Originally dairy-free with a large vegetarian element, too, the Orient has suffered from a pollution of American ideas of food. Fillers, additives, and corn syrup now dominate their prepackaged foods as well, and shopping at an Asian food store now involves lots of package reading (just like everywhere else). Despite that, some progress is being made, and Oriental markets are still some of my favorite places to shop. You can walk out of an Asian food store with four bags of food and a price tag at just over twenty bucks. Cheap and tasty! Here are just a couple of my favorite options in the area.
At my favorite Asian grocery store, Far East Market (off 72 in Madison), they now have many vegan-friendly products, including an entire freezer section of vegetarian meats, many of which are vegan. They always have a supply of fresh Asian veggies and unusual types of mushrooms - two of my favorite things. They have an entire aisle of rice noodles and wraps (many are gluten-free). Take time to smell the soaps in the back. The staff is very friendly.
By the way after your Far East Market shopping experience, stop in and have lunch at VietSandwich, which is just across the way in the same shopping center. Have a veggie bon mi (Vietnamese sandwich) and a boba tea - known here as bubble tea.
If your Asian tastes run more Korean, check out the International Market (off Old Madison Pike). This is where I go to get weird pickled things, and also acorn flour. Eating gluten-free opens you up to experimenting with different flours, and acorn pancakes are the best! The Korean lady who owns the store never believes I know how to cook with it. They also have the basics of Asian cooking: a selection of rice noodles and canned items like mushrooms and lychees. I bought my Oriental folding table here, too, the kind that you sit on the floor with.
Earth Fare is great place to pick up authentic, no filler sauces. It is the only place I have found hoisin sauce (see below) that is actually fermented with no corn syrup. I also get my amino acid products here, which I use instead of soy sauce, and vegan, raw kimchi (see below). Organic, whole, no filler, canned coconut milks are also found here. Kroger, in the health-food section, also carries many of these, as do the locally owned health food stores, Garden Cove and Foods For Life.
So just what are you supposed to do with this stuff?
I'm not a big recipe person. I have inherited this from my mother, who never has managed to teach me how to make squash casserole like her. We have a tendency to combine recipes, experiment, and just plain make up stuff. As a result, it's hard for us to share exactly how we made the food we are eating. The following is not exactly a recipe, but a rambling meander through my cooking mind. If you get bored, I won't fault you for scanning ahead or just looking at the pictures.
Here's a walk-through of yesterday's lunch.
This is the frozen vegan chicken "drumsticks" I started with from Far East Market, along with some happy mushrooms that we will not be using today.
Here they are out of the package. I had to squeal with delight at the little wooden sticks they were on. I love making food look like other things. A little chick made out of marzipan or a chicken wing made out of soy is the same amount of hilarity to me, as long as I'm not actually mutilating a real bird...but I may just be morbid.
For health reasons, I don't cook with oil any more, and products containing oil - such as these wings - are a real treat for me. So I have placed the wings on parchment paper to crisp-up in the oven. You could also use spray oil on your pan.
The package didn't give any cooking instructions so I tried 350, but decided that wasn't hot enough for proper crisping and turned it up too 400.
But now we need some green stuff. At the top left of the picture we have king mushrooms from Far East Market's produce section. These guys are basically giant stems, with tiny caps at the top. They have a taste reminiscent of the ocean - as many mushrooms do. I slice them up for this stir-fry but I have also left them gigantically whole in a soup.
At the bottom right & center of the picture we have bamboo shoots. Yes, fresh bamboo shoots, not canned! You can find them at Far East Market in their refrigerators in clear bags.
The green stuff is pak choy, a broccoli/cabbage relative, which is one of my favorite greens. You could also use chinese broccoli, bok choi or basically any other dark leafy green you please. Or whatever, it's a stir-fry -- put prunes in it if you want!
Also chopped up some onions besides being terribly healthy for you and tasty, the onions also provide natural oils for the pan, eliminating the need for concentrated oils like olive or vegetable.
This is my much used and abused wok. It isn't shiny anymore, but you'll have to trust me that it is clean. Woks are made specially for distributing heat properly in a stir-fry. You can also use the same pan for multiple layers of sauces and vegetables, pulling the older veggies up to the side of the wok to keep warm, while adding new veggies to the hotter center. Do some research on the proper use of a wok - it's fascinating...and proper treatment of your wok will stop it from turning bubbly brown like mine.
Anyway, the onions and the bamboo shoots have been added. The onions, for their oils, and the bamboo because it takes a while to cook at become soft, so we want it cooking the longest. Cooking with no oil requires a lower heat, so I keep the burner on medium. Let's leave these two alone for a few minutes, with the occasional stirring until the onions began to brown.
Here we need our cooking rice wine. Don't be fooled by imitations. When shopping for rice wine, be sure not to get those that are made up almost entirely of corn syrup. You also want to look for one that is actually fermented. Not only is this the best tasting, but it's also the best for you. Cooking gets rid of all the actual alcohol, so no worries there. Just because it's wine, doesn't mean it's expensive, either. Standard Asian grocery rules apply and even big jugs are inexpensive.
The jug pictured is my favorite brand from Far East Market. It is real rice cooking wine (in ceramic, not plastic), but even here we have to look out for fillers. I once poisoned my brother with this one: it contains wheat.
Meanwhile, our stir-fry is ready for an application of cooking wine. Bamboo picks up the flavor wonderfully. I add a splash (I estimate a tablespoon or two) of the good stuff. Remember to stir, and let it cook for a little more, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Here we'll need more of our lovely Oriental sauces. The secret to a good stir-fry is adding layers of flavor. Don't throw everything in there at once. We have two choices at this point: hoisin sauce or Coconut Aminos. Both of these can be found at Earth Fare.
As I mentioned above, actual hoisin sauce with no fillers, made the proper way is actually very hard to find. Earth Fare brand is my choice. A viscose sauce that is somewhat a combination of soysauce and molasses. I know that sounds disgusting, but it's actually very tasty.
I've taken to using these coconut aminos because they don't have any soy in them, and I have to watch my soy intake. Braggs amino acids (found at any health food store) would also do. Both of these products taste VERY similar to soysauce and can be used as a low-sodium alternative.
Since the vegan chicken is a soy product, today I've chosen the coconut aminos. Also, it has a lighter flavor than the hoisin sauce and I think the vegan chicken will be a heavy flavor. Give the pan and good splash. Notice I've also added the king mushrooms at this point. They'll pick up the sauce flavor. Let cook until the mushrooms are done.
I add in the pak choy greens last. While cooking them to a mush may be Southern, it is not Asian, and we just want to bring out their flavor without over cooking. Stir a lot with the greens to make sure they don't stick to the pan.
Meanwhile, I've gotten impatient with my vegan wings, as the stir-fry is almost ready and they aren't crispy yet. I think 20 minutes at 400 would have done it, but at this point I turn the broiler on to speed up the outer crisp.
As it turns out the wings were delicious! Check out the details. The inside is stringy and moist, while the outside is flaky and crisp. Will definitely be buying these again.
Every Asian meal needs something and something fermented. In this case, I combined them. Kimchi is a the Korean method of fermenting cabbage with certain peppers. It was an acquired taste for me, but many people love it straight away.
Sunja's brand is raw, fermented, and vegan. You can find it at Earth Fare, Kroger, or other health food stores. If you choose to go looking for kimchi at Asian groceries be aware that it will be MUCH spicier than this, and also make sure it is vegan as traditionally it is often made with fish.
The complete meal is below. Kimchi on the right, stir-fry at the top, and vegan chicken wings on the left. The dark splotch at the bottom is the dipping sauce I chose for the wings, a store bought duck sauce (a sweet/sour oriental sauce made with apricots).
This ends my ramblings. What are your favorite places to shop Asian in Huntsville or Madison? How about your favorite Asian recipes?