Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Brief Digression: Cari Bo

I spent almost a year between 1996 and 1997 traveling in Southeast Asia. I went to Viet Nam, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Sumatra, India, and Australia. It seems like so long ago now - more than 10 years. I was fascinated by the food before going, in fact, the food was the main reason that I chose to go to that part of the world.

I could prattle on about street food in Penang, Malaysia, south Indian meals served on banana leaves, Laotian ground fish with hot chilies and rice powder eaten with cold Pilsner in restaurant made of bamboo on stilts over the Mekong River, the multitudinous variations of pho in Saigon, the ridiculously beautiful and impossibly sweet fresh rambutan and mangosteen fruits of Sumatra, ...but some other time. One of the things I did during that trip was watch people cook, sometimes in their home, other times at restaurants, and once in a class (the least helpful).

I learned as much as I could about the ingredients that define a certain cuisine, and when I returned to New York I sought out those ingredients in Chinatown (there are at least four Chinatowns in NYC) and practiced cooking my favorite dishes. One of my favorites is more of a style of cooking than a specific dish - curry. A word invented by the Brits to describe a mix of spices in India, most people use it when describing a stew or braise of meats or vegetables with a mix of spices.

On Saturday BrooklynLady and I went to our favorite soup dumpling place (Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street off Canal) in Manhattan's Chinatown for brunch. While walking around, I grabbed the ingredients for a simple Vietnamese style curry. Vietnamese style, to me, means a rich curry broth finished with coconut milk, not necessarily very hot, relying for flavor on herbs, chilis, bean sprouts, and other condiments added at the diner's discretion.

If you can find Madras Curry Paste, or Cari Dau An Do, a Vietnamese style curry paste, buy some. It's packed in California and I cannot tell from the label where it is made. It is a vegetarian curry paste, no shrimp paste added. Even if you have never before attempted to cook Vietnamese curry, or any kind of curry, you can do it with this paste. Just sautee some onions until golden brown, add a tablespoon or two of the paste, smile as the aromas waft about the kitchen, add some chicken or beef stock, bring to a boil, add beef or chicken on the bone, bring to a boil again, reduce to a simmer for 90 minutes, add some coconut milk ...voila. If you want you can include vegetables in various combinations. I like to add some nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) along with the stock to kick up the umami factor.

It's important to cook the onions for a while to break down the cellulose and release the sugars, to achieve a creamier sauce. Other than that, the most important thing is to use good quality coconut milk and fish sauce, and fresh hot chilis. After experimenting with many of them, I prefer Three Crabs Brand Viet Huong Fish Sauce. Chaokoh coconut milk is my favorite, and that's because it has only coconut, water, and a preservative as ingredients. Avoid brands that include guar gum, sugar, or other ingredients - all you want is dessicated coconut and water.

This time I used local grass-fed beef sirloin that I cut into cubes and russet potatoes - that's it. This dish would be called Cari Bo (Bo is Viet for beef). I added a chili or two to the onion mixture, but the stew was meant to be mild. So I sliced a bunch of chilis and soaked them in fish sauce, an approximation of Nam Pla, the fiery Thai condiment. I could add Nam Pla to my heart's content while BrooklynLady could be more restrained on the chili heat, if she so decided. We bought a nice crusty baguette (the Vietnamese are surprisingly good baguette bakers - they learned from the French, after all) and imagined we were at a street stall in Saigon.

I'm not sure what exactly it is that prompted this post - I haven't really posted recipes that I use before. I haven't cooked South Asian food in a while, and it brought back some memories, so I decided to share. Good luck finding the Vietnamese curry paste - any good Asian grocery should keep it in stock. Happy curry!

No comments: