Heartland Cooking, With Fish Sauce

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

Supatra Johnson
www.supatra.com

Golden Lion Supermarket
8620 Edinburgh Centre Drive
Brooklyn Park
763.493.4581

Now, I know a fair amount about vegetables. I know my collards from my kale from my chard. Celery, celeriac, celery seed: I thumb my nose at their deceptive naming and remain secure in my knowledge of exactly which holds ants-on-a-log as destiny. In fact, I don't even consider it bragging when I tell you that I can, at 20 paces, tell a rutabaga from a crocodile valise.

Yet, even with such vegetable skills, lately, at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, I'm stunned speechless more than I care to admit. There I am trundling along, happy as a potato weevil in Coeur d'Alene, my arms weighed down with bags of corn and carrots, and then there they are, mocking me: two dozen types of greens, arranged in a green-on-green rainbow, comprising the lower tier of some Southeast Asian farmer's stand. Greens with tendrils. Greens with flowers. Greens with silky leaves, with stubby spines, with hollow stems. Greens of every possible description, even greens that are more purple than not.

Obviously, these things, these green things, are desirable: Other Southeast Asians come along, grab them excitedly, shake them, and set to bargaining. But, whenever I ask what they could be...nothing. I ask what this bundle was, or that, and come smack into a language barrier, a cultural barrier, or both. "What is it?" I ask. "It's Chinese." "It's called Thai herb." "It has no name." "It's very good." Or, worst of all, the vague shrug, followed by a slow drift away from the pesky girl who can't be helped.

After a while, I began to feel like I might as well have been asking what love is. Why, it's Chinese. It's very good...listen, kid, basically, if you have to ask, you'll never know.

Obviously, this could not stand. So I rang up Supatra Johnson, a local Thai cooking instructor and cookbook author, and got her to give me a personal tour of the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, with an eye toward equipping me to convey to you all what the heck those vegetables are. Thus began one of those journeys that doesn't go where you think it's gonna go, but goes somewhere good nonetheless.

Supatra Johnson is one of those tiny, forceful, endlessly hardworking women that Southeast Asia, and now Minnesota, is blessed with. She grew up in rural northeast Thailand, in that section of the country that's across the Mekong River from Laos. As a child she worked in her parents' grocery store, vegetable garden, and gas station, and then, as a teenager, moved to Bangkok to work in a restaurant that served the food of Isaan, which is what the food, people, and culture from that northeast section of Thailand are called.

Fifteen years ago she moved to Minnesota, with nary a recipe to connect her to her childhood. "I used to call my mom: 'Oh, I'm so hungry for your food!' So she would write down a recipe and send it to me," Supatra told me. "But when I moved here, it was very hard to find any ingredients! When I was growing up we would go the market three times a day; fresh vegetables are that important to Thai cooking. It was hard. Now, though, there are very good markets, all over Minnesota."

More on that in a minute. For now, please know that over the years, over the internet, through travel, experimentation, and other heroic efforts, Supatra learned English, learned to drive, got all of her favorite recipes written down, and became a popular Thai cooking instructor. She teaches classes in about a dozen locations around the Twin Cities now, in community ed, at fancy cooking schools, and at Whole Foods. This fall she's even going to be taking over the St. Paul Sawatdee for her friend, Sawatdee owner Su Penn Harrison, where she hopes to add more Thai Isaan dishes. Her website is fairly remarkable too: At www.supatra.com, you'll find recipes, a picture dictionary of Asian vegetables, advice on local markets, and information on her upcoming cooking classes.

Anyhoo, what brought Supatra to my attention was her notable self-published cookbook, Crying Tiger: Thai Recipes from the Heart ($14.95). I have seen a lot of Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cookbooks in my day, but what's amazing about Crying Tiger is that it is made exactly, precisely, and specifically for Minnesotans. It knows what we don't know (like, say, the difference between black soy sauce, soy sauce, light soy sauce, and soyabean sauce); it tells us exactly where to get what we need (Golden Lion Supermarket in Brooklyn Park, where they also sell the book) and it distills the cuisine of the exact people who live here: refugees from the Southeast Asian diaspora and people who, in their cooking, prize thrift, fresh herbs and vegetables, and simplicity of preparation.

That morning, though, it quickly became clear that going through the farmers' market with Supatra was going to be like helping David Hockney paint the garage--things would be learned, yes, but it was at best an imperfect way of passing on a lifetime's knowledge.

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.

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.

I felt like a whole world opened to me, which had only been partly glimpsed before. And it was a very Minnesota world, one in which, from Nisswa to St. Peter and back again, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese families are cooking, farming, and, generally, living in a world of exciting food that is parallel to the dominant culture, but rarely intersects with us. So, I don't think that I've recommended a cookbook in a few years, but I really can't say enough good things about Crying Tiger. It speaks so specifically to the actual moment in geography, in history, in agriculture, and in the cultural experimentation in which we all live.

At the end of the day, I have to admit that in some ways this story seems unbelievably stupid: Like a Lao family moving to Paris, and one day a daughter comes back to the house, exclaiming, "Hey, you know all the stuff they're selling in that market? It's edible! All you have to do is figure out something called a vinaigrette." But hey, I take shelter in the idea that if no one was ever brave enough to risk looking like an idiot, there would be little information exchanged across cultures. And that's how I set out trying to find the names of some greens, and came to love a little self-published cookbook, and walked out with enough sticky rice to teach a man to fish.

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