The cuisines of Asia are as widely varied as the people who live on that continent. From the Mideast to Japan, from the Indian subcontinent to the tundra of eastern Russia, one of the only universal flavors is that supplied by members of the onion family.
Mainland China offers no less than six distinct regional styles of cooking in which varieties of onions play major supporting parts. Throughout Southeast Asia a combination of onions and peppers is a common flavor; peanuts are frequently used in conjunction with unions, garlic and peppers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The Japanese use onions decoratively and for their delicate flavor, in contrast to the robust and piquant dishes served in the countries to the west and south of Japan.
The following recipes represent a few Asian uses of onions, starting with a creation perfected by Vincent Hu, proprietor of Hu Yuan Restaurant in Arlington. BEEF WITH SPRING ONION HU YUAN (2 servings) 8 to 10 ounces lean beef 1 egg white 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch 1 1/2 cups peanut or fine vegetable oil 3 to 10 spring onions (scallions), sliced in 2-inch lengths 1 medium yellow onion, halved and cut into 1/4 inch slices 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic 3 tablespoons dry white wine 3 tablespoons soy sauce 2 teaspoons sesame oil (no substitution)
Cut the beef into bite-sized slices and combine with the egg white in a bowl; dust with the cornstarch and mix thoroughly, using your hands. Dribble about 1 tablespoon of peanut or vegetable oil over the mixture and again mix well with your hands. Set the meat aside for at least 20 minutes, covered in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, slice the vegetables and in a small bowl combine the garlic, ginger, wine and soy sauce.
The cooking process itself is in two steps. A wok is beneficial, but not absolutely critical; substitute a heavy skillet. High heat is a must (and the spattering of grease will be worse in a skillet, but don't reduce the temperature.
Place the remaining peanut oil into the work or skillet and bring to a very high temperature; add the meat and stir-fry for about 45 seconds (keep the meat moving constantly and briskly in the oil). Remove the meat from the oil with a slotted spoon to a double thickness of absorbent paper, then to a warm platter.
Pour off all but about a tablespoon of the oil from the wok or skillet, returning the pan to a high flame. Add the onions to the wok or skillet and stir briskly for about 30 or 40 seconds; add the sauce mixture and let the onions and the sauce cook for about 15 seconds; reintroduce the beef for another 20 seconds, stirring sonstantly. Dribble the sesame oil over the whole creation, tossing once or twice, and serve immediately with rice. SUKIYAKI (4 servings) 12 to 14 ounces very lean beef 1 cube (2-inches) beef suet 2 medium white onions, halved and sliced 15 spring onions (scallions), sliced into 2-inch lengths 4 cubes tofu (bean curd) 3 slices carrot 4 Chinese black mushrooms (optional) 1 can Shirataki (yam noodles) drained 1/2 pound fresh spinach washed and trimmed 2/3 cup Japanese soy sauce 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons dry sherry 1 cup water
Ask your butcher to slice the beef paper thin for you on his meat slicer; arrange all of the vegetables and meat on a tray for easy access; combine the soy sauce, sugar, sherry and water in a jar, shake and set aside at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Using a large, heavy pot (a cast iron Dutch oven is just right for this) render the suet over medium heat and remove the remnants. Keeping in mind that Japanese food is meant to appeal to the eye as well as the palate, arrange the onions, spring onions, carrot slices, tofu and mushrooms on the bottom of the pot. Cover these vegetables with the shirataki; place the beef in a layer on top of the shirataki: pour the soy mixture over the whole thing and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn the beef, carefully folding it into the liquid around the edges of the pot and again simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the spinanch on top of the mixture and allow it to steam until the spinach leaves are wilted. Serve in individual bowls with steamed rice on the side. MAHLAI MURGHI (Indian creamed chicken with onions and peas) (4 servings) 1 chicken (5 to 6 pounds), cut into pieces 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped 1 stick cinnamon 8 whole cloves 6 pods cardamon 2 teaspoons minced garlic 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger 6 whole black peppercorns 3 to 5 medium dried red chilis 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup milk 1/2 pint heavy cream 2 cups frozen tiny peas
In a heavy skillet, saute the chicken in the oil for about 15 minutes, turning several times. Remove chicken to an ovenproof casserole. Brown the onions and add all of the spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, garlic, ginger, peppercorns, chilis and salt) and cook with the onions for about a minute. Add the milk and simmer for another minute stirring with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Add the cream and again simmer for about 1 minute. Pour the whole mixture over the chicken and bake at 350 degrees, covered, for 35 minutes. Add the peas and return to the oven for an additional 15 minutes. Serve with rice and cold beer.