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How to Cook, Lesson 10: Exploring Cuisines

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Nothing beats comfort food. That is a fact. But because we associate food with pleasant memories, our definition of “good food” is often subjective.

Japanese chicken and vegetables

But for some of us — for those of us who want to try to transcend the subjectivity — we aim to go beyond comfort food and explore the unfamiliar.

For some, it means testing new eating regimes — like my daughter, Sam, when she chose to delve into vegetarianism.

For others, like me, it means aspiring to get acquainted with ingredients, flavors and cooking methods that I did not grow up with. While I have no complaints about all the Filipino food and Filipino-Chinese style cooking that featured heavily in my childhood, there came a time when I wanted more.

The adventure of exploring foreign cuisines

It began with stir fries.

I knew mami (Filipino version of the Chinese noodle soup), siopao (steamed pork buns, the recipe I seriously need to update soon) and siomai (Chinese-style steamed dumplings) for as long as I have known adobo, sinigang and tinola. I loved Chinese food as much as I loved Filipino food.

But Chinese stir fries? No one in my family cooked stir fries.

One day, I discovered a cooking show called Wok With Yan. The chef was Stephen Yan (no, not Martin Yan who became famous some two decades later), a Canadian-Chinese. I was amazed at the colors of the dishes he cooked and the amount of vegetables he could integrate into a meat dish.

How to Stir Fry: A Practical Guide For Home Cooking
How to Stir Fry: A Practical Guide For Home Cooking

I was smitten. I watched and re-watched every episode of the show, and started buying cookbooks with stir fried recipes.

When Japanese food started to become popular when I was in my early 20s, the idea of eating raw fish was so gross to me. But it just wasn’t fair to dismiss anything without having tried it. So, as gross as it sounded, I wanted to understand why people were raving about sashimi.

I went with some friends to a restaurant called Tokyo Tokyo, I tried sashimi and I must admit that it wasn’t love at first bite. I almost spit it out. At the time, I did not understand that the quality of the fish, the freshness or the lack thereof, was a huge factor in learning to appreciate the flavor and texture of raw fish. It wasn’t until my father brought my brother and I to Furusato that I finally understood what sashimi (and Japanese food, in a broader sense) was really all about.

Important tip when trying an unfamiliar cuisine: Go to a good restaurant (or eat at the home of a local family, if traveling). First impression is hard to erase. And if your first experience of a foreign cuisine is bad, it is likely that you will not want to try it again. And that’s really sad because, nine times out of ten, it’s not the cuisine that’s bad but the food at the place where you first tried it.

The trick to cooking foreign dishes at home

My introduction to other foreign cuisines pretty much followed a similar pattern. I’d eat at a restaurant (in the Philippines or abroad), I’d be curious about a dish, I’d try it and, more often than not, that first try was the first step toward a new food adventure. I’d try to recreate the dishes at home; sometimes, I succeeded but, more often, I failed.

Failed? Oh, yes.

But why?

Chicken teriyaki with easy homemade teriyaki sauce
Chicken teriyaki with easy homemade teriyaki sauce

Because, at the time, I didn’t focus enough on the ingredients. Foreign dishes have a distinctive taste because they are cooked with ingredients native to the countries where they originate. You can’t cook chicken teriyaki, for instance, without Japanese soy sauce (which really tastes different from local soy sauce or even Chinese soy sauce), sake and mirin. If you use substitutes, what results is a bastardized version of the dish.

Yes, learning to cook foreign dishes begins with acquiring the correct ingredients. While pork, beef, chicken, fish and other seafood may be generic enough, the seasonings, spices and condiments that you add to them will spell a huge difference. With some dishes, there are also cooking techniques that you will need to learn.

Tasty Safari

Cooking is just like school. You start with A-B-C and 1-2-3 and, as you progress, you get exposed to more complex subjects like history, biology and chemistry.

Oh, yes. Cooking is history, biology (zoology and botany) and chemistry. Every dish has its story. Every ingredient has its source in nature (even bottled condiments like soy sauce begins with raw ingredients from nature). Every cooking method is the result of chemical reactions between food and heat.

The level of your current culinary skills depends on how much you’ve learned over the years. How skillful and knowledgeable you will be depends on how willing you are to learn more.

Personally, I don’t ever want to stop learning. I want to be a better cook tomorrow that I am today. And, in a year, I want to know a hundred times more than what I know today.

Cooking class in Saigon
A cooking class in Saigon

In my own culinary journey, I will be spending a long time in Lesson #10 of this cooking series. I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling and, in every destination, I’ve been consciously avoiding the obvious tourist traps and, instead, focusing on learning about foreign cultures — mostly through food. My impressions of a place and its people, my food adventures and my attempts at recreating dishes I enjoyed abroad are documented in a blog called Tasty Safari.

Moving forward

So, we have come to the final lesson in our Learn to Cook in 10 Weeks series. There will be more cooking lessons, I promise. I have already finished the outline for Mastering Basic Sauces and I will publish the introductory notes soon.

Sauces? Why sauces? Because with a few basic sauces, you can create hundreds of dishes. I am not kidding.

Meanwhile, I hope you visit and enjoy Tasty Safari. It’s really a different kind of food and travel blog.