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Asian stir-frying

Forget samosas, as the season gets cooler, try stir-frys accented with pan-Asian flavours. But get the basics right first

By Anoothi Vishal

As I write this, the devout have just bid farewell to their beloved Ganpati. But even though the 10-day long festival marking the changing season is over, it continues to rain, clouding our days, bringing down temperatures and evoking amongst other things the natural desire to indulge in something hot, crisp and spicy.

Ayurveda, the traditional Indian science on both food and medicine (after all, food is medicine, according to this philosophy, and we are not just what we eat but should eat according to what we are), has long upheld seasonal diets. Certain categories of foods and spices, for instance, are recommended for particular seasons according to their “cooling” and “warming” properties.

Even though you may not eat in strict accordance with these principles, they are so entrenched in almost the entire body of Indian cooking that most households, through sheer habit and tradition, are committed to them. Which is not a bad thing at all, because seasonal diets often have inherent common-sense, which we fail to recognize in this day and age of globalization and 24X7 availability of ingredients. Hot, often fried, things are recommended during the monsoon, the traditional season for illness and disease, because cooking at high temperatures prevents spoilage and keeps germs at bay, especially if you are having food cooked in a commercial premise. Similarly, ingredients like ginger and garlic are supposed to be upped in our daily bites because of their “warming” properties and who is to say that these don’t help.

Anyone who has had hot ginger tea, or better still a potent concoction of ginger, tulsi leaves and black peppers knows that colds definitely tend to abate with these.

But what if you don’t want to stick to traditional Indian eats or gorge on typical snacks like pakoras and samosas synonymous with the season? Last week, as I sat down to a monsoon special meal at Shiro, the restaurant chain (though it functions more like a nightclub/bar on weekends) that serves a fusion of Asian flavours, I found an apt answer: Stir-frys. As the days get cooler, what’s better than have these piping hot, off the wok, including while you are eating out? With chefs experimenting with a medley of newer flavours, these need not be boring meals for dieters only.

The good thing about the demise of Indian-Chinese in this last decade has undoubtedly been the opening up of the market for pan-Asian flavours. And we have to agree that south and south-east Asia especially is so abundant in herbs, spices and seasonings that it makes for very exciting gourmet possibilities. The kind of easy-to-eat pan-Asian food that has swept our restaurants in recent times is often not strictly authentic. Instead, what chefs are doing is playing around with these flavours, using a variety of accents, from Korea and Japan to Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, to dress up any number of meats and vegetables, including those more commonly found on Western plates.

At Shiro, for instance, I went through the entire stir-fry menu, sampling the likes of tofu in a spicy Korean bean paste, aubergines tossed in coconut cream and basil, an excellent chicken with the Malay sambal and curry leaves, fish done in a mix of Hoisin and sweet Thai chilli sauce (!) and even some assorted veggies in kashundi, the Bengali mustard paste. There was also a take on the Thai kraphao (ground chicken with basil) with rice having been wok-fried with chicken and basil and there was a bowl meal comprising of spicy soba noodles. None of these dishes are authentic. And that’s really the point. They are fun meals that you can experiment with. You can similarly rev up your stir-fry experience even at home by getting some of these sauces and pastes, herbs and seasonings, easily available in retail market, and giving a free run to your imagination.
Of course, it is incredibly easy to ruin a stir-fry dish too— something that not many people, including professional chefs, seem to appreciate. While at home, you can customize your quick meal to your liking, in a restaurant, a good stir fry can be tricky business, especially because most of the cooks who stand at the station doing these are kitchen hands trained at old-fashioned cornflour-ridden Indian-Chinese establishments. They are comfortable dousing everything in “gravy”, or in (Chinese) dark soy sauce. They will inevitably reach for a pinch MSG in the mistaken belief that it’s a cure for all ills. And I know of a few places, where they will also automatically put Chinese rice wine in everything. But it’s hardly their fault; not having been exposed to enough flavours from other countries, they don’t really know what the dishes they are cooking should taste like. Restaurants, alas, don’t seem to be investing enough in training.

While it is a good idea to innovate and get creative while attempting something like a stir-fry, you must remember to let basic or regional flavours stand out. That’s the key to this otherwise simple cooking enterprise. If it’s Thai that you like and you are attempting a simple chicken with basil, make sure that there is enough fresh basil (and enough garlic and red chillies ground together, to start off) to provide that distinct flavour. If it is Vietnamese prawns, make sure to have enough pounded black pepper which is a highlight, and if it is greens in mustard, well, obviously the kind of mustard you are using will be the key (sweet vs vinegared, for instance). You don’t really need Ajinomoto or even the Maggi cubes that can be crumbled and put to enhance flavour. Instead, try wetting the stir-fry with a little stock. It is more nutritious, more flavourful and less artificial. So, next time it rains—or not—attempt a stir fry!

(The piece appeared in Financial Express on Sunday in September 2011)

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