Sunday, October 16, 2005

Adventures in the Asian Market

I felt like eating South Asian (e.g., China, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.) soup recently, and wanted to try something new. The first book I looked at was Thai Vegetarian Cooking, by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. In the past I have had tasty results with the Tom Yam Het soup (hot and sour soup with mushrooms) and a Tom Ka soup (this one with cauliflower, coconut milk, and galangal). This time, vermicelli soup caught my eye because it included an ingredient that has been siting in my pantry for a long time: bean curd skin. The vermicelli in the title were bean threads, which I like quite a bit, and are also intellectually interesting (Noodles from beans?).

Bean starch noodles, also called cellophane noodles, glass noodles and spring rain noodles (a literal translation of their Japanese name, harusame), are made from mung bean flour. They are eaten across Asia in salads, soups, or on their own with vegetables and meats. The noodles are sold dry in large packages or as pre-wrapped small portions. In the interest of avoiding excess packaging, I purchased the large size, which held four times the amount I needed that day. It turned out to be a messy and painful mistake: the noodles seemed to be a single strand that wrapped back and forth in the barely large enough bag, and it was difficult to break off what I needed. The noodles flew all over the counter while also scraping my hands and arms. Based on this experience, I recommend that you buy the packages that consist of many small bundles. For more information, see Asia Food's definition.

Bean curd skins are not pulled off of tofu after "harvest", but are a skin that forms on the surface of heated soymilk. It is carefully lifted off and then dried as a sheet (sort of like making a pudding skin). It is available fresh or fully dried. The fresh variety is highly perishable, and therefore hard to find outside of a tofu factory. It is sometimes in the freezer section of the Asian grocery. The fully dried type is shelf stable. See Asia Food's definition for more information. The fully-dried skin is usually broken into the desired size, soaked in warm water, drained, and then used.

Salted radish is a preserved form of daikon (also known as white radish) that appears in several places in my Thai cookbook. It is one of the base flavors of many versions of Pad Thai.

The resilience and flexibility of the bean curd skin contrasted with the springy texture of the bean threads and made for interesting mouthfeel, but the flavor was too one-dimensional for me. All I tasted was white pepper. (As an aside, with a lot more pepper this soup might be a decent representation of pre-Columbian Thai food. The capsicum (chile) was unknown in Asia until the 15th century, and until then pepper (Piper nigrum) was one of the main sources of heat in Asian cooking.) It lacked the wonderful blend of sour, hot, salty and sweet that is often found in Thai cooking. In addition, it was one of those soups that is "soup" for just a few hours, and soon turns into a thick mass as the noodles soak up all of the broth.

The next time that I feel like bean thread noodles, I'll probably make the Hot and Sour Vermicelli Salad, which includes mushrooms, shallot, lemon juice and chile to flavor the salad.

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