Discover Some of Asia’s Culinary Secret Ingredients
There is something about walking through a local market in Asia, the mixed aromas of exotic spices and herbs, the myriad colours, shapes and textures of fresh fruit and vegetables piled high on each seller’s stall, and the gentle almost meditative hum of the market doing business. It is a wonder for the senses, an immersive experience that puts one truly in the moment.
Buyers are busy selecting produce to feed themselves and their families, you look and wonder what meals and dishes they will be plating and enjoying later today. Sellers are busy selling, their seasonal produce sourced from across the region – it doesn’t get much fresher than this with much of the produce probably still in the ground, or on the vine, barely a few hours ago. In the more local of the markets, tribal groups can be found selling herbs, fruits and vegetables, much of which without common English names, that they foraged in the forests and mountains on the walk to town, long before dawn cracked the sky. Sat on their haunches all dressed almost identically in the traditional hand-woven attire that identifies their ethnic group, their produce set in front of them on hand-woven basketry and old seed sacks and a homemade tobacco leaf cheroot is hanging loosely from leathery hard-worked hands. It is a scene largely unchanged in centuries. And a scene I am sure that evokes fond memories of your holidays in Asia.
A melting pot of cultures and mores, Asia’s cuisines beautifully reflect the stories and the diversity of its people. The history of the region is told and tasted on the plates, with the many foreign influences over the centuries, the French and Chinese in Vietnam, the British in Myanmar and Malaysia, the Dutch in Indonesia and the Spanish in the Philippines, all making their mark in the cuisines of the regions they lived, worked and made homes within. In this week’s newsletter we will look at some of Asia’s secret ingredients and hopefully revive the experience in some small way of travelling within Asia when the only worry was what to taste and eat next and when time was spent simply and blissfully, living life in the moment.
Shrimp paste plays an important supporting role in many Asian dishes. It really brings out the meaty flavor in meat. It is a fermented condiment commonly used in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese cuisines. Shrimp paste contains ground-up fermented shrimp and salt. It goes by a number of names, including prawn sauce, shrimp sauce, gapi, kapi, trassi or bagoong. Depending on the country of origin and how it was produced, shrimp paste can vary in smell and taste. Some can be wet pastes while others are sold as a solid firm block of flavour. The colors of shrimp paste range from a delicate light pink to dark chocolate brown.
The preparation of shrimp paste dates back to the eighth century and has its roots in southern Thailand. Traditionally, the shrimp would be harvested, crushed into a fine pulp and mixed with salt, and then placed in jars to ferment for several weeks. For the wet forms, the process ends there. For the dried forms, the now fermented shrimp pulp is spread across handwoven bamboo mats to dry out under the heat of the sun. Once dried, it’s cut into blocks and is ready for use or for sale. Naturally, the practice spread throughout the region and still today shrimp paste represents an important industry, and a secret ingredient in the cuisines, of all of Southeast Asia’s countries. It is an essential ingredient in many curries, sauces, ‘nam phrik’ and ‘sambal’. Shrimp paste can be found in many meals in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is often an ingredient in dipping sauces too for fish and vegetables.
At Le Du Restaurant their signature “River Prawn Dish” is served with shrimp paste flavoured rice in a delicious style reminiscent of a risotto. For Thai people, the yellow orange blob of butter-like prawn fat is what eating river prawns is all about! Buttery and creamy with a rich, decadent taste, it beautifully enriches the flavours of a good Tom Yum, Thailand’s queen of soups. And is shrimp paste is also an ‘out of this world’ complement to a favourite rice dish, where steamed rice is mixed with shrimp paste, a squeeze of lime, a shredded omelet, sliced shallots, chopped chili and sweetened pork. A really invigorating and aromatic which is dish perfect at any time of the day.
Even though Mangoes are today cultivated in many parts of the world, this delicious and versatile fruit originated in Northeast India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Wild mangoes were considered a sacred fruit and were found in the forests covered foothills of the Himalayas and their flesh was rather stringy and fibrous. Over time, cultivation of this sacred fruit spread gradually throughout Asia and beyond, always requiring human assistance to transport the fruit’s very large seed. The spread of Buddhism across Southeast Asia helped to spread the cultivation of mangoes, the Persians carried mangoes across western Asia and planted seeds in east Africa in the 10th century, and the Portuguese explorers introduced mangoes to Brazil in the 16th century from where mango cultivation soon spread throughout the Americas. Today modern varieties of mangoes can be found growing and being cultivated in Florida, Mexico, Haiti, and across South America. However, still today, Asia grows 75 percent of all the mangoes in the world.
Most mangoes have traditionally been eaten as a dessert fruit when they are soft and ripe. But, in traditional Asian cuisines, mangoes are also prepared and eaten in their hard, green, often sour and un-ripened forms. In mango season at Locavore in Bali, as champions of foraging, sourcing and cooking with the best seasonal produce, the chefs celebrate this versatile fruit in all its forms and create a variety of delicious dishes from mangoes in both savory and sweet flavour profiles.
A native of Malaysia and Indonesia, this exotic fruit is today found growing across Southeast Asia. A yellow-green fruit with a thin, crunchy and waxy skin, the fruit resembles smooth-skinned gherkins. Very acidic and sour, the fruit in its fresh ‘off the tree’ form is very difficult to eat. But that hasn’t stopped the people of Southeast Asia from finding ways to incorporate this secret ingredient into their cuisines and building dishes and flavours around the Bilimbi.
In Indonesian cooking, the fruit is used to add acidity to dishes as a substitute to tomato, or tamarind. It is also salted and sun-dried and used as a seasoning in the cuisine of Aceh province. In India it is a secret ingredient to curries, particularly fish-based curries. It is also pickled and used as a condiment to rice, as the process of pickling reduces its acidity. In the Maldives they also pickle it with a mix of aromatic spices where it is typically served as a condiment and as an accompaniment to their famed fish soup, Garudhiya. And in the Philippines, it is eaten raw dipped in salt as the perfect pick-me-up. Here again it is often sun-dried and used in salads, and also used to balance the flavours of curries and add a touch of sour.
At Gen Restaurant in Malaysia, the Bilimbi is one of the chef’s favourite secret ingredients. He pairs his homemade pickled bilimbi with a hint of longan creating a wonderfully flavoursome condiment that is packed with robust flavours and nutrition so it’s not only good to eat, but good for you too!
Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, a single fruit can weigh as much as a whopping 55kgs, so don’t be sleeping under a jackfruit tree. The fruit is covered in a large lumpy soft green skin, and is not to be confused with Southeast Asia’s Queen of Fruits, the durian, which has a hard almost woody green and spiky exterior. The jackfruit is actually a species in the Moraceae family—the same family as the fig. Found across Southeast Asia, the Jackfruit is eaten in both its ripe and unripe forms. Known as a multiple fruit, what appears to be a single fruit is actually composed of 1,000s of flowers and the fused ovaries of which form fleshy pods around seeds within the fruit, and it is these fleshy seed pods that we eat. The seed, once cooked, is also eaten and has a taste and texture similar to a Brazil Nut and is popular in Java roasted and seasoned with salt.
When ripe, the inside of a jackfruit is bright yellow and made up of a multitude of fleshy petal-like pods, each holding a single large woody seed within its delicious flesh. Fully packed with flavour and a sweet aroma, ripe jackfruit has a very chewy, stringy texture and unique, tropical flavour—almost a hybrid of pineapple, banana, and mango. Very popular for creating desserts, jackfruit can be found as the secret ingredient in custards, cakes, pancakes and the ubiquitous super sweet shaved-ice desserts found all across Southeast Asia.
Unripe, young green jackfruit is also eaten and used in more savoury dishes. The flesh of unripe jackfruit is off-white in color and almost neutral in flavour but with a firm satisfying texture. These attributes in addition to its signature texture make it ideal for cooking applications as a meat alternative or in plant-based recipes. The Embassy Restaurant in Cambodia offers a classic green jackfruit salad on its menu. The flesh of the unripe jackfruit is joined into a delicious marriage of minced beef, sliced lemon grass, mixed fresh herbs, and a kaffir lime dressing to create a gorgeously satisfying salad packed with the aromas and flavours of Southeast Asia.
Its juicy yellow flesh may resemble a mango, so much so in fact that they name to the Bambangan Mango, but Borneo’s Bambangan, or Mangifera Pajang, stands out for many reasons. Firstly it looks quite different from the outside, the yellow flesh is encased in a rough brown skin and also fruits can grow to a hefty size, in some cases a single fruit can weight up to two kilograms. It also smells different, with ripe varieties emitting a funky, durian-like aroma. And it certainly tastes different, a yellow fibrous and juicy flesh, the flavour is very ‘marmite’ and one you either love or hate, reminiscent as it is of onion soup and eggs hovering over a base of sourness. These fruits can be found in markets throughout the island of Borneo and in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. Due to their smell, they are often found alongside durians on the periphery of local markets rather than inside.
You can enjoy this unique fruit by its own, but it is most commonly used in cooking. Bambangan-based salads, chutneys, and pickles are particularly popular. Pickles are made by slicing the fruit and mixing it with chilies, salt, and shavings of the fruit’s large, white seed. After a week in an airtight container, the pickles are used as an accompaniment to fish dishes.
But the fantastic restaurant Dewakan in Malaysia have elevated this secret ingredient to new heights with their Bambangan Sorbet. Seasoned with Bambangan salt, wildflowers, and baby coriander their sorbet really celebrates the unique and delicious flavours of the Bambangan. And if you are lucky enough to be in Malaysia at the right season, Dewakan will serve this dish with starfruit (averrhoa carambola) flowers, a both beautiful and delicious addition to this already perfect dish that just highlights the blessings of dining seasonally.
Every destination in Asia has a handful of magical restaurants usually known only to the locals or the seriously epicurious.
Our Secret Tables, like a personal recommendation from a friend you can trust, is our curated collection of unique, independent restaurants powered by passionate local chefs and their brigades and whose core values all celebrate eating locally and seasonally, embrace sustainability, and champion fair wages and career paths for young local people.