Between his run as cheap eats columnist for The New York Times and coauthoring the Momofuku cookbook with David Chang, Peter Meehan has spent years eating and cooking Asian food in its many shapes and seaweed broths. And as the founding editor of the literary food journal and website Lucky Peach — edited with a deep and intellectual curiosity about America’s Asian Food Industrial Complex — few journalists are better known for colorfully writing about way over there concepts like the lachrymatory molecules of Chinese black garlic while lusting over Hokkaido ikura and uni than Meehan.
But the Chicago-born journalist is the first to admit that he was hardly raised with a simmering pot of soulongtang, the Korean beef bone soup, on the stove. And that beginning to cook with the Asian larder posed some initial challenges. “I just freaked out at the way it all smelled,” he says of the day in 1998 when his now-wife brought home kimchi and fish sauce to their small New York City apartment. “I didn’t understand how it could possibly not be spoiled.” But by the end of the next day, after the stench had become tolerable, there was delicious food to eat. “And delicious food is the best argument for everything.”
Cook more Asian! It’s a statement being made by many people these days. By nutritionists guiding their patients to dairy- and gluten-free diets. By the world traveler back from a semester in India. By the Koh Samui honeymooners seeking to re-create the coconut prawns they blissfully ate every afternoon on the beach. But no group is holding a larger bullhorn than cookbook publishers, who have put out a record number of Asian-related cookbooks during the recent autumn blitz, including Meehan’s first effort, 101 Easy Asian Recipes, released under the Lucky Peach banner as part of a multibook deal with Clarkson Potter. The newest arrivals also include Made in India, The Mission Chinese Cookbook, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, and many, many others.
Still, Amazon Priming a stack of splashy Asian cookbooks or booking a table at Roy Choi’s A-Frame is one thing. Actually reaching for the wok on a Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. is a completely different matter. So how do we — especially those who lack any sort of Asian heritage or culinary training — cook more Asian at home?
A couple of years ago, I found this prospect quite daunting. Then something kinda crazy happened that made me rethink everything about cooking Asian food at home: I sold a Korean cookbook. This meant I would have to write and develop 100-plus recipes with a chef, then retest the 100 recipes in my small Brooklyn kitchen. The day my publisher forked over some advance money, which led to a pretty instantaneous “Oh, shit, this is real” kind of dread, I did not own a wok. The bottle of sesame oil in the back of the cabinet, lost in a sea of tea boxes and forgotten spice rubs, was a year past spoilage.
Though I absolutely reveled in eating Korean food and knew a lot about it, I really hadn’t cooked much Korean at home. There were a few token holiday dinners prepared with friends, clumsy and fueled by whisky to calm my nerves. But certainly no feasts of gamjatang and kongbiji jjigae. The Blue Apron ramen was the closest I had come to tackling izakaya food. I’d read the Pok Pok cookbook, Andy Ricker’s encyclopedic journey through regional Thai cooking, in awe. The book never made it into the kitchen.
“The thing that was stopping me was the idea that every time I wanted to cook, I’d need to schlep to Manhattan or Sunset Park and then lug stuff home,” says prolific cookbook author JJ Goode, when I asked him to talk about his early days cooking with Asian ingredients. Goode, who recently collaborated with New York chef Dale Talde on his new “proudly inauthentic” tome Asian-American, also started cooking Asian from a bit of a dead start and — like me — adapted and devised a strategy for setting up an Asian kitchen that now has us cooking several times a week.
In general, Cooking More Asian At Home is built around a couple simple concepts:
1. Each time you tackle an Asian recipe, you do not need to start from scratch. Invest in a few key pieces of equipment and ingredients, building an Asian kitchen within your kitchen.
2. Ingredients and equipment can be easily found at Asian supermarkets, are inexpensive and will last a long time.
After speaking with chefs and colleagues in the food world, and reviewing the ingredients and equipment sections of some of my favorite Asian cookbooks, here are some of the things that will help you get the job done. Of course, some recipes — like all recipes based around all styles of cooking — will require a special trip to the market. But you’re likely heading there already, given you are cooking with fresh produce, meats and seafood. I’ve included some essentials, with a few “why the fuck not?” selections thrown in. All of these items can be picked up at either your regular supermarket in the Asian foods section oe the Asian grocery store that is undoubtedly within a short drive from where you live.
There are many kinds of soy sauce, and I’m not going to debate which is better. Meehan likes the Japanese brands with usukuchi (light) written on the packaging. Tamari is slightly sweeter and made with mostly soybeans and little to no wheat. I like to go with a low-sodium soy sauce, the logic being you can always add salt, but you can’t take it away. Once opened, leave soy sauce in the fridge. For real: It will taste funny if you leave it in the cupboard.
What a magical product, turning sauté sauces and meat marinades magically Asian (ginger does a similar thing). Some have called it the olive oil of Asia, and like EVOO, sesame oil ranges widely in quality. If you’re at an Asian grocery store or Koreatown/Chinatown, see if you can find a shop that presses to order. That is the good stuff. But any small bottle will do — and always go with the smallest bottle. Sesame oil should be refrigerated and spoils over time. It’s good to reload every six months or so.
I’m grouping these together with hesitation because both products are quite different, though they are close cousins. Miso, made in Japan, is made out of fermented soybeans — salty, full of funk, smooth and available in both red (called aka; sharp and salty) and white (called shiro; sweet and mellow) tubs. It’s a foundational condiment in Japanese cooking, used in soups, sauces and marinades. Doenjang (Korean, pronounced TEN-jong), is also made with fermented soybeans, but it’s chunkier and more pungent. Doenjang is used in Korea’s most iconic dish — not barbecue, but a beef soup called doenjang jjigae.
Pronounced GO-CHOO-jong, you can think of this as doenjang with added spice from red chile peppers. Sweet, funky and sometimes hotter than the sun, so pay attention to the pepper rating on the packaging. “When taken out of context, gochujang can taste a little intense,” says Madison, Wisconsin, chef Tory Miller. “But if you combine it with mirin, sesame oil, honey and garlic, it makes ssamjang, which is basically Korean ketchup and tastes incredible.” Gochujang should never be used on its own but cut with things like rice vinegar, sugar or stock. Never put it directly into soup.
Probably a good bet to achieve “next sriracha” status, sambal is by tradition an Indonesian sauce made with chile peppers, fish sauce, shrimp paste and savory stuff, like ginger, garlic, shallots. It’s a chunky sauce that adds acidity and spice to proteins, stir-fries and rice dishes.
The best fish sauce is made on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, where black anchovies turn fat in the winter months and are harvested and packed into large wooden barrels with salt and left to ferment for a year. The resulting liquid drains to the bottom and is collected and bottled. Red Boat is a good brand to look for, but Thai brands like Squid or Crab will do okay, too. Fish sauce is basically liquid umami, salty and funky. A little goes a long way. “If you put it into any number of dishes, like, say, a bowl of soup, it completely transforms the dish and tastes incredible,” says chef Miller of one of his favorite condiments.
You kind of don’t want to know how this stuff is made, but think fermented oysters and stabilizers mixed together into a brown viscous syrup. It’s used throughout Cantonese cooking, and unlike fish sauce, it’s not just funky but sweet — truly a gift from the condiment gods.
While kimchi can come in a number of shapes and sizes, cabbage kimchi (baechu) is the most popular. Buy a big jar and stick it in the back of your fridge. Pull it out to drop into ramen broth, fried up with rice or eggs or stacked atop a cheese sandwich.
A bottle of decent-to-great sake goes well with sushi. But cheap cooking sake is also great to have on hand for meat marinades — the alcohol acts as a natural tenderizer.
Duh. It’s already there in the door of your fridge. If it isn’t, why are you even reading this?
This important acid is used in many aspects of Asian cooking and is milder than Western vinegars. Thankfully, you can find it at any supermarket or health food store. And if possible, avoid substituting white or balsamic vinegar. They are not really the same.
Mirin is similar to Japanese sake, though it has a very focused sweetness and is made with a lower alcohol content. It’s typically used in a braise or marinade to tenderize meat, and the alcohol is eventually cooked off.
For the last couple of years, you’ve been reading about this Japanese spice blend, which your favorite chef may have sprinkled on grilled meat or atop a salad. It’s sold in small, vial-like containers and consists mostly of finely ground dried pepper (black and white) but also dried seaweed, sesame seeds and the essence of orange peel.
Dried trumpet, porcini and shiitake mushrooms can be pretty expensive, but a little goes a long way, and they last forever. Invest in a few kinds and use to boost your stocks and sauces.
I’m going to be honest — I didn’t own a bottle of this Chinese wine before cooking from Meehan’s book. He uses it in many dishes, from ragus to stir-fries, and recommends investing in a $15 bottle found at a liquor store (not the $4 grocery store version). But it turns out this sweet wine, a distant cousin of dry sherry, adds that sweet boozy kick you often find in great plate of Shanghainese drunken chicken.
Kombu is seaweed that has been dried into a cement-like fossilized state. Kombu is the main ingredient in the life-affirming stock called dashi and will keep in your pantry forever.
This popular brand of “instant” dashi is good in a pinch (making your own is always the best move) and can save you serious time. And don’t be alarmed. It’s supposed to smell like fish food.
Chinese 5 Spice
Quick: Can you name the five spices in Chinese 5 Spice? That would be star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn and ground fennel. It’s used in not only Chinese cooking, but Vietnamese and Thai. Great on chicken, pork ribs and atop a bowl of noodles.
Cooking with whole dried fish is about as far from the Western sensibility as possible, but it’s fundamental. It’s used not only in stocks but stir-fries and sauces, too. High-quality anchovies have healthy, shiny skin and are often sold frozen (humidity is an anchovy’s worst enemy, which is why you should always keep them in the freezer).
This Japanese spice mixture is a dry shaker filled with seaweed, fish flakes, salt, sesame seeds, sugar and a bit of MSG. Goes great on a bowl of instant ramen, adding a hint of the sea and lots of that umami.
Everybody has that section of their pantry that houses all the boxes and bags of dried Italian pasta. This is how you add to that! There are dozens of types of dried Asian noodles, all available at Asian supermarkets. Udon is a thick wheat noodle from Japan. Lo mein are made with egg and similar to the shape of spaghetti. Sweet potato noodles have taken the gluten-free world by storm and are used in Korean japchae. Alternatively, if you can ever get your hands on fresh Asian noodles, go for it. Some mom-and-pop grocery stores carry them. But also look for the Sun Noodle ramen kits in select stores.
You’ve read about the magic numbing and tingly sensation this spice brings to the sauté and hot pot. Now it’s time to take things to the next level. It’s time to make mapo tofu at home.
It’s a pretty simple demand: Please buy a wok. It will reach the high temperatures required for much of this cooking. Please don’t spend more than $25 on it. Make sure the bottom is flat (as in, you don’t need a wok ring to use it). Your favorite cooking-gear store will sell you one, as will the Asian supermarket. If you are near Chinatown or Koreatown or Little Vietnam, look for a store that sells kitchen equipment. Go there and pick up some of the other things listed below.
Electric rice cooker
If you have the cupboard space and 30 bucks, an electric rice cooker is a very good investment. Typically you will want to serve a warm bowl of rice during your Asian feast, and nothing is worse than coming to the end of a cooking session and realizing you forgot to put the rice on. Also, fun fact: Rice cookers make killer oatmeal. Set it the night before and there you go…breakfast.
Your eight-inch Wusthof chef’s knife will get the job done. There is no doubt. But a cheap cleaver is such a badass thing. You can break down a chicken, rough-chop vegetables, fine-chop chives. It stays sharp and carries some weight.
Metal wok spatula
Part spoon, part spatula. Great for tossing around all that great stuff being cooked in your wok and for redistributing sauce.
High-power (but cheap) food processor
Not everybody can swing the $600 for a Vitamix, which is like the Lamborghini of food processors. But to quote that great Blur sample, food processors are great, especially when making sauces and meat marinades. I really like my Ninja, which is affordable and comes with a number of detachable cups (so you can have one for the kimchi base and one for the strawberry smoothie).
This is used for fishing vegetables, dumplings, wontons, hand pies and fried chicken sticks out of boiling water or hot oil. That is, it’s incredibly useful for all types of cooking.
Mortar and pestle
Maybe not for the tiny urban kitchen, but if you have a little bit of room, a solid mortar and pestle is great for pounding out herb-based sauces.
If you plan to cook any meat or fish at home, a good thermometer is the only way you are going to fully know if something is done. I really like this brand.
There’s a bit to digest here, but you have to trust me that I made an effort to include only the essentials — and items that would not break the bank. No fancy herbs, no expensive knives. And I promise you one thing: Once you get used to the quick moves of the wok and cooking long braises with gochujang, your home kitchen is going to smell incredible.