Heartland Cooking, With Fish Sauce

Cooking instructor Supatra Johnson connects the dots from southeast Asian farmers to you

We started with the eggplants. Briefly, let me tell you that there have been at least two dozen Asian eggplants on offer at the farmers' market this August. The smallest are the size of peas, and taste as bitter as vinegar-espresso. The green ones that are a bit bigger and striated like pumpkins are called bitter-balls, and they are in truth violently bitter, but nothing like the pea-sized killers. The green and white speckled ones are meant to be eaten raw, like radishes, though they taste like uncooked dough to me. And then there are tons more.

As far as greens--good lord. I learned the names of 20 of them, brought home about half as many, and learned that, essentially, the specific greens don't really matter that much. All of them (that I tried) can be stir-fried with garlic, something salty (soy, fish sauce, or both), something spicy, and something sour (rice vinegar, usually), and they all taste like greens, with more or less bitterness. (This whole experience was kind of like being 10 years old and pestering someone to explain how they got that coin out of your ear. You'll never believe it's not a big deal, until you really do believe it's not a big deal.) Suffice it to say that the ones with the yellow flowers are my favorite; they're called yu choy, or yellow flowering Chinese cabbage, and they taste like a mild broccoli rabe.

So I went in obsessed with the greens, but took away a totally different Eureka Moment. It was about an herb we'll call Vietnamese mint--Supatra calls it pac peow or bai prik ma, others call it rau ram (there are dozens of languages and dialects in that part of the world), and still others seem to call it hot mint or Vietnamese coriander. As far as I can tell, in Australia they've settled on calling it Vietnamese mint, and if it's good enough for Kylie Minogue, that settles it for me.

Farm fresh: Supatra Johnson unlocks the mysteries of the farmers' market
Diana Watters
Farm fresh: Supatra Johnson unlocks the mysteries of the farmers' market

This Vietnamese mint, you should watch for it. It's got pointy leaves, a papery texture, and tastes like mint infused with a good bite of white pepper, along with lemon and cilantro. I've seen it for years on the herb tray that comes with Vietnamese soups, but it was Supatra who got me to actually buy a bunch. Lately I've tucked it into lettuce roll-ups with chicken, I've sliced it and put it on top of cucumbers with lime juice and a bit of chili, I've tried it with poached salmon, with cilantro, lettuce, lime, and leftover steak. I am just nuts for the stuff, every which way. It's incredibly versatile; it's unusual enough to taste incredibly different; it's familiar enough to be easily understood. I'd bet this is the first herb that will jump the cultural barrier and make it into the bins at Cub, actually. We'll see. But if you want to be the first on your block, look for it at every single farmers' market where there are Southeast Asian immigrant farmers.

I came home from the farmers' market that day loaded down with a good $20 worth of greens, and busted out Supatra's cookbook, planning to cook. At which point I realized that I needed to go to Golden Lion Supermarket for the rest of everything--the mushroom soy sauces, the rice noodles, the sticky-rice cookers, and such. Golden Lion is a Southeast Asian grocery store up around 85th Avenue and Highway 252, and it's an amazing resource. In fact, the moment I walked in the door I realized that I could have skipped the farmers' market altogether, because all of the greens, all of the eggplants, all of the everything can be had at Golden Lion, and, miracle of miracles, everything is labeled in English. (They also sell Supatra's cookbook.)

What a lovely market Golden Lion is: clean, spacious, scrupulously organized for easy navigation. I bought a sticky-rice setup, a pot that looks like a giant aluminum bud vase, and a straw basket that sits on top of the pot, for $5. Soak the rice for two hours or more, then set it in this basket over the giant bud vase, sticking any old pot lid on top, and steam the whole contraption until the rice is done. Plan to throw out your first batch of sticky rice, because it will taste like new basket; after that, though, you're golden. After the rice is done, it can then sit there, steaming away, with no ill effect, until you get the rest of the meal together. Very nice.

(For $3 you can buy five pounds of sticky, or "glutinous," rice, which makes about 100 servings. I tell you, when a girl is used to paying $3 a portion at Thai restaurants, and suddenly finds she can have all the sticky rice in the world for $8, a girl feels like she has won a very small, but very satisfying personal version of Powerball.)

Golden Lion has it all: kaffir lime leaves, dried shrimp, curry sauces in cans, tamarind paste in blocks, galangal, young ginger, noodles galore, more rice-paper wrappers than a beehive has buzz. Everything.

I came home. I turned into a Lao grandmother. I mastered a couple of basic ideas of Southeast Asian country cooking--namely, that the vinaigrette of that part of the world is lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh chili pepper; that kaffir lime leaves (like Western bay leaves) add a dusky depth, that roasted rice powder unites flavors with a toasty base in the way that a good roux does; that coconut curries are to a Vietnamese kitchen what basic soup stocks are to a Western kitchen.

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