Chicken larb and purple sticky rice

When I first started researching my cookbook, I decided I wanted to include as many different Asian Pacific American communities as possible. This hasn’t always been easy as there are some communities I am not very well connected with. Case in point: the Laotian community. Fortunately, a contact put me in touch with a Lao gentleman who is a community leader and a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church in Seattle’s Central District where the local Lao community gathers for mass every Sunday. I showed up one Sunday morning and he introduced me to two ladies who agreed to show me how to make some of their traditional dishes. They belonged to two distinct Lao hill tribes–Yi Thao was Hmong and Keo Choulapha was Khmu.

When I told Yi I wanted her to show me how to cook some family recipes, she wrinkled her nose and said the food her parents ate was very bland. “Chicken boiled with vegetables, tofu, pumpkin grown in the garden boiled with water … very healthy food,” she said. It was obvious she equated healthy with tasteless. After I circumvented egg rolls (the Hmong are descendants of an ancient ethnic group that lived in China before migrating to Southeast Asia in the early 19th century, so egg rolls may not be too far off but I wanted something a little closer to typical Lao cuisine), we finally settled on chicken larb.

The following week, I met with Yi, a young mother of 4 kids ranging in age from 15 to 24. Yi is what I would call a “chili padi” (those tiny Thai bird’s eye chilies that are so spicy they could make a grown man cry), a bundle of energy packed into her petite 5-foot frame. The moment I arrived, she ushered me into her kitchen and started bustling around doing a dozen things all at once.

The first thing Yi did was pop a small skillet onto the stove and pour sticky rice grains into it. She was dry roasting the grains to make roasted rice powder, an essential ingredient in chicken larb (also spelled laap, larp or laab.) Roasted rice powder is available at Asian grocery stores but Yi prefers to make it herself since it’s so easy. Besides, the hardest part of the process was her husband’s job–pounding the toasted rice in a mortar and pestle. All she had to do is sift the powder to get the smoothest grains. Aah … the beauty of delegation.

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Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos and is also very popular in neighboring Thailand. You’ve probably seen this Lao meat salad on the menu at Thai restaurants. Larb can be made with chicken, beef, duck, pork or even fish, and some prefer to eat the meat raw (not the poultry of course). It is usually served at room temperature with sticky rice.

Sticky rice is a staple for Lao people and is traditionally eaten out of a woven basket, with fingers. Hence to keep fingers clean and rice out of the various dishes, the dishes are not [excessively] wet or oily which explains why Yi’s larb recipe uses no oil and very lean chicken breast meat.

I have never observed the Lao way of making sticky rice but I dare venture a guess that Yi’s method was a little unorthodox. First, she boiled half a (14 oz) package of black sticky rice in a pot of water until the liquid turned a murky grayish purple. After straining the black sticky rice (and to my surprise, throwing it away), she soaked the white sticky rice in the black sticky rice “juice” for about half an hour. “Just for the color and to make pretty,” she explained. “You can mix white and black rice together but I don’t like it.” The resulting rice was dyed an attractive purplish hue.

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Then she steamed the rice in a special sticky rice steaming basket and pot set which looks like an inverted cone-shaped hat balanced on a spitoon.

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Traditionally, the basket is woven from bamboo but Yi prefers one that is made from plastic. Halfway through the steaming process (about 15 minutes), she removed the basket and in one deft movement she flipped the rice mound upside down and replaced the basket on its base to continue steaming.

In between soaking and flipping rice, Yi was also chopping herbs for the larb. In no time, she threw the larb together and dinner was ready.

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Before we started eating, Yi showed me how to mould the sticky rice into a ball and pick up some of the larb. Somehow or another, I managed to get everything into my mouth without spilling and embarrassing myself.  

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Chicken larb (Lao meat salad)

Yi usually buys lean chicken breast meat and cuts out all the fat before mincing it herself (with a cleaver!) because she finds ground chicken often too fatty. But if you don’t fancy all that work, use the leanest ground chicken breast you can find. All the herbs below are available at Asian grocery stores and each brings with it a unique flavor to the dish. But I have seen larb recipes using only cilantro, spearmint and green onions as greens, so if you can’t find them all, the dish will still taste good even if not totally authentic. To identify some of the lesser known herbs like saw leaf or rau rahm, food writer Andrea Nguyen has a great reference page on her web site: Vietworldkitchen.com.

Time: 40 minutes (mostly prep work)
Makes: 4 servings

1-1/2 pounds lean ground chicken breast
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon MSG (yes, many Asian home cooks still use it but it’s totally optional)
1/3 cup roasted rice powder (available in Asian markets or you can make your own by roasting raw rice in a dry skillet over the stove till brown. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle)
1/2 cup cilantro stems and leaves, reserve half the leaves for garnish and chop the remaining stems and leaves finely
4 green onions, cut the green tops into “O’s and slice the bottom 2 inches thinly lengthwise for garnish
1/2 cup saw leaf herb (also called cilantro or Mexican coriander), chopped finely
1/2 cup spearmint leaves, torn into small pieces
6 kaffir limes leaves, chopped finely
1/2 cup rau rahm (also called Vietnamese coriander), chopped finely
6 bird’s eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
2-inches unpeeled galangal, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, outer skin removed, trimmed, and minced
1 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Juice of 1 large lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Heat a medium wok or skillet until it is very hot and add the chicken and stir fry without any oil. The chicken will stick to the pan at first, but its juices will come out and the meat will loosen. Add salt and MSG if using. Stir fry for about 6 to 7 minutes until chicken is no longer pink and fully cooked but not too brown. Transfer meat to a big bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes.

Add roasted rice powder, herbs and spices, crushed dried red pepper, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and taste. You should taste a nice balance of heat (chilies and red pepper), tartness (lime juice) and salt (fish sauce). Don’t be afraid to add more of anything to get the flavor balance just right. Garnish with reserved cilantro and green onions and serve with sticky rice.

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Top 10 leftover turkey tips

Once thanksgiving has come and gone, and the food coma has dissipated (hopefully!), one is faced with the next big thing–leftovers.

Who doesn’t love turkey leftovers? I do! But having overdosed on one too many turkey sandwiches and turkey tetrazzinis, I’m looking for a turkey leftover makeover. My solution? Reincarnate the turkey in Asian-style dishes.

Just like grandmas and mothers everywhere are experts at improv in the kitchen, let your creativity run (turkey) wild. Hint: you can use leftover turkey in just about any recipe that calls for chicken bits.

Here’s my top 10.

10. Turkey stock

Place the turkey carcass in a big stockpot, cover with enough water, add some herbs and spices–I pop in a few smashed cloves of garlic, diced onions, a few ginger slices, peppercorns, and two to three stalks of green onions tied in a knot– and voila!

9. Turkey macaroni soup

One of my favorite comfort foods! Add shredded turkey, sausage slices (ballpark sausages will do) and a cup or two of frozen veggies to the stock above, and boil some elbows of macaroni . To serve, top with squares of Spam (you can fry them up first if you’d like), fried shallots and green onion ‘O’s. 

8. Turkey lumpia

Shredded or chopped turkey tastes yummy rolled into a lumpia or egg roll with all the usual accoutrements. Dip in plum sauce … mmm … turkey and plum sauce … mmm … Try this recipe from food blog Pinoy Cook.

7. (Curried) turkey salad

Ever heard of Coronation chicken? Well, neither had I before I lived in England. It’s basically precooked chicken mixed with mayonnaise, curry powder, nuts and apricots/or raisins, and served between two slices of white bread (duh, it’s a sandwich!) or on a bed of lettuce. I know it sounds funky, but it tastes really good. Have a go at a turkey version by improvising on the original recipe or trying this Allrecipes.com one.

6. Turkey with nutmegged kecap manis gravy 

This is a gravy my mum makes for Indonesian steak (basically the meat’s marinated in kecap manis or Indonesian sweet soy sauce) but I bet it tastes great with roast turkey too! 

Fry 1 finely minced shallot and two cloves of garlic, minced, in a couple of tablespoons of butter until golden brown and fragrant. Add about a quart of turkey stock (#10), 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (my mum uses tomato ketchup) and 1/4 cup kecap manis, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and add 1/4 cup milk. Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste), and salt and white pepper to taste. Drizzle gravy over turkey slices and rice.

5. Turkey stir-fry with vegetables

Add bite size pieces of turkey to almost cooked stir-fried veggies. Give everything a good stir and serve.

4. Turkey sticky rice casserole

Pork is usually the staple in this popular Chinese dish but why not use turkey bits instead? Throw the turkey, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), water chestnuts, shrimp and sticky rice into a rice cooker and it’ll be ready in no time! Or if you are a stickler for tradition, cook it in a claypot.  Try this recipe from Epicurious.com.

3. Turkey Tom Ka Kai

Instead of chicken, add turkey (toward the end of cooking time though) to this yummy Thai sour soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and  lemon grass. Replace the chicken stock with turkey stock (#10) too. This recipe was given to me by Rin Nedtra, owner of Sea Siam Thai Restaurant in Miami, FL.

2. Turkey noodle soup

Here’s that indispensable turkey stock (#10) again! Boil your favorite noodles–egg, rice, or mung bean–and serve in seasoned stock. Top with turkey slices and your choice of vegetables–I recommend bok choy.

And now for my #1 way with turkey leftovers … drumroll please …

10.Turkey congee

Using the turkey stock (#10), making turkey congee is as easy as 1-2-3 and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Light and filling, it’s the perfect antidote to the previous day’s gluttony.

Combine strained stock and rice in a stockpot (about 8 cups of stock to 1 cup of uncooked rice.) Bring to a boil and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until consistency of oatmeal, about 1-3/4 hours. Stir frequently during last 1/2 hour of cooking, adding water if necessary. Season with salt or soy sauce. Ladle into individual bowls and serve topped with shredded turkey, and your choice of green onion ‘O’s, chopped cilantro and chung choy (preserved turnip.) 

Drop me a comment if you have any other un-Thanksgiving leftover recipes to share!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Namul, namul

 

My friends tease me that I like to say words in pairs … it must be an Indonesian thing: photo photo, jalan jalan … so yeah, I like the sound of namul, namul.

So what’s namul you ask? Namul is a general term for a wide variety of Korean vegetable dishes.

The vegetables may vary, as well as preparation methods and seasonings, but they are all namul. Vegetables of all shapes and sizes can be used–be they herbs, roots, leaves, stems, seeds, sprouts, petals, or fruits. Preparation methods and seasoning also run the gamut: the vegetables can be left raw, dried, sautéed, blanched, or steamed; seasonings range from garlic, salt, vinegar, sesame oil, to Korean red pepper paste (goch’ujang).

 

An assortment of namul is typically served as banchan–small side dishes–served alongside rice and the main course. If you’ve ever been for Korean barbecue, you know what I mean! Examples of namul include chwinamul (wild leafy plants), shigeumchi (spinach), and kongnamul (soy bean sprouts.)

 

This namul recipe is a slight variation on a recipe given to me by Yangja Im, my friend Soyon Im’s aunt.

Hobak Namul (green and yellow zucchini thread salad)

Hobak namul is Yangja’s favorite of all namul. (Hobak, I’ve read, is actually a Korean squash which is round. Anyone have a picture?) Not only is it tasty but this is a colorful and elegant dish that complements any Korean meal. This everyday dish has a gentle and mild flavor that is especially calming with spicy food. Blanching is optional and is not necessary if the zucchini and carrots are sliced thinly and if you prefer your vegetables crunchy. If preparing this dish in advance, she suggests adding the sesame oil right before serving to keep the colors bright and the flavor fresh.

Time: 1 hour (from start to finish)
Makes: 4 servings

4 medium zucchinis (2 green, 2 yellow), rinsed, dried, trimmed at both ends
1 large carrot, peeled
1 Korean hot green pepper or jalapeno (optional)
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/8 teaspoon white pepper to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Juice from 1/2 large lemon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root (about 1-inch) [I like to peel the root by scraping it off with a spoon before grating but it’s up to you]
Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Halve zucchinis. Discard seeds in the center with a spoon.

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Using a shredder or a very sharp knife, slice the zucchini lengthwise as thinly as possible into threads. Thinly slice the carrot and green pepper to the same length as the zucchini.

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Place zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and let stand 15 minutes. Wrap zucchini in a nonterry dish towel and gently wring out excess moisture. Do this 2 or 3 times to extract enough water from the zucchini yet not completely crush it. Repeat with carrot.

Place vegetables in a medium bowl and fluff them up. Add white pepper and sugar. Mix well. Add salt to taste if desired. Add lemon juice, sesame oil, and ginger. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if using. Toss and serve.

Somen + salad = tasty

After a week filled with gunmetal skies, blustery winds and neverending drizzle, the sun decided to pop up and give us a couple of Indian summer days in Seattle. Inspired by the warm(er) weather–it hit 68F in the shade!–I decided to make a refreshing, cold somen salad. Somen is a skinny Japanese noodle, kinda like vermicelli but made from wheat flour instead of rice flour. They’re usually prettily packaged in neat bundles like so.

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My friend Scott Kushino’s mom, Daisy gave me this recipe. Originally from Hawaii, Daisy grew up on her mom and grandmothers’ healthy culinary creations made from the fresh vegetables homegrown on the island. When she moved to Chicago at 18, somen salad was one of many childhood recipes she took with her to the Mainland.

Though somen salad is Japanese in origin, when I told my Tokyo- born and bred (for the most part) friend Yuki about it she was a little bemused. “It sounds really good though,” she said. “I bet you can try it with soba (buckwheat noodles) too!” Hence I believe this dish is very much a Japanese/Hawaiian/American concoction.

By the way, if you’d like to learn a little more about Asian noodles, check out my article “Oodles of Noodles” that was printed in Priority magazine, the inflight magazine for Singapore Airlines (for those who know the commercial, please sing along: “Singapore Girl, you’re a great way to fly …”)

Somen Salad

Daisy’s recipe calls for kamaboko (Japanese fish cake) but you can use surimi (imitation crab meat; both kamaboko and surimi are made from the same basic ingredients, i.e. white fish) instead. Char siu aka barbecue pork is available at most Asian grocery supermarkets with a deli and what decent Hong Kong/Cantonese restaurant doesn’t have char siu on its menu? Like any salad, feel free to substitute or change portions to taste. The dressing goes fabulously with field greens too.

Time: 40 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

1 (12 oz) pkg. somen

1/2 head of small lettuce, shredded (about 2 cups)

1/2 lb char siu or ham, cut into matchsticks

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 pkg (6 oz) kamaboko or 6 sticks surimi, cut into matchsticks

2 stalks green onion, sliced into thin ‘O’s

Cook somen as directed on package. Do not overcook or the noodles will be soggy! Strain into colander, rinse with cold water, drain and set aside to cool.

Make omelets. Lightly grease a 6″ frying pan. Pour 1/2 of egg mixture into pan and roll it around to spread evenly, over low heat. When the omelet surface is nearly dry (lift edge to check if underside is cooked), flip. Cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat with remaining egg mixture. When cool, roll omelets into fat cigars and cut into very fine strips.

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Transfer somen to a large platter and arrange lettuce, meat, kamaboko or surimi, green onions and egg strips an top. Just before serving, pour dressing (recipe to follow) over salad. Mix well and serve on individual plates.

Dressing:

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1/4 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons rice or white vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
l teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a jar with a screw-top lid. Screw top on. Shake well.