As a young boy growing in SoHo, I have to confess I had a passionate hunger to try exotic foods I smelt in the expensive international restaurants that dotted the London area. There was usually a single Asian restaurant on a street representing the cuisine of a particular Asian country with its British infusion of Asian satays and sweet chilly dip sauce.
It was a landmark moment for me when I became a food reporter for a reputable international magazine and got to try Thai cuisine for the first time. It was truly an eye opener – it felt like all the elements of Chinese cuisine, the soy sauce, the stir-fried noodles, and the tofu had been reinvigorated with limes and chillies, coconut and fish sauce.
Instead of a bland cornstarch gravy, the bean sprouts and vegetables were infused with tangy succulent dressings, or deliciously creamy milk. It was love at first sight with Pad Thai, and a romance that is still going on today.
From there, a detour to Thai, Philippine, and Chinese cuisine became a dead certainty for me. I spent a lot of time and resources scouring different cities to find original restaurants to sample, I owe a big gratitude to the internet, because it was through the net that I got to visit my first authentic Asian cuisine, and soon enough the flavors conquered my palate and my enthusiasm deepened.
While each Asian cuisine is special, they share many similarities including a tropical array of ingredients like citrus, coconut, and a never ending assortment of vegetables and spices. The climate also played a major factor in the kinds of dishes that were lovingly made, with lighter, leaner dishes that would not bog you down on a hot day. The land of the rising sun is encircled by waters, seafood is bountiful, and the flavors of the cuisine often reflect the offerings of the sea.
Fish sauce, specifically, is usually utilized in place of salt, and a bottle can often be found sitting on the table for a reason. As weird as it seems to westerners, this bottle serves a not-so-known purpose.
When fish is fermented and transformed into a salty base, the process deconstructs the in its elemental form, releasing the amino acids. Those acids add to the “umami” in the food. Umami – is well-known for those who binge on anime and manga, but for those who don’t, it is a Japanese term for the fifth taste after sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. As a consequence of this, sprinkling a light spray of fish sauce into a bowl of noodles and vegetables adds a different element to the dish and deepens its flavor profile.
This cuisine is my first love and it’s all about creating balance between hot and sour, spicy and sweet. The heat is made present by chilies crushed into a paste. The sour notes are provided by the usage of limes, lemons as well as lemongrass and lime leaf.
Lemongrass is distinct as it provides a tartness which is used to tone down the flavor of citrus juice. Salt comes from the fish sauce, salted fish, or basically salt. Sweetness is introduced with coconut milk, and tropical fruits like pineapple or mango to add a bit of freshness.
The Philippine share in the Asian heritage although their foods have less sharpened flavors. Although vintage dishes like beef or pork simmering with vinegar are tasty but not quite so hot. Crunchy lumpia rolls are the riposte to eggrolls with an assortment of vegetable filling, a fine thin layer and a sharp sweet sour sauce.
So have a combo of fish sauce well mashed with Indian curry spice and enjoy every bite!