Balancing the yum in Asian cooking

From what yum means in Asian cooking to foods you need to try as soon as you can.

Szechwan style green beans  (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Szechwan style green beans
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The key to tasty Asian dishes is yum, announced chef Jet Tila at his presentation of his new book, 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die.
At first we thought he was joking, but then we realized that he meant it. “Yum,” wrote Tila, “is a Thai word that translates to the perfect balance between spicy, sour, salty, sweet and savory.” He commented that in all Asian countries, cooks try to achieve harmony of these five flavors.
“Many people complain that all their Asian dishes taste the same,” wrote Tila, and noted that the reason for this is that they use mainly soy sauce to season their dishes. It’s important to remember, he emphasized, that “soy is not the only seasoning in Asian food!” Each Asian country has its core ingredients to make its cuisine taste right. According to Tila, the basic pantry ingredients for Chinese cuisine are hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, chili garlic sauce, ginger, and oyster sauce.
We asked Tila about a substitute for oyster sauce, which is salty and slightly sweet, and he recommended using vegetarian oyster sauce or to mix mushroom soy sauce with sweet soy sauce.
“You don’t have to use a wok to stir-fry,” said Tila while making Szechwan-style green beans to demonstrate the stir-frying technique (see recipe), “and you can use any oil you like. The only oils to stay away from are olive oil and sesame oil.”
When some food writers in the audience looked surprised at his mention of sesame oil, since it is central to Chinese cooking, he explained: “Sesame oil is for flavoring a dish just before serving it, but not for heating at the high temperature needed for stir-frying.”
Some may wonder why Tila included Chinese chicken salad in his book of authentic Asian recipes, since this salad is considered an American creation. (See recipe.) “The word ‘authentic’ can be a broad term,” wrote Tila, “and that’s definitely my interpretation of it. Chinese food went global over a hundred years ago.... If a cuisine takes hold in another country and new dishes are created, are they not authentic? In the last 50 years, new dishes like California rolls, spicy tuna, orange chicken and countless others have been created by Asians outside of Asia and have found their way into the global food vocabulary. So to me, they are totally authentic.”
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Szechwan-style green beans
“This technique is called twice cooking,” wrote Jet Tila. The Chinese flash-fry items in deep oil to precook them, then finish cooking them as a stir-fry in a wok. “Think about it like blanching the beans just to take the raw flavor out... and jump-start the cooking process since wok cooking is so fast.” Tila sometimes steams the beans briefly instead of deep-frying them. Hoisin sauce can be found at Chinese markets.
Serves 4
2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (or see note 1 below)
2 Tbsp. oyster sauce (vegetarian version or see note 2 below)
2 Tbsp. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1½ Tbsp. (22 gr.) brown sugar
1 tsp. chili garlic sauce
Green Beans:
450 gr. green beans, trimmed
4 cups (960 ml.) canola, peanut, corn or vegetable oil (or 2 Tbsp. oil, if steaming instead)
1¾ cups (200 gr.) cornstarch (for dredging)
2 Tbsp. (30 gr.) Tianjin preserved vegetable or any Chinese preserved vegetables (optional)
2 Tbsp. (20 gr.) chopped garlic
2 Tbsp. (18 gr.) chopped ginger
For sauce: Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
For green beans: Wash green beans and drain them thoroughly.
Add the oil to a deep skillet and bring temperature up to 190C (375F). Dredge beans in the cornstarch in a large bowl, knocking off any excess.
Deep-fry beans for 1 to 3 minutes, until their skins begin to wrinkle but they’re still crisp; remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Alternatively, steam beans for 1 or 2 minutes.
Heat another deep skillet or wok to high and add 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) oil (fresh or from oil used to deep fry beans). When you see a few wisps of white smoke, stir in preserved vegetables, garlic and ginger and brown for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add beans to pan, folding constantly for about 30 seconds. Stir in sauce and fold into beans until well combined. Cook for about 1 minute until ingredients are thoroughly combined.
Note 1: To make a substitute for hoisin sauce, follow this recipe from cookbook author Katie Chin: Mix 2 tablespoons soy sauce with 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 1/2 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar, 1/2 garlic clove, finely minced, 1 teaspoon dark sesame oil, 1/2 tsp. Asian hot pepper sauce and a pinch of white pepper.
Note 2: Chef Tila flavors the sauce with oyster sauce but he said that vegetarians and kosher cooks can use vegetarian oyster sauce. You can also use a mixture of mushroom soy sauce with sweet soy sauce.
Chinese chicken salad
“This is one of my favorites,” wrote Tila, “and I guarantee that it will be one of the most popular dishes in your repertoire. You can use just about any protein or none at all.” You can store the dressing, which is flavored with fresh and pickled ginger, for a week.
Dressing makes 2½ cups; salad serves 4 to 6
5 green onions, 5 cm. white part only, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. (15 gr.) Chinese dry mustard, made into a paste by stirring in 1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) water
¹⁄3 cup (85 gr.) Japanese pickled ginger, packed
½ cup (120 ml.) lime juice
1 Tbsp. (9 gr.) roughly chopped garlic
2 Tbsp. (20 gr.) roughly chopped shallots
½ cup (160 gr.) honey
²⁄3 cup (160 ml.) soy sauce, preferably Japanese
¹⁄3 cup (80 ml.) rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. (16 gr.) roughly chopped gingerroot
2 cups (480 ml.) peanut oil
1 cup (240 gr.) canned tangerine segments, drained, or fresh tangerine or orange segments
5 cups (500 gr.) napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage)
2 carrots, peeled and cut in thin strips
1 head radicchio, cut in thin strips
4 cups (170 gr. ) mixed baby greens
900 gr. boneless, skinless chicken, cooked, cooled and diced
Fried wonton strips (See note below)
2 Tbsp. (12 gr.) toasted sesame seeds
For dressing: Combine all the ingredients except the peanut oil in a blender. Blend thoroughly for about 10 seconds, until no one item is recognizable. With blender running, slowly drizzle in peanut oil until dressing is smooth.
For salad: In a large salad bowl, toss tangerines, cabbage, carrots, radicchio, baby greens and chicken.
Toss salad with 1 cup (240 ml.) of the dressing. Add more dressing, if needed, a little at a time. Toss with the fried wonton strips. Sprinkle salad with sesame seeds and serve.
Note: For fried wonton strips: Heat 3 cups (711 ml.) oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cut 5 wonton skins in 6-mm.-wide strips. When oil reaches 185° on a deep fry thermometer, fry until strips are golden brown, about 30 seconds on each side. Drain wonton strips on a paper towel and let cool. For salad you’ll need about 2 cups (90 gr.) of wonton strips. You can keep the rest in an airtight container or a zipper bag.
Buddha’s delight – vegetable feast
“There are times when I just crave a wok full of vegetables,” wrote Tila, “and this is my go-to dish. It’s chock-full of different textures and flavors.” He noted that you can substitute other vegetables according to your taste.
He wrote that the best tofu to use in this dish is vacuum- packaged tofu that has naturally formed a skin and will not stick to the wok. Tofu packed in water is not good for stir-frying. If you have water-packed tofu, drain it very well, pat it dry, add the tofu cubes to the vegetable stir-fry at the last minute, and heat them through gently.
Serves 4
¹⁄3 cup (90 ml.) vegetable stock
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) oyster sauce (vegetarian version or see note 2 in Szechwan-style green beans, above)
1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) soy sauce
½ tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. cornstarch
Pinch of white pepper
Vegetable stir-fry:
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) vegetable oil
A 420-gr. package firm tofu, cut into large dice
2 tsp. (10 gr.) thinly sliced ginger
12 brown or white mushrooms, sliced
95 gr. (4 oz.) canned sliced bamboo shoots
6 canned water chestnuts, sliced
1 cup (240 gr.) bean sprouts
½ cup (120 gr. ) julienned carrots
1 cup (240 gr.) shredded napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage) leaves
55 gr. snow peas, trimmed (strings pulled off)
For sauce: Stir together all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, making sure cornstarch is dissolved well. Set aside.
For vegetable stir-fry: Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high to high heat. Swirl 2 tablespoons oil into the heated wok and coat the bottom. When you see wisps of white smoke, add tofu (only if it was vacuum-packed), and stir-fry until light brown on edges, about 2 minutes. Add ginger and stir-fry it until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add all remaining vegetables and keep them moving while searing. Don’t be scared to scrape the pan and fold the vegetables over many times. Cook for about 1 to 2 minutes or until cabbage gets bright green and starts to soften.
Stir in sauce, coat all vegetables, and bring sauce to a boil. The cornstarch will thicken into a glaze, about 1 minute. If using water-packed tofu, add it now and heat through. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
Mongolian beef
“The secret to tender meat in the wok is the marinade,” wrote Tila. The baking soda in the marinade tenderizes the meat. For this delicious dish Tila uses flank steak, but you can use other cuts of beef that are good for sautéing.
Serves 4 to 6
Beef and marinade: 750 gr. flank steak, trimmed (beef cut No. 17 called falda or ksalim in Hebrew)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. (16 gr.) cornstarch
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) water
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) vegetable oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) oyster sauce (vegetarian version or see note 2 in Szechwan-style green beans, above)
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) hoisin sauce (or substitute; note 1 in Szechwan-style green beans, above)
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) soy sauce
3 tsp. (16 ml.) white vinegar
½ Tbsp. (4 gr.) cornstarch
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 dried chilies
½ sweet red pepper, cut in large dice
½ sweet green pepper, cut in large dice
½ medium onion, cut in large dice
2 green onions, sliced
Slice beef across the grain into 19 mm.-thick slices on an angle to make planks; then cut the planks into 19-mm. cubes. Place steak in a shallow bowl and add baking soda, salt, cornstarch, water and oil. Massage all the ingredients into the meat. Set it aside until ready to use, or cover and refrigerate for a few days.
Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
For stir-fry: Heat oil to medium-high in a wok or medium sauté pan, and sauté garlic until light brown. Stir in beef and allow to cook undisturbed for about 30 seconds. Stir and scrape pan and cook for another 30 seconds.
Stir in dried chilies, red pepper, green pepper and onion and let them cook for about 2 minutes, until onion starts to turn translucent.
Add sauce, stir constantly and let it cook for about 2 minutes, until sauce thickens and meat is tender. Stir in sliced green onions and serve.