6 Tips for Cooking Asian Food (And A Book To Help You start)

Lately, I've been cooking a lot of Asian food - Indian curries, Japanese noodles, Korean rice bowls. When we first moved back to Kansas City, I reveled in the easy availability of ingredients that were hard to find in Cambodia - capers, lemons, flat-leaf parsley, salmon, prosciutto. But over the past few months, Asian food has been re-asserting itself on the meal plan - fish sauce, rice noodles, coconut milk, sticky rice. And I have happily agreed.

The Japanese udon and sushi New Year's Day feast Andrew prepared this year - which might turn into a tradition.

The Japanese udon and sushi New Year's Day feast Andrew prepared this year - which might turn into a tradition.

Part of the inspiration was getting a new cookbook to review - Lucky Rice: Stories and Recipes from Night Markets, Feasts, and Family Tables by Danielle Chang. Chang founded a pan-Asian cuisine festival (also named Lucky Rice) that celebrates Asian food culture in major cities around the United States, through feasts, night markets, and dinners. Although I'd never heard of the festival before, it sounds like exactly the kind of thing I'd love to do.

Her book takes popular recipes puts them into your hands so you can create your own Asian feast at home. And it seems like almost every country is represented here - Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Thailand, and more. If "Asian food" has only ever meant chicken fried rice or ramen to you, you are missing out on 99.9% of everything that makes Asian food memorable. 

I do feel like I need to point out - "Asian food" is a rather amusing phrase and a bit meaningless. If you set dishes of Indian curry next to Japanese udon, you'd have a hard time believing they shared the same moniker and continent - the flavors, presentation, and recipes are that different. And I love it all.

Lucky Rice is not for beginning cooks. It requires you to have a good working knowledge of knife skills, unusual ingredients, and a willingness to shop at an Asian supermarket. These are not watered-down, Americanized versions of Asian recipes. They are the real thing (as far as I can tell, anyway). Some of my favorite (but as yet un-tested) recipes include Sambal Stingray and Octopus with Wasabi (which sounds delicious but might be hard to source in Midwest, USA). 

But if you're looking to stretch your palate and try an entirely new way of cooking food, Lucky Rice is a great place to start. We haven't gotten very far into most of the book, but some easy "gateway" recipes would be Curry in a Hurry, Beef Satay (great for grilling weather), and Korean Bibimbap. Color-saturated, artfully messy photos accompany most of the recipes so you know what the final product should look like.

Bonus tip - keep your asian ingredients together in a separate bin or pantry to make cooking prep fast and easy

Bonus tip - keep your asian ingredients together in a separate bin or pantry to make cooking prep fast and easy

6 Tips for Cooking Asian Food

If you're completely new to Asian cooking but want to get off on the right foot, here are a few tips:

  • Prep all your ingredients with sharp knives before cooking - most Asian dishes require a lot of chopping but come together quickly, and you don't want to be caught between slicing lemongrass and stir-frying your chicken.
  • If you're not sure what it's supposed to look like, look it up on YouTube - I have definitely done this before, when I was wondering what chicken donburi looked like during the cooking process (this video cleared it up for me).
  • Try to stick with the original ingredients, even if it sounds too "Asian" for you - trust me, once you've had authentic Asian food, you can tell when American ingredient substitutes have been made. It's terribly disappointing, and it makes a monumental difference in the final flavor.
  • At the same time, don't be afraid to try a recipe even if you can't find all the ingredients - knowing how to make good substitutions is part instinct and part experience, both of which you will build up the more Asian food you try.
  • Get to know your local Asian grocery store (or website, if you don't have anything nearby) - and don't be shy about asking where ingredients are. They won't be surprised if you don't know where to find (or how to pronounce) belacan shrimp paste or kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce). 
  • Be prepared for your palate to be shocked a bit - Asian flavor combinations can be so different from American food, many people can't tolerate the difference. But keep cooking and eating, and soon you'll find you can appreciate nuances of flavor you never realized could be achieved in a bowl of congee.

If you've experimented with cooking Asian food before, whether Indian or Malaysian or Chinese, I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments. What are some of your favorite dishes? And what might intimidate you the most about trying some of these recipes?

Note: I received this book for free from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. Affiliate links used; see full disclosure here.