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Find comfor in the food of Asia

November 09, 1999

By KATHRYN MATTHEWS For AP Special Features


NEW YORK - Brisk days and chilly evenings find us craving foods to sate heartier appetites. It's time for comfort foods: substantive soups, stick-to-the-ribs stews and starches.

Sentimental memories of home and hearth converge in the kitchen. We dream of all-American favorites - macaroni-and-cheese, chicken potpie, mashed potatoes and meatloaf.

But, take a look East, at cold-weather comfort foods in China, Korea or India. An Asian retrospective evokes equally potent culinary nostalgia.

With any comfort food, the smell and taste of a dish are powerful sensory stimulants. But catching a whiff of garlic and ginger, ubiquitous flavor enhancers in Chinese, Korean and Indian cuisines, doesn't inspire a yearning for a universal dish, the way, say, roast chicken can transcend geographic boundaries in Europe and America.

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Each Asian cuisine has its own distinct flavor base, usually a mixture of aromatic vegetables, herbs or spices.

In the Chinese kitchen, garlic, ginger and fermented products, such as soy sauce, rice wine and hoisin sauce, prevail, along with crisp or leafy greens and shoots. Seasonings and cooking techniques like stir-frying and steaming highlight the fresh, natural flavors that are the goal of the Chinese epicure.

Korean cuisine, on the other hand, is rugged and assertively flavorful - in turn, hot, sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Boiling and simmering are the most frequently used cooking methods. Two key flavoring agents, kimchi, a fermented pickled cabbage full of garlic and hot chili, and goit-chu garu, a Korean red chili pepper, kick up the spice quotient with sweat-inducing force.

The Indian kitchen also delivers bold flavors, but with subtle finesse. With a strong vegetarian tradition, Indian cuisine balances fiery with savory elements in its seasoning profile, using a variety of freshly ground spices. Most dishes require slow cooking methods, like braising or simmering.

A Taste of China

Chef-consultant and food writer Ken Hom grew up in Chicago, his memories inextricably linked to the kitchen where his mother, a "superlative cook," presided. In Hom's cookbook-memoir, "Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood" (Knopf), he recalls, "our home was always filled with the smells of ginger, scallions, soy sauce, garlic, hoisin sauce and peanut and sesame oils."

Among his favorite comfort foods: steamed halibut with ginger and scallions, braised red bean curd chicken, steamed savory custard and spinach with fermented bean curd.

"Whenever my family thinks of comfort food, we picture steamed dishes. To us they are the most flavorful, yet delicate," San Francisco native Grace Young writes in her recent book, "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing" (Simon & Schuster).

Americans tend to view steamed foods as bland and ominously dietetic. But Cantonese chefs have elevated this fundamental Chinese cooking technique to a high art form, savoring the way it showcases colors, flavors and textures.

Young fondly recounts a savory repertoire of steamed, Cantonese-style comfort foods: steamed tangerine beef, steamed sole with black bean sauce and steamed sponge cake.

Kimchi kicks

Korean-born Suzay Cha, chef-owner of Mondu Suzay restaurant, near Los Angeles, takes culinary refuge in tofu chi gea, (a tofu hot pot), and kalbi jchim (braised short ribs) when she longs for a taste of Seoul.

But, she says, "Kimchi soup is my real comfort food, especially in the winter, the flavors are so soothing and cleansing. Ask any Korean what dish represents comfort food, and I think most will say anything with kimchi."

Twenty-six-year-old Korean-American Jenny Kwak, who in 1993 with her mother opened Dok Suni's, a hip Korean eatery in Manhattan, also named kimchi soup as a mainstay comfort food.

For Kwak, the essence of Korean-style comfort food is its kimchi-oriented spiciness. "It's garlicky, spicy and temperature-hot," she says. "Just the whole activity of sweating through your meal is somehow very comforting to me! And rice just doesn't taste any better when you're eating kimchi soup. It's a perfect palate cleanser."

At home

For home cooks, making comfort food with Asian flair can be an enjoyable one-pot affair. Start by swapping your bread for rice; use less meat and more vegetables; forgo rosemary and thyme for Eastern herbs and spices.

Asian cooks typically use one of four stovetop cooking methods: braising, boiling, simmering or steaming. Roasting is not an Asian slow-cooking method, simply because most Asian kitchens do not have ovens.

Creating one-pot meals with Asian flavors is as easy as a quick jaunt to the specialty food section of the supermarket or as educational as an exploratory afternoon browsing an Asian market.

Either way, trying new comfort food styles will indulge the senses - to soul-satisfying effect.

See related item: Asian Recipes

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