I feel most people, when asked to pick their favorite food, would say Italian. Although I have Italian heritage (13.9% to be exact) and I grew up eating my grandmother’s pasta sauce every Sunday, Italian food isn’t my favorite food to eat, especially when I dine out. My favorite cuisine is Asian, hands (and chopsticks) down.
My gateway into Asian cuisine was like most of us, through Chinese food. When we think of Chinese food, it’s typically Cantonese or Szechuan. My family, growing up, didn’t dine out that much (there were 6 of us!) but when we did it was typically Black Angus (my Mom’s favorite), Italian (Sorrentos) or Chinese Food at Canton.
At Canton, I loved the round tables, crunchy noodles and endless cups of tea, which we drank with lots of sugar added. Egg rolls, Spareribs and Won Ton or Egg Drop soup to start and then onto covered plates of Honey Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, Almond Duck and maybe a Seafood Dish, served with hot white and Pork Fried Rice followed. The eating was communal, as we shared all the dishes and you could have a little of this, a little of that, which is my favorite way to eat. And then, to end, the hard-as-a-rock Fortune Cookies for dessert. Which, by the way, aren’t Chinese, but an American creation started in California.
In the 80’s I discovered Japanese Cuisine in the form of sushi, sake, tempura and miso soup. It was all the rage back then and my favorite was (and still is) the California Roll, which come to think of it, doesn’t sound Japanese at all. I did venture out to try sashimi, hand rolls, salmon, spicy tuna and even uni (sea urchin) eventually, which has a very unique taste and texture. Sushi is one food I crave on a regular basis.
Thai Food– with its fresh ingredients, unique tastes and five flavor profile- spicy, sweet, salty, bitter and umami- is one of my favorite Asian cuisines. I remember going to the Thai restaurant on US-1 (which is now Diced) which was run by Atchana’s family. Atchana was a friend of my sister Elise, so when we dined there, we would begin with crunchy, sticky and sweet Mee Krob, sent over to the table, complimentary if Atchana was there. Pad Thai would follow, possibly with Chicken Satay or a Curry Dish (red, yellow or green) and we would end with Hot Thai Donuts, served with sweetened condensed milk, also on the house.
Vietnamese Cuisine follows the same five flavor profiles as Thai and also uses fresh ingredients with aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, mint, Thai Chile and lime, as well as fresh herbs and vegetables. Fish sauce is more popular than soy and one of my favorite sandwiches- the Bahn Mi– originates from Vietnam. The first time I ate Vietnamese food was at the iconic Hy Vong restaurant on 8th street.
I went there with my Mom and sisters and I remember getting the Whole Fried Fish. On other visits I got the Pumpkin Soup, Spring Rolls (served with fresh mint, lettuce and a dipping sauce) and the Pork Rolling Cakes, possibly my favorite appetizer of all time. I recently read the story of Hy Vong’s creation in a book called Mangos and Peppercorns. It was fascinating and filled with recipes I want to try, but not the Pork Rolling Cakes- it’s way too complicated.
I tend to eat Asian food at restaurants, but, a couple weeks ago I decided to try some recipes at home. One was a Spicy Ramen Soup with Pork Meatballs, from Parade magazine. Although I don’t know anything about Korean cuisine, this recipe called for an ingredient- gochujang chile paste– which is Korean. I also needed baby bok choy, and fresh ramen noodles, so made a trek down to Kimchi Mart on 153rd Street.
While it calls itself an Asian Mart, this store is actually Korean. It’s clean and bright and I love looking at all the interesting products and vegetables you can’t find at Publix. The baby bok choy were adorable little things and the fresh ramen noodles tasted so much better than the dried ones you get in the package. The recipe for the Ramen Soup was a little complicated, but I made the Pork Meatballs one day and the rest of the soup the next. It was delicious (A.J. loved it!) and I made it last for days, by continuing to add chicken broth to it.
And the gochujang sauce, which I think is trending because I’ve heard about it lately, was a revelation. Like hot sauce, but darker, thicker, with an umami, sweet and spicy flavor. While I used it on the soup, it also would be great on scrambled eggs, vegetables, sandwiches- anyplace that you want a a bold heat and complexity. It has a thick texture which is derived from brown rice, and is typically served over Bibimbap, the yummy Korean rice bowl dish. Best of all, the Chung Jung One brand I bought can be found at Publix. This would also make an awesome and different Chicken Wing sauce! Move over Frank’s Hot Sauce.
The second dish I made, for Sticky Hawaiian Drumsticks, was less successful. It was a relatively easy recipe (also from Parade) with teriyaki sauce, ketchup, crushed pineapple, ginger and garlic which the drumsticks were brushed with and then grilled. I couldn’t bare to put in the whole cup of honey it called for, which might be why it didn’t turn out quite as “sticky” as promised. I served it with jasmine rice and stir fried bok choy, Japanese Eggplant and mushrooms. I concluded (and Zeke agreed) I’m not a big chicken drumstick fan. I would much rather eat chicken thighs and not deal with the tendons, lack of meat, etc… in drumsticks. But I do love teriyaki.
My Dad and I didn’t have much in in common, but we both loved teriyaki and I remember eating Teriyaki steak on our family trip to Hawaii. When we returned from Hawaii, I was so enamored of the islands, I ordered a How To Cook a Luau book, as well as How to Speak Hawaiian and the Mrs. Hawaii Cook Book. The first dish I ever remember making for my family growing up was the Walnut Chicken recipe from that cook book. I wrote next to it “O.K.”
Although Asian Fusion is a a popular concept now, it’s been a thing for a while in Hawaii, where cuisines from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal, have been melded into a distinct blend of cuisine known as “local food”. At one point, twelve chefs came together to create a Hawaiian Cuisine style typified by local ingredients and a fusion of ethnic culinary influences.
I’m very excited to return to Hawaii this summer. Zeke and I went to Maui on our honeymoon 19 years ago, but this time we’re going to hit the other islands- Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai- as well. While this article only touched on some Asian cuisines, obviously there are a lot more out there to explore. I would love one day travel to Asia, try the local cuisine and even take a couple cooking classes.
But first… Hawaii.
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