I almost winced when reading an “Asian” (fusion, I guess) recipe in a major glossy magazine that called for a Noah’s Ark full of ingredients from all across the world. It was a pork recipe, and just the notion of using fish sauce and Chinese black bean sauce in combination was enough to make my stomach turn, let alone calling for more than three tablespoons of fish sauce period. But the fact that the recipe also included hoisin sauce, sesame oil, orange juice, ginger, lime juice, sugar, cilantro, Serrano chiles, and honey was laughable. And what happened to soy sauce, or even salt, the most basic marinade ingredients upon which to add one or two more ingredients for a sturdy, reliable flavor? Not on the index-sized list.
Maybe I’m just being plebian about it. But it’s funny, because with all the emphasis on simplicity in modern New American and European cuisines, it’s incredible how much work everyone seems to think Asian food is. Plain old home-cooking, it seems, hasn’t quite fazed the American public.
I recently visited my friend Pete in Boston, who I’ve exchanged recipes with from time to time. His standard formula for cooking stir fry–usually one kind of meat and one vegetable–is basically soy sauce, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and cornstarch. Not incredibly difficult to remember. He lets the meat marinate for about half an hour in cornstarch and some soy sauce, and then stir fries it with a little oil and garlic. The meat is removed from the pan, and then the vegetable is stir fried until just tender, then the meat is returned to the pan. Some soy sauce, salt, pepper, and a teaspoon or so of sugar is added to the mixture. Once the dish has the right amount of seasoning, he thickens it with a corn starch and cold water mixture, stirring until bubbly and thickened, and serves immediately.
It’s more or less how I learned to home-cook, only without the sugar and usually either garlic or fresh ginger, and chopped scallions tossed in at the end. Lately, I’ve also taken to splashing in some Chinese rice wine to any kind of meat while it’s cooking. Black bean garlic sauce or other types of fermented bean sauces are also great on occasion–that is, when fish sauce isn’t present.
Getting back to simplicity though, I decided to make one of my favorite comfort foods, fried rice. It keeps well for leftovers, and the use of leftover rice itself and bits and pieces of other stuff marks it a true leftover dish, like soup.
Plain Old Fried Rice with Five-Spice Tofu
(serves about 4)
3 cups cooked white rice (best to use leftover because it’s drier and won’t stick together when stir-frying)
2 scallions, chopped
2 eggs, beaten and seasoned with salt
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
4 blocks five-spice tofu (or tofu-gan: firm, seasoned tofu popular–or invented?–in Taiwan; can be found in most Asian markets), chopped into small cubes
Optional: soaked dried shittake mushrooms, chopped into cubes
Salt and black or white pepper
2-3 tbspn oil
Optional: chile sauce to taste
Heat a wok or large pan with a little oil. Scramble the egg quickly, breaking into small pieces until just starting to brown, and remove from pan. Add more oil if necessary and stir-fry tofu cubes for 2 or 3 minutes. Add chile sauce if using. Add the peas, chopped mushrooms, scallions, and rice and season with salt and pepper. Stir fry, mixing thoroughly and tasting for seasoning. Add scrambled egg once flavor is right, and stir thoroughly. Serve with chile sauce if desired (the best is the red Vietnamese chile garlic sauce that usually has a picture of a rooster on the jar).
(for 4 servings)
2 eggs (at $1/dozen at the Chinese market): $.16
4 blocks five spice tofu (at $1.45 for package of 18): $.32
3 cups cooked rice: ≈ $.25
2 scallions (at $.99/bunch of 6): $.34
1 cup frozen peas (at $1.39/package): $.18
Salt, pepper, oil, chile sauce, optional mushrooms: ≈ $.20
Total: $1.45 (wait, that can’t be right…?)
Four brownie points – moderately healthy. This recipe is interchangeable with ingredients, for instance, meat instead of tofu. There is a bit of salt and oil involved, and not too many vegetables (but they could always be thrown in if desired). A healthy twist on the recipe is to serve with whole lettuce leaves as a lettuce wrap.