ASIAN COOKS solved the side-dish dilemma centuries ago.
Fire-hot curries, vegetable fritters, stir-fried seafoods, coconut gravies and soups made from every kind of vegetable, fruit or meat available in the Orient are what Asians call side dishes. Their main dish is rice.
They do know how to cook their rice. "It is by far the most important item in the daily diet throughout Asia," Australian cookbook author and columnist Charmaine Solomon has said. An Asian cook can identify a variety of rice by its fragance "blindfolded," once it is cooked. And whether it is steamed, boiled or fried, rice has to be perfect. It is, after all, the sign of an accomplished Asian cook.
But it's the side dish that makes each Asian cuisine so distinctive.
And Solomon's little-known, but critical gathering of recipes from 15 Asian countries that makes the point clearly in, "The Complete Asian Cookbook" (McGraw Hill, $24.95).
This is not "just another Oriental cookbook." It is a dictionary of Oriental cooking, opening to view the cuisine of half the world, with excellent recipes, terms, definitions, substitutions and a world-wide mail order shopping guide. The glossary of spices and their pronunciations from one country to another is the most useful reference list in the book.
Even a cursory look through this 500-page book, now in its third printing, is enough to send one in search of little-known herbs and spices to transform, for example, a snapper into Pla Prio Wan--whole snapper glazed with red ginger sauce.
The full-color photos reinforce the temptation by the likes of Singapore chili crabs with their bright red, spicy-wet claws; a glistening bowl of brick-red Malaysian squid sambal set off by fluffy white rice; or a colorful marinated fish salad of tomatoes, peppers and coriander from the Philippines.
As a picture-book it makes you want to eat things you wouldn't normally try, simply from reading the recipe.
This is the eighth, and largest, of Solomon's cookbooks. She has compiled over 800 recipes, many from countries ordinarily ignored by modern cookbooks. Such infrequently recorded cuisines as Sri Lankan (her homeland), Pakistani, Malaysian, Singaporean, Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian and Thai are included alongside such well-known favorites as Indian, Chinese and Japanese.
Each chapter is prefaced with a brief history of the country's cuisine, including the influences of early explorers and conquerors. In addition, Solomon lists important utensils to have on hand and describes how the meals are traditionally served.
In Burma, Solomon explains, a colorful table of meat and fish curries and fresh raw vegetables is standard. The recipes are selected to contrast with one another in flavor and texture, and there are always a chili dish and soup included, along with balachaung (fried dry prawns). A table is set with plates and bowls and, while it is traditional to eat with the fingers, forks and spoons have made their way onto modern Burmese tables.
There is also a list of spices you will need to have on hand to complete a particular Asian shelf. Coconut milk, chilies, turmeric, curry leaves and shrimp paste are standard fare for this book.
Considering that cooking almost any dish from this book will mean a trip to at least one Asian grocery, it is especially useful that Solomon's glossary translates little-known ingredients from one language to another, helping to keep communication problems to a minimum in the specialty stores around town. Giant white radishes, for example, can be called loh bahk in Chinese groceries, or daikon in Japanese.
The index is organized by country and ingredient, then by dish. Most of the ingredients can be found locally, though Solomon lists easily found substitutions in the glossary. Some recipes are super-hot and spicy, so the newcomer is warned to go easy on the fresh chilies and chili pastes. And there is little direction as to what size meats and vegetables should be cut; however, bite-size works quite well.
Here is a selection of side-dish recipes from some of the lesser-known cuisines. Rice dishes, of which there are plenty in the book, have been left out. Instead boil a big pot of white rice and concentrate your efforts on the wok and steamer. These are mix-and-match cuisines, an invitation to be daring.
IDDI APPE (Stringhoppers) (From Sri Lanka) (8 to 10 servings)
Stringhoppers are so named because they are composed of fine "strings" of dough, finer even than vermicelli, forced through a perforated mold to form lacy circles about the side of a saucer. These are steamed on woven rounds piled one on top of the other. They are mentioned because they are so typical of Sri Lankan food, but since making them is an arduous task, the recipe that follows is a substitute using Chinese rice vermicelli. 1 pound rice vermicelli 5 tablespoons ghee* 3 large onions, finely sliced 10 curry leaves 1 packet powdered saffron or 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 1 teaspoon ground cardamom Salt and pepper to taste 4 to 5 hard-cooked eggs 1 cup cooked peas 1/4 cup cashew nuts or almonds, fried in oil until golden brown
Cook rice vermicelli in a large quantity of lightly salted boiling water for 2 minutes only. Drain immediately in a large colander.
Heat ghee in a large saucepan and fry onion and curry leaves until onion is golden. Add saffron, turmeric and cardamom and stir well. Add rice vermicelli and toss ingredients together until well mixed and evenly colored. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with eggs cut into slices or quarters, peas and nuts.
If liked, the hard-cooked eggs can be rubbed with ground turmeric and fried in a little hot oil until golden.
*Note: To make ghee, melt butter in a small saucepan. Skim off any residue that rises to the top of the butter. Pour off clear butter, being careful to leave any remaining milk solids behind.
SATE AYAM (Chicken Grilled on Skewers) (From Indonesia) (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes 2 red chilies or 1/2 teaspoon sambal ulek (a chili paste found in local Asian groceries as Sambal Oelek) 2 medium onions, roughly chopped 3 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons light soy sauce 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce 2 tablespoons sesame oil 2 tablespoons palm sugar (dark coconut sugar; substiute black sugar from health food stores or dark brown sugar) 1/2 cup thick coconut milk
Bone chicken and remove skin. Cut into 1-inch pieces. In container of electric blender put seeded and roughly chopped chilies, onions, ginger, lemon juice, salt and soy sauces. Blend until smooth, pour into a bowl and stir in oil and sugar. Add chicken and stir until each piece is well coated with the marinade. Cover and marinate for 1 hour. Chicken can be marinated overnight in the refrigerator. There will be a generous amount of marinade, because this is used as the base for a sauce to serve with the sate'.
Thread pieces of chicken on bamboo skewers which have been soaked for 1 to 2 hours in cold water, leaving at least half the skewer free at the blunt end. Grill over glowing coals or under a preheated broiler, about 2 inches from the heat source, for 5 to 8 minutes or until chicken is crisp and brown. Brush with extra oil during grilling, once on each side.
Pour remaining marinade into a small saucepan, add thick coconut milk and simmer over low heat until smooth and thickened, stirring constantly. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the satay.
BEYA KYAW (Split Pea Fritters) (From Burma) (Makes about 12) 1 cup split peas 2 medium onions, finely chopped 2 fresh red chilies, finely chopped, or 1/4 teaspoon chili powder 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric 1/2 teaspoon salt Oil for deep frying Sliced onion and lemon wedges for garnish
Soak split peas overnight, or for at least six hours, in water to cover. Drain, grind to a paste in blender or put twice through fine screen of mincer. Mix in all other ingredients except oil. Make small balls and flatten to 1/2-inch thickness. Heat oil in deep frying pan and put the fritters one at a time into the oil. Fry until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve garnished with sliced raw onion and lemon wedges.
SAMBAL GORENG KEMBANG (Chili Fried Cauliflower) (From Malaysia) (6 servings) 3 tablespoons peanut oil 4 fresh red chilies, finely chopped, or 2 teaspoons sambal ulek (chili paste found in Oriental groceries) 1 large onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (also called blacan, found in Oriental groceries) 1 teaspoon salt 1 pound cauliflower, sliced 2 tablespoons hot water
Heat oil in wok or frying pan and fry the chilies, onion and garlic over low heat, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and golden. Add dried shrimp paste and crush with back of spoon. Fry for a minute longer. Add salt, then turn in the cauliflower and toss and stir constantly until cauliflower is thoroughly mixed with the fried chili and onion mixture. Sprinkle with the hot water, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Serve hot.
KANG SOM PA (Laotian Fish Soup) (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound freshwater fish 4 cups water 1 stalk lemon grass, bruised, or 2 strips lemon rind 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons fish sauce 2 medium tomatoes, quartered 4 scallions, finely sliced 1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander leaves Lemon juice to taste
Buy the fish cleaned and scaled, then cut it into slices. Bring water to the boil with lemon grass and salt and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Then add the fish and the fish sauce and return it to the boil. Add tomatoes and simmer gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, discard lemon grass or lemon rind and add the scallions and coriander. Add lemon juice. Taste and add more fish sauce or salt if necessary. Serve hot.
ROJAK (Chilled spicy-hot salad of cucumbers and pineapple) (From Singapore) (6 servings) 1 large or 2 small cucumbers 1 small pineapple, not too ripe 3 fresh red or green chilies Dressing: 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (also called blacan, found in Oriental groceries), or to taste 3 tablespoons Chinese vinegar or other mild vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar 2 teaspoons sambal ulek (chili paste, found in Oriental groceries) or crushed fresh chilies Salt and lemon juice to taste
Peel cucumbers, cut lengthwise and remove seeds, then cut into matchstick strips. Cut skin off pineapple and remove all the eyes. Cut pineapple into wedges lengthwise, slice off core, then dice the flesh. Seed chilies and cut into thin slices. Combine cucumbers, pineapple and chilies in a bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt.
To make the dressing, wrap dried shrimp paste in foil. Put under a preheated broiler or over coals for about 5 minutes on each side. Unwrap and dissolve in the vinegar. Add sugar, sambal ulek, salt and lemon juice to taste and toss the dressing with the pineapple mixture. Alternatively, serve the dressing separately.
GULAI MANIS KANGKUNG (Watercress in Sweet Gravy) (From Indonesia) (6 servings)
Kangkung is a dark green leaf used in Asian countries and highly prized for its vitamin value. Substitute watercress, spinach or chicory. Although chicory is bitter, this preparation contains sugar, and the resulting bitter-sweet combination is fascinating. 1 pound kangkung (substitute watercress or chicory) 4 tablespoons dehydrated or dried shrimps 1 1/2 cups coconut milk 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 small clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger 1 fresh red chili, seeded and sliced 2 tablespoons palm sugar (substitute dark brown sugar) 1 tablespoon laos powder (optional)
Wash the greens very well in several changes of cold water and drain. Slice coarsely. Pour half-cup hot water over shrimps and soak 5 minutes. If using the brownish dried shrimps instead of the white dehydrated shrimps, they will need longer soaking, about 25 minutes. Put coconut milk and all other ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to a boil, uncovered. Add soaked shrimps, the water in which they soaked and the green vegetable. Cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes or until tender. Serve hot with rice and other dishes.
PANCIT GUISADO (Fried Noodles with Mixed Meats) (From the Phillipines) (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound raw shrimp 1 pound thin egg noodles 3 to 4 tablespoons lard or oil 5 cloves garlic, crushed 2 onions, finely sliced 1 cup flaked cooked chicken 1 cup cooked pork, cut in thin strips 1/2 cup ham, cut in thin strips 1 cup shredded cabbage 3 tablespoons light soy sauce Salt and pepper to taste Lemon wedges for garnish
Cook shrimp in a little lightly salted water, cool, then shell and devein. Cut into pieces if large. Reserve 1 cup of the shrimp stock. Soak noodles in warm water while bringing a large pan of water to a boil. Drain noodles and drop them into the fast-boiling water, bring back to a boil and cook for 2 minutes or until just tender. Do not overcook. Drain immediately, spread on a large baking tray lined with paper towels and allow to dry for at least 30 minutes, sprinkling a little oil over to prevent sticking.
Heat a tablespoon of lard in a large wok and when very hot, fry noodles, a handful at a time, until golden on both sides, adding more lard to the wok as necessary. Remove noodles from wok. Heat a little more lard or oil and fry separately the garlic, onion, shrimp, chicken, pork and ham. Set aside some of each for garnishing the dish and return the rest to the pan together with cabbage, soy sauce, shrimp stock, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered until almost dry, then return noodles and heat through, tossing well to mix. Arrange on serving platter and garnish with the reserved ingredents and wedges of lemon.
THA HNAT (Cucumber Pickle) (From Burma) 6 servings) 2 large green cucumbers 1/2 cup malt vinegar (available in specialty food stores) 2 cups water 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup peanut oil 2 tablespoons sesame oil 8 cloves garlic, sliced 1 medium onion, finely sliced 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Peel cucumbers, halve lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Cut into strips of finger thickness, then cut strips into 2-inch pieces. Bring vinegar, water and salt to the boil, drop in cucumbers and boil just until they look transparent. Do not overcook. Drain immediately and leave to cool.
Heat both oils together and fry the garlic until pale golden. Drain. Fry the onion until golden brown. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan, stirring constantly, until they are evenly golden brown. Turn on to a plate to cool. When the oil is cold, dress the cucumbers with 3 tablespoons of the oil, mixing well with the fingers. Put into a small serving dish, add the onion, garlic and sesame seeds, and toss lightly.