Food & Drink

No more mystery to Asian dishes

The raw ingredients for Khmer curry paste include common fixtures in southeast Asian cooking.  (Photo provided by Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen)
The raw ingredients for Khmer curry paste include common fixtures in southeast Asian cooking. (Photo provided by Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen)

It's the seemingly exotic ingredients that scare so many cooks from trying their hand at Southeast Asian cuisine.

Tamarind concentrate? Kaffir lime leaves? Nuoc mam?


“The reason most people back off is because they can’t identify what’s in the dish,” says Nancy Hebb, director of Bayview School of Cooking in Olympia. “Once you understand the ingredients and have those staples in your cupboards, it’s amazing how quickly you can put together fresh, delightful food.”

Obtaining the ingredients shouldn’t be an obstacle. In the South Sound, she adds, cooks can choose from numerous Asian grocery stores that stock the specialty items.

Hebb and fellow cooking instructor Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen aim to remove the mystery of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai cookery. The two will show how easy Southeast Asian foods are to prepare in a class called “Vietnam Culinary Tour,” April 8 at Bayview School of Cooking in Olympia. Though the title focuses on Vietnam, the 21/2-hour class includes the cooking of neighboring Cambodia and Thailand.

The class was inspired by a recent 16-day culinary tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand arranged by Pranee, who prefers to be known by her first name. Pranee teaches Southeast Asian cooking courses throughout the Puget Sound area through her business, I Love Thai Cooking.

During the journey, Pranee, Hebb and two other women took courses at four cooking schools in those nations, strolled through street markets, toured a Vietnamese herb and vegetable farm, and dined at internationally acclaimed restaurants and small local eateries.

On a trip through the Mekong Delta, they visited a floating market where shoppers and sellers alike rode long, narrow boats as they bargained for fish and produce. The sellers hung whatever they were hawking, be it a pineapple or a watermelon, from a long upright stick for buyers to see.

And they enjoyed a particularly memorable meal at a century-old restaurant in Hanoi. The restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong, serves just one dish: monk fish marinated in galangal (a root similar to fresh ginger), fermented rice, fish sauce and turmeric. The fish was pan fried and served with fresh herbs and rice vermicelli.

“We liked it so much we ordered another one,” Hebb said.

The women returned to the states with a bounty of recipes and technical knowledge and a greater understanding of the differences and similarities of the three countries’ foods.

They learned, for instance, that chili peppers are a staple in each country. So is fish sauce. But Vietnamese fish sauce, called nuoc mam, is lighter in color and milder than the Thai variety, called nam pla, Hebb said.

Rice is ubiquitous in the three countries but often turns up as vermicelli noodles in Vietnamese breakfast and lunch soups, stir-fry and salads, Pranee said.

“In Cambodia and Vietnam, instead of using milk to make sauces, they use a lot of chicken broth powder, put a tablespoon in to give (the sauce) flavor, and don’t use as much coconut milk,” Hebb said. “In Thailand, they’re using coconut milk like crazy and not using the powder.”

Vietnamese cooking incorporates lots of lemongrass, plenty of pork and seafood, and handfuls of fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, dill and Thai basil. Turmeric and curry are popular spices in Cambodian cooking.

“The layer of flavor in Thai food is strong, really screaming at you with excitement,” said Pranee, who grew up in Thailand.

In Vietnam, the food vibrates with the colors of its fresh ingredients. “It’s beautiful and sophisticated, with a fusion of French cooking,” Pranee said. “Ingredients are less complicated. It’s pure, simple and delicious.”

Simple enough for the beginning cook to conquer.

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694