Asian Cuisine: How Well do you Know Yourself?


The Ramen Marauder and I sat down for dinner the other night for a simple vermicelli noodle salad I made. I chopped the lettuce, poached the noodles, seasoned the ground pork with ground pepper, ginger, and garlic, and cooked it with a short mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and garlic oil - just enough to prevent it from tasting plain, but adding no significant flavor.

I assembled our bowls with lettuce, noodles, and ground pork. The rest was laid out on the table: chopped cucumbers, chopped carrots, chopped cilantro, chopped mint, lime slices, fish sauce, hoisin, sriracha, sesame oil, cashews. As we both finished dressing our dinner bowls, I realized that this process must seem intimidating to anyone who isn't familiar with Vietnamese food.

Vietnamese Vermicelli Noodle Salad Asian Food Cooking

How many people really know what they like? I mean, really understand what they like, from sweet to salty to sour to funk? Asian food requires a sense of self that not everyone has. It can be taught, sure, but it's not something many restaurants take the time to teach, right?

Most western cuisines cook complete dishes and serve the food as it should be eaten. Any self-proclaimed food expert will tell you that you won't find salt and pepper on tables at nice restaurants because the chef has already seasoned the dish, and you're expected to eat it accordingly.

But what about Asian restaurants?

To start, so many westerners don't have the taste bud vocabulary to comprehend everything that Asian food offers. The most adventurous ingredient I've found in European cookbooks is anchovies in order to add a hint of salt and a suggestion of umami. This may be why we see chicken at Asian restaurants fried to a point beyond recognition, then slathered in a sauce that has no business being the focal point of a dinner entree. Or why Chinese cuisine looks so different from country to country, incorporating the local palette into the recipes. Maybe it's why Thai restaurants seem to lack variation, offering the same yellow, red, and green curries with your choice of protein.

Asian Food Cooking Vermicelli Noodle Salad Vietnamese

These cuisines are not simple. It would appear that restaurants assume the consumer is simple - but can you blame them? It seems that those who can't (or won't) enjoy Asian food don't have the culinary confidence to appreciate it, and restaurants don't usually have the time to teach consumers how to eat it. Asian cuisine displays a sense of otherness that many people are afraid to approach.

But the real twist here is that Asian food can be yours. It is yours. Asian restaurants create the foundation of your meal, but you are in charge. You are given the tools to make your meal great - maybe you just need to learn how to use them.

Is this something you want me to write more about? Do you have any requests or suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

Noodle Soup Party!


A friend suggested we have a noodle soup party, and before he could finish his sentence, I was already on board.


I wasn't sure, however, of what to expect from this experience. The rough outline of an idea was to bring different noodles and broths, and let people build bowls for themselves. The group email request was for people to bring vegetable stock, chicken stock, noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro/koriander, chopsticks and more. There was also going to be lumpia rolling for anyone interested.


I replied to say I'd be happy to bring noodles and stock, but should I make Thai boat noodle soup broth? Is that OK to add to the mix? My request was enthusiastically approved, and on the day of the party, I made my favorite boat noodle soup recipe from Andy Ricker's Pok Pok.

One of the hardest parts of cooking Asian food in small-town Bavaria is the lack of resources. I didn't include at least 5 of the ingredients the original recipes calls for because I can't get them easily. Luckily, there is a fresh market that brings in fresh cilantro and bean sprouts all year long, and there is also a wholesale grocery that sells some of the necessary sauces and noodles. (The grocer also sells Italian and Mexican ingredients.)

The boat noodle soup was a hit! Though to be fair, the recipe is solid and has been a favorite for many dinner guests of my own. My fear was that the flavor would be too bold, but then I remembered that this was a group of people who agreed to attend a noodle soup party.



The logistics of throwing a noodle soup party can seem daunting, but the real issue is space. We found it easiest to put the noodles in the bowls, then let people dress them as they wish. As long as you have room to lay out the broths and the toppings (bean sprouts, cilantro, fried garlic, chili powder, limes...), people are happy to build their own bowls.

Some guests that came though weren't familiar with noodle soups at all. Let them experiment with a little bit of guidance - it's all for fun!