F&W Round Table: eGullet Asian Dinner Party

Ok, I’ll admit it right upfront: we’re a tough bunch to please when it comes to Asian foods. Living here in the Seattle area, perched on the delicious edge of the Pacific Rim, we have easy access to a fabulous array of Asian ingredients and restaurants. Shopping for nam prik pow, five varieties of lop cheung, baby taro root, Chinese black vinegar, or ready-made sake kasu? No problem. You could find any of them in my own kitchen, for a start, but stores in our International District overflow with Asia’s bounty. Want to go out on the spur of the moment for Bo Bay Mon, hand-shaved Shanghai noodles, or Malaysian Bak Kut Teh? Let’s go!

So the September issue of Food and Wine looked like just the ticket for our group, something we could really sink our chopsticks into. With only 17 of us in attendance, we couldn’t make every single recipe, but we gave it a good try, each of us taking a dish or two and making it for our friends. We all did as much prep as possible before arriving, and then cooked together at the centrally-located home of our kind host, who not only has an excellent collection of dishes and glassware, but actively enjoys having the hordes descend laden with full stockpots and heaps of julienned vegetables.

First up were the fantastic Icy Lemon-Ginger Cocktails. We drank immoderate amounts of the cool elixir from tiny, delicate grandmother-endowed glasses, which were small enough to encourage numerous refills. To accompany the drinks we started with the Garlic-Brined Pork Banh Mi and the Spinach and Tofu Dumplings. The banh mi were hearty and delicious, especially with homemade Vietnamese pork pate and plenty of Sriracha sauce, which probably outsells catsup in our area. And of course, the more Sriracha one uses, the more lemon-ginger cocktails one drinks. The dumplings were light and ethereal, and perfect for those of us planning a trip to the Korean women’s day spa, where they scrub you within an inch of your life, and every bite you’ve ever eaten is on display to a roomful of steaming, soaking, naked women.

As the evening progressed, we sat down to a succession of courses. That is, everyone sat down at least part of the time. Each cook prepared his or her dish, while other guests helped the chef-of-the-moment plate the course, ran plates out to the other guests, or washed up from the last course. The smallish kitchen was generally a pandemonium of “behind you” and “has anyone seen my container of chopped cilantro?” and “could you please wash four small bowls right this minute?” but the courses flowed out to the table smoothly and those not in the kitchen had a moment to drink more Lemon-Ginger Cocktails and discuss the merits of the previous dishes.

The Steamed Mussels with Coconut Milk and Thai Chiles were sweet and classic. Our local mussels are always plump and lightly briny, and they were nicely offset by the mellow, creamy sauce. I wanted to add lemon grass and lime leaf to bring out more of the Asian notes, but hey, how can I argue with Tyler Florence?

Next we served a comforting plate of Sesame Noodles with Prosciutto and Quick Braised Eggplant with Coconut Milk and Scallions. This was a gentle, soothing combination, just the kind of food you’d want after a long night out carousing, or even for an adventurous breakfast. A fried egg on top of those noodles would make a perfect eye-opener.

Red Snapper Soup with Fresh Bean Sprouts and Garlic Oil followed. The long-simmered broth was rich and aromatic, the finished dish light and delicate. We served this soup with lots of lime wedges, and after squeezing them all into our bowls, concluded that next time we’d probably use the more traditional tamarind to provide the tart tanginess the soup needed to achieve perfection.

Next up was the Fiery Grilled Beef Salad with Oranges and Crispy Shallots. After we finished fighting over the crispy shallots, ignoring suggestions that we skip the beef and salad and just stuff ourselves with the shallots, we settled down to the salad itself. Fiery? Not! Were our palates numbed by Lemon-Ginger Cocktails, or are we just a bunch of Fiery Foods Fanatics? However, we all thought the salad was delicious; the balance between the sweet orange and the buttery beef was just right, and have I mentioned the crispy shallots? Fortunately, for additional fire, we still had our trusty Sriracha, but next time I’d add some slivered chiles to the salad itself, and maybe a scattering of crushed red pepper.

The last savory course was Fusion Central. The Crispy Scallion Potato Pancakes prompted the nickname “Chinese Latkes.” Laugh though we did, I noticed that there weren’t any left over after dinner. Perhaps it was the sight of 17 people eating latkes with chopsticks that inspired our hilarity. The mint in the Summer Bulgur with Green Beans provided a zingy, refreshing note to a dish that would be a great summer picnic take-along. The Jicama, Kirby, and Carrot Salad with Charred Lamb was a crunchy, cool blend of Asian-inflected flavors and textures.

Somehow we still had room for Profiteroles with Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream and Mocha Sauce, served with tiny cups of sweet, milky Vietnamese coffee. Their irresistible and near-classic flavors sparked discussions about the French influence on Vietnamese cooking, and about the nature of fusion foods in general. This group likes to think and talk about food almost as much as we like to cook and eat together. We often take an intellectual approach to food, not that we would ever allow it to overshadow our enjoyment of eating! But a whole menu of fusion foods certainly provided ample fuel for discussion.

Was our dinner strictly Asian? No, not really, especially if you count the blending of French cuisine into the Vietnamese dishes. Was it delicious to eat and fun to cook? Emphatically! We concluded that it was American food at the core, with hints of the east, whispers of Asian flavors threaded through more familiar tastes.

In our country now we’re in the process of integrating Asian foods into our daily life. Remember when you had to search high and low for intimidating ingredients that are now staples in every large grocery store, when a wok was an exotic implement? What’s really great about today’s “American food” is the way it’s expanding to absorb more and more of the world’s exciting flavors and ingredients. Cooking this dinner together gave us a little peek into that absorption process, a little window into the “melting pot” that sits right at the center of our table. But please, put just a bit more Sriracha in that melting pot and your taste buds will thank you!

Abra Bennett owns Rolling Bay Gourmet Personal Chef Service on Bainbridge Island, Washington, preparing wonderful food in peoples’ homes. You can find out more about her service, or drop her a note at www.rollingbaygourmet.com or by calling 206-780-7967.

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