And she finds her palate is more culturally diverse than she thought.
Well, friends, I’ve made an important realization: My palate is actually far more cultured than my past columns would suggest. You see, even though Italian and Mexican are about as ethnic as I’ll get in my own kitchen, I have eaten fare from many corners of the globe—Indian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Japanese, Jamaican. More surprising: I’ve liked all of them. I know, right? I’m just as shocked as you.
Really, the only ethnic cuisines I have yet to really embrace are Vietnamese and Thai. Which is why I decided to head to a Thai-Viet restaurant for my latest cooking lesson.
A relatively new addition to the Old City food scene, Fire & Ice is known for its modern twists on traditional Southeast Asian cuisine. (For example, throwing french fries into a Vietnamese salad. More on that later. And it works, trust me.) After being greeted by the host, he led me through the restaurant’s swanky dining to the kitchen. So, yeah, this place is a bit more posh than where I typically go for Asian food. Not a single piece of bulletproof glass in sight.
Executive Chef Chris Nguyen decided that we would make two popular Southeast Asian dishes—red curry noodles and shaky beef salad (shaky, by the way, is short for “shaking,” which is the technique you use to adequately sear both sides of the beef in the wok)—and he promised to dumb down the recipes as much as the intricate ingredients would allow. He described them as “really, really, stupid simple.” Well, I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much.
I knew from past experience that attempting to tackle an entire meal as opposed to a single dish was going to be far more overwhelming than enlightening, but being the freeloading fatty that I am, I sure as hell wasn’t going to complain.
We started with the red curry noodles, and it was only a matter of minutes until I found myself staring at a counter full of foreign vegetables. (At least this time they were legitimately foreign.) Chris, unable to comprehend that I’d never seen Japanese eggplant before, decided to introduce me to baby bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage that, on the spectrum of cabbage, is a little softer and sweeter than the usual Western variety. Don’t worry—none of these vegetables is really essential to the dish and can be replaced with whatever greens you have in your fridge. What you don’t want to substitute, however, are what Chris calls the “aromatics of Old Indochina:” galangal (Thai ginger), kaffir lime leaves, red curry paste and Thai basil.
Not factoring in the time it took to prep the chicken, veggies and rice noodles—which needed to soak in a pot of cold water for several hours—the cooking process was pretty fast, thanks to the fact that we sautéed everything in a wok. As I hovered over the stove, stirring the ingredients as instructed, I must have looked awkward because Chris started chuckling and said, “You don’t cook at home, do ya?”
“Depends what you consider ‘cooking,’” I replied. At the same time, I was thinking, If this guy thinks I look awkward operating a large spoon, just wait till he sees me with a pair of chopsticks.
Should you be confused as to why the recipe calls for only a few pieces of thinly sliced chicken, well, as Chris notes, that’s just how Asians roll. “You might see half a duck hanging in the window, but you never see whole breasts of chicken or whole steaks [in a dish] because that’s not how we eat.”
The same can’t be said for the beef salad, though. Chris wasn’t about to go easy on the meat here. “When I was growing up, it was only eye-round sliced really thin, so today, obviously, I’m gonna use cubes of New York strip,” he joked.
In addition to using the grade-A steak, Chris likes to put a fun twist on the popular Vietnamese dish: french fries! OK, now you’re speaking my language. I initially thought he meant the salad was served with a side of fries, but my heart sank as I later watched him desecrate the perfectly good batch of fried potatoes by shoving them into the pile of dressed lettuce. It’s a sin, I tell you, a sin!
This was not the first time Chris’ rebellious approach to cooking became apparent while I was in his kitchen. Aside from being the first local chef I’ve met who endorses corn oil as a primary cooking oil, he’s also the only chef I’ve met who laces his salt with sugar. Chicken, noodles, seafood—anything he seasons with salt he also seasons with a little bit of sugar. He even adds a pinch of salt to his desserts and the restaurant’s special limeade. Surely this must be some sort of chef secret, right?
“I don’t know anyone else who does it,” Chris says. “Maybe I’m just crazy.” But he swears it balances out the flavors.
I definitely can’t claim to have noticed a difference, but whatever wacky tricks this guy has up his sleeves appear to be working for him, since both dishes blew all of my previous impressions of Vietnamese and Thai food out of the water.
Disclaimer: It’s been some time since I’ve had Vietnamese or Thai, so describing exactly what it was about the food that rubbed me the wrong way is tricky. Ultimately, I think the problem was that they barely rubbed me at all. I swear the two previous Thai noodle dishes I’ve had were just massive bowls of hair mixed with veggies. It was sorta the same thing with the Vietnamese dishes I’ve tried—too many Brussels sprouts and not enough meat and seasoning. I do like pho—it just doesn’t exactly knock my panties off.
Anyway, Chris’ red curry noodles was anything but blah, with the curry paste having created a spicy blanket over the entire dish. Meanwhile, the shaky beef salad was really a no-brainer: steak + french fries = awesome. I’m not sure any quantity of veggies or lettuce could mess up that equation.
I wouldn’t exactly describe these dishes as “really, really, stupid simple.” But if I were to invite someone over for dinner, didn’t have a lot of time and was looking to impress them, I’d probably bust out these recipes. And I’d totally take credit for them. Sorry, Chris! n
Find all the recipes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far online at forkingstupid.com.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014