia is bigger than Korea or Japan, obviously. It also encompasses countries to the south, such as Indonesia. I had always been curious about Indonesian cuisine, but never found a restaurant in the Boston area. It was while I was on vacation in Curacao in the spring of 1997 that I encountered and fell in love with Indonesian food. I no longer remember the name of the restaurant, but could probably find it in the travel journal that I keep while on vacation. But I do vividly recall that it served rijstafel, which is the Indonesian version of a smorgasbord. I remember numerous plates of delicious dishes, made flavorful by all kinds of chilies, coconut milk and curries. These were accompanied by cooling rice. What a feast!
I found a nice cookbook of Indonesian dishes several years later and really committed myself to getting to know the food. I'm in love! I've made a number of the dishes and will feature more in future blogs. For now, I'd like to start with soup that I've made at least 5 times: seafood laksa, a seafood and rice noodle dish seasoned with lemon grass, shrimp paste and other pungent spices. This dish is easy and pretty fast to make.
The ingredients can be found at Super 88 or other Asian supermarket.
1 lb. medium-sized raw shrimp
1 lb boneless white fish
5 oz rice vermicelli
6 cups fish stock (you can also use chicken stock)
4 green onions, chopped
stem of lemon grass, 4 inches long
1 tablespoon curry paste
1 teaspoon sambal ulek (You can use bottled varieties. It's just a chili sauce. Or you can make your own. See the recipe below.)
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (I actually use 2 teaspoons, because I like the strong taste. Make sure you toast it before using. Doing so brings out the flavor.)
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 cup coconut milk
1 1/2 cup finely shredded lettuce
2 tablespoons mint
1. Peel and devein shrimp, cut fish fillets into 3/4 inch cubes.
2. Place rice vermicelli in large bowl. Pour over hot water to over. Stand 10 minutes; drain.
3. Combine fish stock in a pan with green onions, lemon grass, curry paste, sambal ulek, shrimp paste and tumeric; bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low, simmer for 3 minutes.
4. Add shrimp, fish and coconut milk, simmer for 3 minutes. Remove lemon grass.
5. To serve, put lettuce and rice vermicelli into bowls, add soup, sprinkle with mint.
6 1/2 oz. small red chilies
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tbl vinegar
1 tbl oil
1. Remove stalks from chilies, chop chilies roughly. Combine in a a pan with water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, simmer for 15 minutes.
2. Pour chilies into a food processor, add salt, sugar, vinegar and oil, blend until finely chopped. Store sambal ulek in a small glass jar (with a non-metallic lid) in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Wear rubber gloves when handling chilies to avoid any contact with your skin.