When I was four years old, I remember Mother packing boxes full of clothes, coats, and shoes, and taking them down to the local Red Cross center to be shipped to Vietnam. Often, she was teary-eyed when she told me that she could always knit me another sweater and sew me another pretty dress while some children, as young as I was, in this far-away country went without food, water, and clothes.
In fifth grade, I fell in love with Pearl Buck and devoured every word she had written, transporting myself to China every night and living the lives of her unhappy heroines. In grade school, I became fascinated by geography and obsessed with major mountain chains, gross national products, capitals, waterways, and culture. I learned how to count to ten in thirty different languages, most of them non-European.
In high school I lost hours immersed in the books of Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Louis Bromfield, dreaming of monsoons, moist heat, tropical fruit, and sultry nights. I loved to recite the names of the Indonesian islands: Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes (or Sulawesi, as it is known today (“known by whom?” Husband asked)), feeling touched by the magic of the Orient. I visited these lands vicariously through the written word, TV coverage of major political events, and movies.
Going off to college in our capital city of Belgrade did not bring me any closer to the real culture of Asia. Sure, there were students in my class studying Japanese, and I occasionally saw a diplomat’s family from Korea or Malaysia walking the streets. But there was little that was cosmopolitan about Belgrade in the 80s, at least from the perspective of a provincial student.
The first Chinese restaurant, Peking, opened on one of the side streets close to the University, but having to choose how to spend what little money we had, we remained loyal to the familiar places that served plenty of wine and had live music on weekends. I peeked inside longingly from time to time, but my adventurous spirit was spent riding on the back of the moped my cousin, Maja would “borrow” from her older brother, or staying at my friends’ dorm room until dawn, waiting for the first morning bus filled with still sleepy factory workers to bring me back home, exhausted and hoarse from too much talking and too many cigarettes.
When I was a freshmen, my Aunt who worked as the secretary for one of the deans introduced me to an elderly Chinese man finishing his doctoral studies in Philosophy. His name was Wu Shi Kan, which was immediately changed into the Serbian: VukaÅ¡in, as a term of endearment. He spoke Serbian fluently, having studied in China. My Aunt and Uncle took VukaÅ¡in everywhere they went, showing him the country and letting him experience the friendliness of the Balkan people.
I went home for the weekend when they brought VukaÅ¡in to visit my family. He charmed us all with his warm smile and beautiful music he wrought from his harmonica. He told stories of his homeland, laughing a little about his wife’s family which came from the potato region of China, and crying when remembering his children. I was mesmerized when he started talking about food, not for my culinary inclinations, but because the dishes he described were so exotic and strange that they evoked memories of old fairy tales I had read as a child. I remember him painting a vivid picture of a celebratory dish he called The Battle of Tiger and Dragon, which consisted of such far-fetched and weird ingredients that we believed he was pulling a fast one on us, taking advantage of our naÃ¯vetÃ© in his sweet, unassuming, and innocent way.
Before he left, VukaÅ¡in gave us bookmarks dotted with Chinese characters and depicting pandas, bamboo stalks, and old figurines. Those were the days when our stores were not inundated with made in China goods, and these little gifts were unique and special. We gathered as he retreated through the front door facing us and bowing in respect, the warm smile illuminating his eyes, and we felt like we were saying Goodbye! to an old friend.
I went to hear Wu Shi Kan defend his doctoral thesis. I shook his hand and congratulated him. He smiled and thanked me in his warm, soft voice. I heard from my Aunt that he had returned to China to his children and his loving potato-eating wife. I have recently found one of his bookmarks in an old day-timer I brought with me to U.S. and it flooded me with memories, not only of him, but of my love for the distant lands of Asia. I smiled because I knew that one day soon I would find someone to repeat to me the story of the Battling Tigers and Dragons and I would find out how much fun VukaÅ¡in had with us.
In the meantime, I explore the culinary world of Asia, ingredient by ingredient, culture by culture. I approach the 99 Ranch Market with the apprehension and excitement of Marco Polo, curious as a cat, overwhelmed with the smells and sights around me, delighted when I recognize jackfruit or maitake mushrooms from somewhere online, lost in the aisle of soy bean products, entertained by hilarious translations, and humbled by the sea of the unfamiliar. I have met some wonderful friends recently who are willing to be my guides through the maze of this store and help me find my way around. One of them is Karen of Globetrotter Diaries, whose recipe for Soba Noodles I used for the challenge. Every time I visit her blog I am in awe of her photography and wonderfully prepared food.
This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge sent me out of my comfort zone, giving us the task of cooking soba noodles and making tempura. The host of this challenge is Lisa of Blueberry Girl, who is truly a citizen of the world, having lived in several countries. Thanks to her thorough research and easy to follow instructions, both of my dishes turned out wonderfully. Encouraged by the initial success, I am eager to expand my experience, and venture beyond stir-fries.
The February 2011 Daring Cooksâ€™ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including japanesefood.about.com, pinkbites.com, and itsybitsyfoodies.com
HIYASHI SOBA NOODLES (Recipe by Globetrotter Diaries)
- 2 quarts (2 L) water
- 1 cup cold water, separate
- 12 oz (340 g) dried soba (buckwheat) noodles (or any Asian thin noodle)
Cooking the noodles:
Heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the noodles a small bundle at a time, stirring gently to separate. When the water returns to a full boil, add 1 cup of cold water. Repeat this twice. When the water returns to a full boil, check the noodles for doneness. You want to cook them until they are firm-tender. Do not overcook them.
Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well under cold running water until the noodles are cool. This not only stops the cooking process, but also removes the starch from the noodles. This is an essential part of soba noodle making. Once the noodles are cool, drain them and cover them with a damp kitchen towel and set them aside allowing them to cool completely.
Spicy Dipping Sauce
- 3â„4 cup 70gm/21â„2 oz spring onions/green onions/scallions, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) rice vinegar
- 1â„2 teaspoon (21â„2 ml) (4 2â„3 gm) (0.16 oz) granulated sugar
- 1â„4 teaspoon (11â„4 ml) (1/8 gm) (0.005 oz) English mustard powder
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) grape-seed oil or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sesame oil (if you canâ€™t find this just omit from recipe.)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste â€“ roughly
- 1/3 a teaspoon of each
Shake all the ingredients together in a covered container. Once the salt has dissolved, add and shake in 2 tablespoons of water and season again if needed.
Common Hiyashi Soba Toppings:
- Thin omelet strips
- Boiled chicken breasts
- Boiled bean sprouts
- Toasted nori (Dried Seaweed)
- Green onions
- Wasabi powder
- Finely grated daikon (Japanese radish)
- Beni Shoga (Pickled Ginger)
- All toppings should be julienne, finely diced or grated. Prepare and refrigerate covered until needed.
Traditionally soba is served on a bamboo basket tray, but if you donâ€™t have these, you can simply serve them on a plate or in a bowl. Divide up the noodles, laying them on your serving dishes. Sprinkle each one with nori. In small side bowl or cup, place 1/2 cup (120 ml) of dipping sauce into each. In separate small side dishes, serve each person a small amount of wasabi, grated daikon, and green onions.
The noodles are eaten by sprinkling the desired garnishes into the dipping sauce and eating the noodles by first dipping them into the sauce. Feel free to slurp away! Oishii
- 1 egg yolk from a large egg
- 1 cup (240 ml) iced water
- 1â„2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21â„2 oz) plain (all purpose) flour, plus extra for dredging
- 1â„2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21â„2 oz) cornflour (also called cornstarch)
- 1â„2 teaspoon (21â„2 ml) (21â„2 gm) (0.09 oz) baking powder
- oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
- ice water bath, for the tempura batter (a larger bowl than what will be used for the tempura should be used. Fill the large bowl with ice and some water, set aside)
- Very cold vegetables and seafood of your choice ie:
- Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
- Carrot, peeled, thinly sliced diagonally
- Pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed, thinly sliced blanched
- Green beans, trimmed
- Green bell pepper/capsicum, seeds removed, cut into 2cm (3â„4 inch)-wide strips
- Assorted fresh mushrooms
- Eggplant cut into strips (traditionally itâ€™s fanned)
- Onions sliced
Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.
Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you donâ€™t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.
Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that wonâ€™t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.
Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.
Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.