Friday, March 15, 2013

Outside the Comfort Zone

Down the street from where I work is a fantastic Asian supermarket called Sun Wah. This place has basically everything one could ever need, it's reasonably priced, and a great opportunity to try new things. If you've never gone shopping anywhere but the big-box chain supermarkets, you're missing out on an entire world of ingredients.

This list is more of an introduction to the world outside Safeway, rather than a "hey look at this weird shit I found" list. If you've tried any of these foods or have a suggestion for others, let me know!

1. Pandan extract:
This is a neat alternative to vanilla. It's a bright green syrup that gives food a nutty, sweet flavour almost like toasted marshmallow. Pandan extract comes from the leaves of a tropical plant, and when I say bright green, I mean BRIGHT green, as in it will turn anything you put it in a delightful lime colour. It's great for cookies, cake, puddings, and so on.

2. Sweet soy sauce (kecap manis):
This is probably the least-unusual item on the list. It's a sticky, sweet soy sauce that's good for marinades, stir fries, dips, and so on. I like mixing it with sriracha for dipping potstickers, or just using it on rice instead of regular soy sauce.

3. Konjac jelly shrimp:
These things are just straight-up cool. They're made from konjac, which is similar to a yam, made into a jelly-like substance which has a texture similar to cooked shrimp or squid (a little rubbery, but not in an off-putting way). These are vegan-friendly, and like shrimp they can be seasoned in a ton of different ways. Konjac jelly is also made into other shapes, including noodles, and the texture is really a love-it-or-hate-it deal. It's inexpensive and worth a try.

4. Mochi ice cream:
Ice cream, in a chewy rice wrapper. The texture of the rice cake exterior is like cake fondant or marzipan, plus these are bite-sized and addictive enough that you'll probably eat a whole box in one go. I've never looked at the nutritional information to see exactly how unhealthy these are for you, and I probably never will, because deliciousness trumps nutritiousness in this case.

5. Banana leaves:
If you've got a barbecue at home, get yourself some banana leaves and start wrappin' shit up. I've used these to hold rice, fish, chicken, and so on. The leaves themselves aren't really edible since they're pretty tough, but they give the food a subtle flavour while providing a biodegradable wrapper. They hold together even after they've been charred a bit, so they can handle relatively high heat. If you don't use it to wrap individual portions, consider something like this instead. 

Bottom line shopping shouldn't be a chore, it should be an adventure! Think of yourself as a culinary Joseph Banks, braving uncharted territories for the sake of knowledge and new experiences. Trying foods you've never had before is such a low-risk way to broaden your perspective and your tastes, it would be foolish not to.