Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Community Culture Kitchen: Southeast Asian Culinary Culture

On the Tuesday following my return from this year's NAES conference, I embarked on our fourth Community Culture Kitchen event with Marilyn and a group of very engaged students. I'm not sure if it was the simplicity or organisation, or just the fact I've become much more comfortable with the food and culture programming pattern, but this happened to be one of the smoothest-running CCK events I've led to date. In the end, we pulled together a four-item menu that highlighted the diversity of southeast Asia and the simple yet rich tastes of some of its influences, ingredients and recipes. On the menu were starfruit salad, Thai noodles, fried eggplant and leche flan.

I began prep work for this event with what felt a bit like a full circle experience: making leche flan, which I had made for my first food and culture program in a residence hall, and earlier that year for Cinco de Mayo. Following the same recipe, and having preheated the oven to 375°F, I beat very well six whole eggs as a 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk, 1.5 cans milk, and 1/2 c granulated sugar began to heat up in a pot. Next to that, I had 1/2 water, a few drops of lemon juice (1/4 tsp) and a bit of water (3 tbsp) heating up to a boil until it bubbled to a deep caramel colour. Be sure to watch it as the colours change, as it can quickly go from perfectly sweet to utterly bitter and burnt if you're not careful. The resulting caramel then gets poured into the baking dish. With the milk mixture heated to just at the point when it bubbles, I slowly tempered the eggs with about 1/2 c milk before combining all the liquids into a baking dish and then--running it through a strainer--pouring this carefully onto the caramel. This dish went into a slightly larger baking dish which was then filled with about an inch or so of water before getting it into the oven to bake for about 30-45 minutes, or until the knife went through cleanly. As soon as the flan was ready, I got it straight into the fridge to cool down.

As the flan was setting, the participants arrived and we began by discussing the fruits that would be going into our starfruit salad. Before you read on, can you tell which of the fruits above are native to the Americas (by the way, there are blueberries in the bowl with paper towel)? Also shown above are starfruit (native to Sri Lanka, but popular in other countries as Malaysia and Thailand), mangos (more specifically, they're Ataulfos which has roots in the Philippines but are typically credited as coming from Mexico), bananas (its family of which originated in Malaysia), kiwi fruit (which first appeared in southern China), and the solitary lime (the two main varieties--key/Mexican and Tahitian/Persian--were also not rooted in the Americas; the key/Mexican lime originated in the southern Asia Indo-Malayan region). If you've made it this far without realising it, or if you happen to just know your produce, pineapple and blueberries are products of the Americas (and thus not native to Asia). The pineapple in which we served our starfruit salad evolved in the Americas and is especially unique to the Western Hemisphere (the Caribbean to be more specific). As for the blueberries, they're about as North American as you can get.

With a focus on practicing knife skills, each of the fruits (except the blueberries which we left whole, as well as the lime which was saved for the next sentence) were washed, peeled and diced, and combined altogether in a large bowl. In a separate container, and based off of this recipe, 1/4 c coconut milk, 3 tbsp light brown sugar, and 1 tbsp lime juice, were measured and mixed very well. This was then poured over the fruit salad and then tossed.

After carefully cutting the pineapple in half (first cut the top core about halfway then carefully slice horizontally to the base), and hollowing it out (be careful not to pierce through the skin), about 1/3 of the total fruit salad was able to fit into the then-created pineapple boat. Indeed, after filling both halves, we had quite a bit leftover (arguably, this was the best third as it had the most time to combine all the flavours). It certainly makes for a colourful presentation, no?

While I prepared the Southeast Asian-inspired eggplant recipe below, Marilyn described how to make her much duplicated Thai noodle recipe. She had earlier prepared the noodles and we had participants chop the green onion and cilantro. In addition, she invited each of the participants to taste the different components of the sauce that dresses the noodles. (I'll be sure to post the recipe here as soon as I get a copy of it.)

Back to the eggplant then, eggplants are believed to have been domesticated in "India, China, Thailand, Burma or someplace else in southeast Asia." (In any case, they certainly fit the event theme.) Based on these two recipes (1 and 2), the preparation for this dish was the simplest of the lot. After pretty much julienning the eggplant (I believe I only had one), I sautéed the pieces in a hot pan with olive oil, and a mix of spices and seasonings (this time eyeballed, so unfortunately there are no exact measurements to share): salt, ground black pepper, crushed red pepper flake, and turmeric.

To complete the experience, and after successfully flipping over the leche flan onto a clean dish, I showed the participants how I would plate it for presentation's sake. Of course, we enjoyed the process of cutting our own slices and topping them with red raspberries (wild varieties of which seemed to have originated in eastern Asia) that had some time to mingle with granulated sugar. With gratitude to our active participants, and to Marilyn for her co-leading, I sign off with the link to the complete album which can be found here.

[Post completed 6/6/12]

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