There is no better way to learn a culture then through its stomach. This is why I love browsing through the isles of supermarkets especially ethnic ones. Whenever I go to a Filipino supermarket I see carts of cane vinegar proudly displayed in the center. The dipping sauce for lechon uses cane vinegar. Since it was cheap I thought I would buy one and try it. It is basically white vinegar but provides a good tang without being too sharp. I use this in making Chili Ginger Sauce. It should make a great bbq sauce too….we shall see.
Fish sauce is made from the fermentation of anchovies in salt and water. Does not sound too appetizing, huh? Fish sauce stinks like toe fungus from the bottle but a few drops can turn a so-so broth into a wow-what-is-this. It is packed with “umami” due to its glutamate content and is used as a staple ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. Other variations of the same theme are Indonesia’s terasi, Cambodia’s prahok and Malaysia’s belachan. The Italians use salt packed anchovies for the same purpose of delivering extra ooophm to a dish! Some say that fish sauce can increase one’s risk of esophagael or gastric cancer. But bacon ups one risk of being fat so pick your vice. It is important to check the labels and avoid any brands that contain sodium benzoate. My favorite is Viet Huong 3 crab brand and that can be easily found in most Asian grocery stores. The ingredients include anchovy extract, salt, water, frutose, & hydrolysed vegetable protein. The last may mean wheat protein so for gluten-free folks stay clear. The luxury brand is Red Boat fish sauce but it comes at the premium price of $8-24 dollars a bottle. Red boat promises premium quality anchovies aged in wooden barrels without added water, preservatives, msg, wheat protein. Alas the Bentley of fish sauces has arrived! And I just found out that it is Whole Foods approved.
I love going to the basement food court at Eslite Bookstore in Taipei. The food court rotates various vendors from around the country showcasing their latest bounty. Taiwan has come a long way with its food products especially in the organic segment. I found this delightful artisanal soy sauce that should be enjoyed as a dipping sauce and not as a marinate or seasoning in cooking. It is made with 100% natural ingredients and free of chemical additives. Please go to www.mitdub.com. Mixed with shredded ginger and sesame seed oil it makes a great dipping sauce for steamed Santa Barbara spot prawns. I use it to create the glaze for my Hainan Chicken. To be honest I do not know what handcrafted means in the world of soy sauce. I guess for marketing purposes all the handcrafters of the world with their oak barrels will show up on a label.
I would call yuzu the king of citrus fruits. There is no substitute for yuzu’s bright floral distinctive flavor. Not even Lady Meyer of the lemon clan comes close. The juice yield from one fruit is so little and fresh yuzu is prohibitively expensive. I went to a Japanese specialty wholesaler and paid $50 for this bottle of 100% natural yuzu juice. A little goes a very long way so use sparingly and guard it close. Great in making a simple salad dressing or drizzle over seared salmon sashimi. Makes for smashing cocktails especially gimlets.
“Kecap Manis” translated from Indonesian to English literally means sweet sauce. It can be described as a hybrid between soy sauce and molasses. Ingredients include palm sugar, black soy bean, salt, water and spices. It does not contain wheat and is thus gluten free. This sauce is a BBQ hero but due to its high sugar content needs to be used sparingly to prevent burns over the grill. Kecap manis can be found in most Chinese and Southeast Asian grocery stores such as Ranch 99 Market, ShunFat SuperStore, Hong Kong Supermarket in Los Angeles. Bango and Wayang Brands are my favorites. I do not care much for the more widely seen ABC brand as it has a bitter aftertaste.