Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Election 2020: Live Results | Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice

The Secrets Of Asian Cooking


Asian cooking has its own styles, its own flavors and its own cooking techniques. On this month's Food Hour, we'll discuss how to buy from Asian markets and prepare new dishes, as well as select some delicious menu items from Asian restaurants in San Diego.

Event: Taste Of Little Saigon

  • Little Saigon district along El Cajon Boulevard between Highland and Euclid
  • Saturday, May 14, 2011
  • 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Age Requirement: All ages
  • Cost: $10 - $12

Full Event Information

Asian cooking has its own styles, its own flavors and its own cooking techniques. On this month's Food Hour, we'll discuss how to buy from Asian markets and prepare new dishes, as well as select some delicious menu items from Asian restaurants in San Diego.


Caron Golden writes the column "Local Bounty" for San Diego Magazine and author of the blog San Diego Foodstuff.

Sue Mei Yu is the chef- and owner of Saffron Noodles & Sate and Saffron Thai Grilling restaurants. Her latest book is "The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living."

Read Transcript

Transcript Disclaimer

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Delicious Asian cuisine still seems a bit exotic to many of us. It could be the pairing of unusual tastes into surprisingly savory dishes, and it might also be the ingredients issue the produce, the sauces, the ways of preparing these dishes of unless you are of an Asian heritage, the preparation of a great Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Philippino dish may seem daunting. Well, this hour, we hope to give you some of the knowledge and confidence you need to go forth and experiment with Asian cuisine. I'd like to introduce my guests, Karen Golden is here, she's author of the column Local Bounty for San Diego magazine, and author of the blog San Diego food stuff. Karen good morning.

GOLDEN: Good morning, I'm so hungry.

CAVANAUGH: I upon am I'm gonna tell people why in just a minute. Su-Mei Yu is also here, she's chef owner of saffron restaurants of her latest book, the elements of life, a contemporary guide to Thai recipes, and traditions for healthier living. Su-Mei, thank you for being here.

YU: Thank you. Sawatdee Kaa.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, and what does that mean?

YU: That means hello in Thai.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, and welcome.

YU: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We would like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What Asian dish would you like to prepare? What's your favorite Asian restaurant menu item? Give us a call with your questions and your comments about Asian cooking of 1-888-895-5727. I just need to let you know that I am sitting here surrounded, surrounded by dishing and produce and sauces. And all these things that you both have brought in. I'm gonna ask you to name some of these items a little bit later. And I believe that I may indeed just taste some of these.

GOLDEN: It's required.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start out, though, Su-Mei if I -- what are the major differences? Could you categorize the major differences between Asian and western cooking?

YU: Surprise. You never know what you're gonna get until you taste it. And you say whoa! What is this? Or huh, what strange things I'm chewing. It's never just salt and pepper. It's something else in there that may taste salty or peppery, but it's just never salt and pepper.


YU: In Asian cooking. It's a little bit more layers, in depth. So I think that's the basic difference.

CAVANAUGH: So the idea of a simple Asian dish is different from the idea of a simple western dish.

YU: You.

GOLDEN: You know, it's so complex because Asian cooking in itself is made up of so many different cultures and so many different kinds of products. Like any culture, the cuisine does going to be based on what is available locally, and what you can do locally. And so I tend to think, and I may be wrong, and Su-Mei can correct me here, but I think one of the fundamental differences between western cooking and Asian cooking is for a lot of us, western cooking is very dependent on animal protein. And it's -- and we don't just have meat. We have a big hunk of meat. We have a big hunk of chicken. We don't -- if you look at the dishes that Su-Mei brought, you have a lot of, like, shredded chicken and pieces and shrimp in here. You're not going to get served a big slab of steak. You're not gonna get a big chicken breast to request cut up. It's different. I think it's much more produce based. Rice, you know, and grain based. And the animal proteins are used more as a season, a seasoning kind of thing, a flavoring than it is the main course.

CAVANAUGH: That's very, very interesting. And now that I think about it, that's absolutely right. Su-Mei, is there any way that you can tell us briefly the characteristics that perhaps separate Thai cooking from Vietnamese or Chinese, Cambodian? Is there something -- a signature ingredient let's say?

YU: Are, I think I could tell you the contrast between Chinese and Thai cooking, because my parent, I'm of Chinese heritage. So I was brought up to eat Chinese food until I went to a boarding school in Thailand. And then thigh cuisine switched completely to Thai. I think the basic difference from my own personal experience is because my parents came from the north of China, we ate a lot of wheat products and as Karen was saying, it is very true that we ate very little meat at home. We could buy a piece of pork that would last us for a whole entire week, or one piece of pork can be made into about six different dishes. The similarity between all these different cuisine, I think, is that you have a carbohydrates issue whether or not it's a piece of bread or bun or rice, and then you have various small dishes that goes with it that complement and balance the taste, including a soup, maybe a stir fry, maybe a piece of fish and some accompaniment and condiments to go with it. With Thai, because it's from the tropics, and we have no refrigerator, and for the longest time until the Europeans came, and until the Chinese came, the Thai people basically depend on the forest, and what was out there they could pick and eat. So it's very much like Karen said, vegetarian based, with some shrimp and some fish that they could catch from the river. And once again, everything is made in small portions to be eaten with rice, which is the central staple of carbohydrates in Thai cooking. And interestingly, instead of having a piece of meat, that piece of meat might be cut up and made into stew. And then another piece would be using for stir fry or dried in the sun, and later on, you know, crispy, fried to eat with some kind of Chile sauce. So the basic difference is that instead of a plate in America with meat, carbohydrates and perhaps some vegetable and maybe a salad, in tie land it's not that. It's a small bowl of rice in front of you, and then you have about 5 or 6 different dishes, and each of it has a taste of its own, but it also balances with one another. And there's a great deal of thought into putting together a meal F. You're Thai, it's almost like a part of you, or second nature as a cook. You know what to -- you go out into the garden and say, okay --

CAVANAUGH: This is gonna balance that and that -- that's fascinating.

YU: And also the weather too. Because the weather plays a great deal in the way we decide to eat. Because if you're ever been in a tropic with a humidity of, like, 90†degrees, you don't really feel like eating very much.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

YU: So you need to enhance your appetite. But at the same time keep yourself in balance with that heat, so to speak. So what we prepare take into consideration not only what is in season, like Karen was saying, locally, which is outdoor in the garden. But also the weather played a great deal of experience in decision making in what to put together.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to invite our listeners to join this conversation once again. If you have any kind of question about preparing an Asian dish or a particularly favorite Asian dish of yours, it could be Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, anything. Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. We are here. The experts are here to answer your questions today. Karen, you're a pretty good cook.

GOLDEN: I'm a pretty good home cook. Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you still have to develop different skills to make good Asian food?

GOLDEN: Absolutely. First of all, I think there are certain things that you just let the pros do. I'm not gonna be able to do what Su-Mei does. Although she offers the most amazing cooking classes, and it really does demystify a lot of this. But yes. At home I have a wok, and that is I whole technique unto itself, learning how to use a good wok to stir fry with. The differences, and I'll tell you a little anecdote about this. There's a place in San Diego on convoy called dumpling inn. And of course renowned for their dumplings, and a lot of other delicious food. But every time I go with friends, we get their stir fried baby bok choy. Now, this is something that you would think anybody could go out and buy baby bok choy, you hit it in the wok, you put the oil in, you add some garlic, and that's it. I don't know what they do, but it is so divine. And I try and replicate at home, And I can't. And I think part of the issue is I don't have a stove that has high enough BTUs to get.

YU: Right.

GOLDEN: That contact with the vegetable quickly enough and hot enough to seer it and to get those flavors, you know, kind of sealed in there as you are then working the vegetables. And I think for a lot of home cooks, there are a lot of things that we can learn how to do but we'll never be able to do it quite the way a restaurant would do it simply because we don't have that kind of equipment. But that being said, there are still a lot of things you can do. A stir fry is a stir fry and it can be absolutely delicious. I brought in a little clay pot I have. This is a sand pot that is used traditionally in I think many Asian cultures. Primarily Chinese. I put this for about 7 or 8 bucks at lucky seafood up in Mira Mesa, which is a Vietnamese market. And I've got a larger one that was maybe 8 or 9 or 10 bucks or whatever. I make rice with this. I will put -- I make little casseroles in this.

CAVANAUGH: And what's the difference in using that than just your plain pot that you have hanging around the house?

GOLDEN: It's hard to articulate what the flavor difference is. It's a very subtle thing. This is such a great hate conductor.

YU: Yeah, that's what it is.

DEFENDANT: And if you put this in the oven with -- you're basically getting double the heat 678 you're getting the heat from the oven, and then you're getting the heat within the pot. And it's a very gentle heat. Because metal is gonna radiate and radiate and radiate.

YU: This is is a slow cooker. It's like what do you call that pot where you --

GOLDEN: A crock pot.

YU: Yes, this is a Chinese crock pot. Without having to plug in the electricity. Because in the olden days we just put this on the charcoal braiser, and it cooks very slowly. It's one of these things that housewives would put on the -- the charcoal braiser, and you know, when the charcoal has kind of gone all the way dun, and you just have nothing but --

GOLDEN: Ashes.

YU: Ashes covering the charcoal, and go do something else and come back. Because you add basically a lot of liquid in there. And the liquid boils and then everything in there basically just kind of marries one another.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

YU: And when you come back, the liquid basically is gone, the seasoning gets into whatever you put in there. And then you could leave it like that for a while to go do something else.


YU: And the heat inside will stay warm for a long, long time.

GOLDEN: But it won't burn it.

YU: It won't burn it.

GOLDEN: The metal would burn it because it would have so much heat.

YU: Yeah. So even after the food is done, you can come back an hour later and it's still warm and hot and ready to be eaten.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you've already mentioned a wok. And we have a clay pot. Do you need an awful lot of extra items in your home?

GOLDEN: It's simple cooking. If you think about it, you're talking about vegetables, Su-Mei uses a beautiful cleaver, obviously cutting boards --

YU: You just need good knives. You need one paring knife, and one regular knife, and a good chopping block because you do a lot of prep for -- I think that's what discourages a lot of people when they prepare Asian cooking because there's so much prepping ahead of time. All that can be done in stages, and then when you come home you can put everything together. But the prepping is the most laborious and take the most time.

CAVANAUGH: That's the layers of flavor that your talking about, right?

YU: Exactly.

GOLDEN: And if you look here, I brought in a lot of different kinds of condiments of Asian cooking is rich in condiments. Because what -- you're basically taking produce that has a lot of interesting flavors too and adding things to great effect. If Su-Mei will explain the dishes she brought in.

YU: Right.

GOLDEN: But a lot of these have very similar ingredients, and yet they're gonna taste completely different because of different condiments that are used. For instance in Japanese cooking issue I brought in one of my favorite seasoning, it's sashimi togarashi. And I use this, like, people sprinkle salt and pepper on food. This is a mixture of red pepper, roasted orange peel, yellow sesame seed, black sesame seed, black pepper, seaweed and ginger. And it has -- I hope it's still fresh, yeah. You can smell this, and it's a very distinctive smell.

YU: Don't inhale too much. You might sneeze.

GOLDEN: But it's so wonderfully unusual. You sprinkle this on rice, you can sprinkle this in a stir fry. I actually if I'm making fish or chicken, I'll use this as a seasoning also. There's nothing saying that a lot of the seasonings and condiments that you get that are specific to particular Asian cuisines can't be used in western cooking also.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. We have to take a short break. When we come back, we're gonna have you describe some of these dishes that you brought in.

YU: All right, all right.

CAVANAUGH: We're gonna be talking about Asian produce. How to buy it, and also the sauces and condiments that you need to put together a really great menu item in your own home. And we'll be taking your calls if you'd like to get in on this at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are talking about Asian cooking, the secrets of Asian cooking of my guests are Su-Mei Yu, she's chef of saffron restaurants and Karen golden food writer of the column local bounty for San Diego magazine, and author of the blog San Diego food stuff. We are taking your calls. We haven't been taking them yet, but there are so many people on the line. Wee gonna go to the phones right now. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Regina is calling us from La Mesa, good morning, Regina is welcome to these.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, everyone. One of my favorite Thai dishes is drunken noodles. And I'm a vegetarian but I overlook the fact that it has fish sauce in it, because for whatever reason, it makes it taste wonderful. But when I try to make it at home or use fish sauce in any dish, it over whelms the dish, and I have no idea what I'm doing wrong.

YU: Well, that's interesting, Regina, because fish sauce in Thailand is not used as a substitute for salt. It is used as a seasoning. And if you're vegetarian and you want to make drunken noodles, you do not have to add fish sauce. You can use a combination of soy sauce. You could use what we call dark soy sauce, which has molasses in it. You buy them in a store, it's called sweet dark soy sauce, it has molasses in it, and you mix the two together. And if you are like most typical people who buy soy sauce, you probably buy Kikkoman, which is Japanese. I would not use Japanese soy sauce with Thai cooking because it's very salty and it has a fermented taste to it. Buy a bottle of soy sauce from Thailand and mix the two together. And you don't need fish sauce for this.

CAVANAUGH: Mix what two together?

YU: Dark soy sauce, which is sweet, and light soy sauce together. Now, if you have no aversion to oyster sauce, they make one with mushrooms, so for vegetarian. So you add those three together and make kind of like a sauce. Because drunken noodles needs a sweet to pair with the salt in order to balance the spiciness of the Chile in the paste.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Okay. You know, as we take these phone calls, I'm going to be tasting the dinners that you brought in. And Su-Mei, if you could tell us what is the one with the papaya?

YU: Well, we have two papayas. One is ripe and the other one is not ripe. The ripe one is from a very old recipe written by the daughter of a woman who wrote the first cook book of Thailand 300†years ago. And it's called heavenly salad.

CAVANAUGH: I think that's the one I have.

YU: Yes, and she paired ripe papaya with chicken or shrimp, and you make a dressing that is buttery with coconut cream, but for our case from saffron, we substitute the coconut cream with almond milk for health food reasons, and palm sugar, roasted garlic, roasted Chiles, tamarind, so it's all mix matched together, so what you get in a dressing is smoky, sweet, tangy and sour. And you dress that, and then the garnish is just as equally important, when Karen and I were sitting in the green room, I was putting all these strange little things on top. The crispy, the texture in a salad is very important.

CAVANAUGH: You see, that's what we're talking about, Karen, the idea, all of these ingredients that Su-Mei is talking about in this dish is not something that we're kind of used to, are we? Putting all in that one dish?

GOLDEN: No, actually, I would agree with you. Because what you're talking about is the difference probably between European cooking and western cooking and Asian cooking. We just use different condiments and different spices and different combinations. If you were to make a mole, you know, from Mexico, you would have 20 plus ingredients plus it would take days upon days to make it. You should see my pantry with all the things I've got in there. So I don't think that this is different in quantity. I think it's just I different kind of selection of products that we just don't necessarily always have.

YU: I think it's a sensibility to what you like to eat. Because some people, for example, I would married to a man who loved baked potatoes. And he just liked butter, salt and pepper. Although other people in his family liked to put sour cream in it and chives. And some pout cayenne in it. So it's kind of a same sensibility of it's just that we just use different things to put and garnish our salad. But the important thing to remember, I think for Asian cooking as well, probably in general, is that we like the texture besides the different flavors and tastes.


YU: And we like the surprises. The simplest surprises. Like the Japanese cuisine, things naturally taste from the sea, but all fish are not alike. Certain ones are soft and some are chewy. Some are crunchy.

GOLDEN: Some are oily.

YU: Some are oily, some are very bland. But it's all texture.

CAVANAUGH: And all combination too.

YU: Yes.


YU: And very subtle in taste. And a lot of people in Japan, they don't put a lot of wasabi in their sushi. I mean, they great them and put it on the side. They just dabble it a little bit. Because they want just to have that to enhance the taste of the fresh fish.

CAVANAUGH: Just very subtly.

YU: Yes.

GOLDEN: And you have to remember too that what we eat in the states is often modified quite a bit from what you would find in the home country.

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

GOLDEN: It's suiting American palates. So what we tend to think of as maybe a certain kind of Chinese food, Szechwan food or whatever. Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, you had chop suey. The Americanized -- or sweet and sour pork, which I'm sure there is an original dish somewhere in China of sweet and sour pork.

CAVANAUGH: But it's not what we eat.

GOLDEN: But it's not what we eat , yes.

CAVANAUGH: There are seem people on the line. I want to get in a few calls. Good morning, Len, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for the call. I wanted to find out about the different types of curry. I love Thailand, I've spent time there and found that some certain curries just tear up my stomach. And I'm wondering if there is a mild version of curry that I can still enjoy. I like it so much. And I wonder what is it that's so harsh and tears up the gut?

YU: Maybe you should take some Pepsid complete before you eat your curry. Well, curry, you know, the paste that makes the curry is a pairing of all these different herbs and spices. And I think not all of them have to kind of kill you off, so to speak. I think the killing part of it has to do with which region it comes from. If you go to the north east and the south, and it's really murderous. I mean it really does kill you. But things like yellow curry is really lame. It's mostly just spices from India and a little bit of the dried Chile that is made into the paste. And it gives a lot of coconut milk, fresh virgin coconut milk, so it doesn't clog up your arteries, but at the same time it kind of cool off that spice. That's probably the mildest of all the curry.

CAVANAUGH: Got it. Len, we're keeping our fingers crossed for your stomach, okay? Thank you so much for your call. Augusta is on the line from Rancho Santa Fe. Good morning, Augusta, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, thank you for your programs, they're always wonderful. May I ask what oil Thai cooking requires? And what temperature. Some of the oils say adopt get too hot. So sesame for instance, which I don't think is what you use. But tell me what oil you use.

YU: You know, in the olden days we used lard. But ever since we became much more healthful, conscious, for myself, personally, I use what we call rice brand oil. It is made from the husk of the oil of the rice. You could buy them at whole foods or you could order them on line. It takes heat very well. It does not smoke. It has no smell. And it is one of the most healthful oils that you could use for cooking. If that is too complicated, safflower oil is good, any kind of vegetable oil is good, olive oil is not good because it has that strong flavor and aroma to it. Of sesame oil never is used for cooking because it's being added thea the end because it would not take the heat very well. It would smoke.

CAVANAUGH: And what about the heat? Which Augusta's -- the second†--

YU: Well, it depends, if it's stir fry like Karen was talking about, you need an oil that you could take that heat, and you do need to have it smoke. The secret that that restaurant was able to produce that stir fry is because you want an oil that could take the heat, and at the same time smoke but not burn.

GOLDEN: So peanut oil is another good one. It wouldn't be traditional for Thai food, but for Chinese food definitely. I think at the class I took from you you mentioned that the rice whole oil is also at Costco.

YU: I've never seen them at Costco. I think Whole Foods. But I buy mine from on line, because I could buy this big jug, and it's very inexpensive. It's called rice brand. And it's wonderful. It's one of the best oils. And you know what? You could use this also as a massage oil. So you don't want to cook with it, rub it on your body.

CAVANAUGH: Dual purpose. Also I hear smoke alarms going off all over the county with this wok dish with the smoking oil.

GOLDEN: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, actually, I think that's the point is that it doesn't -- it has such a high smoke point that you can do the stir fry without creating bells going off.

YU: Just turn on your -- what is it --

GOLDEN: Your fan.

YU: Your fab.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We're talking about Asian cooking. I want to mention that I ate the -- is it banana?

YU: Banana blossoms.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, banana blossoms. They're very light and deliberate.

YU: Isn't that wonderful?


YU: Yeah, yeah. Well, banana blossom is this exotic purplish burgundy color that you see in the store.

GOLDEN: You can find this at 99 Ranch easily.

YU: People say what is this? We don't eat this. But we do. We pare it all the way down to the bottom, at the very end where it's very tend of we slice it really thin, and then we soak it with lime juice to stop it from discoloring. And then the secret, I think reason why you like it is because this morning, I cook it with some fresh coconut milk.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I know, it was very -- it's nice and sweet.

YU: Yes, because of the Astringent, you see. That's a Thai secret. Something ark stringent, you cure it with some lime, and then you put some sweetness into it. And then you mix it with all these other wonderful ingredients, and you use exact same dressing as the ripe papaya, except you dress it differently. So it's like an entire different dish.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's just such a wonderful flavor. Karen, I want to get to you because I don't want to miss this. You brought in a whole bunch of different kinds of produce that you've gotten in various markets around town.

GOLDEN: Okay. I actually only got them at one market.

CAVANAUGH: One mark.

GOLDEN: This is interesting. Last week we were supposed to be on, but there was Osama bin Laden. And I had bought a bunch of things at both Najia market and at 99 ranch. And what I had really wanted for you to taste were fresh bamboo shoots and fresh water chestnuts because these are things that most Americans experience the canned variety of.


GOLDEN: And when you taste them fresh issue they are nothing like the canned variety. Unfortunately that didn't work out, and I couldn't get back there on time. But I happened to be at the it is Italy Mercado on Saturday. It's a farmer from Fresno who comes down every week. They call themselves now Mr. And Mrs. Greens. But I think the farm is called Vang's farm. And along with a lot of more conventional produce, they also sell a lot of Asian produce. And so I was able to buy this beautiful baby bok choy. And you can see that it's starting to flower.

CAVANAUGH: It's flowering, yes.

GOLDEN: Flower a lot of varieties of baby bok choy. What I also bought last week were really almost two-inch versions of this, which made for a great stir fry. I have to say. Okay. And then I bought some Chinese and Japanese broccoli. And you can see the difference here. The broccoli we're used to has very thick stems.


GOLDEN: And it's you will flower on the top, the crown. You can see these. This is the Chinese version. And it's a thin stem, but it's not as thin as the Chinese stem. And it's mostly leaves and then you can see some flowers poking out here.

CAVANAUGH: What do you use on that?

GOLDEN: Use all of it. You can use it for different things. I love to stir fry it. And okay, so the Japanese variety is thinner.


GOLDEN: It doesn't have -- actually, it does, but there aren't as many here.


GOLDEN: Great for stir fry, delicious, in fact, we stir fried some at the class that I took from Su-Mei. Which I really recommend people take. You can use it in soups. And I'm sure there are a lot of other difference uses that Su-Mei can go into. Now, this big honking thing here, it's very people who are listening, it's a daikon. It's about a foot lodge.

CAVANAUGH: It looks like a huge carrot.

GOLDEN: But it's actually a huge creamy colored radish, and actually at Najia, first of all, people should know, this is over on convoy, it's a Japanese market. And they have their own organic farm up in North County. So a lot of the produce that you get at Nagia is grown by them. I didn't bring the daikon they sell. The daikon they sell is twice as long. It is enormous.


GOLDEN: And I don't know what the flavor profile is, if it loses its flavor because it gets so big.

YU: It's spicy, be careful.

GOLDEN: It can be spicy.

YU: Maureen, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. There's a kick to this.

GOLDEN: It has a kick to it. These are also -- I love it eat it out of hand, because I love spicy foods, so for me, if I'm not gonna eat potato chip, this is I great snack for me. But pickle it, and you'll find pickled daikin in Japanese markets. Add it to soups. You can roast it. It's a nice creamy flavor to it. Lots of different things that you can do with these. And really for people who are intimidated. I mean, I've spent most of my time on San Diego food stuff trying to demystify things that for a lot of people are too intimidating for them to try. And I followed the lead of my mother. My mother, if you go into 99 ranch with her, or any other ethnic market, she will find something that looks interesting, she will stand right there and waiting in somebody comes up who starts shopping for it, looking at it, who obviously seems to know what they're doing, she strikes up a conversation with them, asks them what they co, she walks out with recipes. I mean, she's like the fearless shopper. And I think people have to be less afraid, and less intimidated, and look at this is an opportunity to learn something new and have an adventure.

CAVANAUGH: Because people who know about this type of cooking, people who don't know about these things are kind of okay with sharing it. I mean, they'd love to tell you.

GOLDEN: They love sharing.

YU: Let me tell you what to do with a daikon. Daikon is very cooling and it is very good if you want to lose your weight. And also if you don't want to eat it, put it on your face, and it takes away wrinkles and lines on your face. It is a little biting, but it's great stuff for your face. For us women who don't want to go have plastic surgery, put daikon on your face.

CAVANAUGH: I do have to take a short break, Karen. We'll get to that, and we'll also get to your calls. We're talking about Asian cooking during this food hour, and our number is 1-888-895-5727.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's the food hour and it features Asian food this time. Karen golden is my guest along with Su-Mei Yu. And we're taking why your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's go right to the phones, Daniel's on the line from Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel and welcome to these days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, it's really nice to hear this. I was just wondering if there are certain things we might be able to grow. I know that when I've gone to Vietnamese restaurants borrow, I've gotten all these fresh things that they break off and put into our pho, and different things, and I'm wondering if there are certain things that we might be able to grow at our pots at home and maybe in a community garden that we might be able to have fresh.

CAVANAUGH: Especially ingredients for Asian cuisine. Any suggestions?

GOLDEN: Oh, yeah. First of all, in city heights, there is an actual community garden called the new roots community garden. And so if you think about it, they're in the middle of San Diego, and they are growing daikon and mustard greens and bok choy, and all sorts of things. You can grow ginger fairly easily, lemongrass grows like a weed. Su-Mei Yu grows --

YU: Kaffir lime.

GOLDEN: Kaffir lime. She has a lot of herbs. You can grow Thai basil. And if you don't find seedlings at your local nursery, the Hillcrest farmer's market has a wonderful couple there who sell very unusual herbs.

YU: Yeah, yeah.

GOLDEN: And produce, little, you know, the greens.

YU: Yeah. She does. She has all kinds of different kind of basil. Cilantro, culantro, which is a form of parsley that you could buy. And all these things go in pots. I have a black thumb. I kill things instead of growing them. So I cook with them, but I don't grow them. You about I have around my house lots of lemon grass, because you can't kill lemon grass, and they're all in pots or on the ground. She has all kinds of basils.

GOLDEN: Mints. Mints grow well. Grow those in pots. Do not grow those in the ground. Do not grow lemon grass in the ground because they spread.

YU: It takes over.

GOLDEN: So you want to contain it. What else? I just bought some Thai pepper. I didn't get that at Armstrong. There's another person at the little Italy Mercado who sells --

YU: Well, this lady from Hillcrest also sells different varieties of chilies. In fact, I brought her back seeds, and these you can grow in pots and you can't kill them, I know, because I have them in my house.

CAVANAUGH: Briefly I want to introduce a third guest to ours conversation. Barrel foreman is on the line, she is with El Cajon business improvement association, and the reason we're talking about barrel is because of the taste of little Saigon event that's coming up this weekend. Barrel, good morning.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Hi there.

CAVANAUGH: Hi, we've been spending the hour talking about Asian food. So tell me a little bit about the kind of food this event will feature.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, it's all Vietnamese food. It takes place on the event's on El Cajon boulevard. This area that we're branding as little Saigon.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So some restaurants will be part of this, and in fact an Asian grocery store will be taking part in this event. And what will people be able to do?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I have a feeling this is actually gonna be the most unique taste event in San Diego of it's all about experiencing a variety of Vietnamese food. So if you're interested in that, you know, this is the event to check out what's unique about Vietnamese cuisine. And it's all within 2 or 3†blocks. So it's really easy to get around, and as you said, it's only seven restaurants so I think it'll be really worthwhile. And there's also gonna be -- we're also gonna be touring people around who are unfamiliar with the area, who will have a better understanding of what is unique about this business district that we're branding as little Saigon.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell you, you almost planned this event in conjunction with our food hour here.

GOLDEN: Hi barrel.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it's very interesting for people listening to us, at least when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine can go.

YU: And taste some.

CAVANAUGH: And also go it a grocery store.

GOLDEN: And the stores are so much fun really because you're seeing people who are part of that culture shopping and buys things that are intrinsic to their way of life. And that's -- go to a restaurant, obviously that's a lot of fun to do and you're gonna eat well. But I think the markets are -- it's almost like traveling to another country.

YU: Yeah, it is. It's wonderful.

NEW SPEAKER: You go into a market, meanwhile, you see the exotic fruit, then you experience people ordering fish, live fish.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us again, barrel, where and when?

NEW SPEAKER: It's this Saturday, May†14th, it starts at 1†o'clock and will go to 4:00†o'clock. And it's on El Cajon boulevard right between Menloe and Euclid street.


NEW SPEAKER: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's Beryl Foreman of the El Cajon business improvement association. And I said, it's right on cue.

GOLDEN: You know, there's something else that I wanted to point out if I can. For those people who really are intimidated by the markets, there are classes that you can take that will do market tours. Su-Mei did a wonderful tour of --

YU: S and S market. Is it called S and S?

GOLDEN: No, I think it was fun --

YU: Yeah, I call it S and S. It's in Linda Vista?

GOLDEN: It's in Linda Vista. And I've taken classes, tours of 99 ranch, and Mereko Moreno who is the most wonderful Japanese cook and teacher, also does a tour of Najia, and takes you to this very interesting restaurant issue it's not next door, it's in the shopping center next door where original pan cake house is, this restaurant is unmarked, unless you know it's there, you don't even be that it exists of but it's called Sekora, it's owned by a Japanese family, and you will get instead of typical sushi meals, you'll get Japanese family style meals, and it's absolutely delicious. And she -- and everyone gives you these handouts which will have a photograph.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, it identifies, yeah.

GOLDEN: Of the produce, and then a description. And it's not even just the produce, it'll be condiments, it'll be all sorts of things. They're very thorough. And after that, you should feel -- you can take it back to the market, and [CHECK AUDIO].

CAVANAUGH: One of our callers has been waiting on the line very patiently [CHECK AUDIO] thanks for calling.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. I'm a vegetarian, and I love Thai food, and I always eat out because I can't really cook. But I want to learn how to cook some dishes. So I was wondering if you had any recommendations for a beginning cook what dishes would be good to start off with for Thai food.

YU: What do you like to eat, Ryan?

NEW SPEAKER: Pretty much if it doesn't have meat, I will eat it.

YU: Okay, do you like salads? Do you like noodles? What do you like?

NEW SPEAKER: I love noodles, I love salads. I really eat anything. I love noodle dishes for sure.

YU: Well, noodles is a little bit more advanced because the carbohydrate has a hard time when it hits the oil. But you could make soup. You could also make some very simple dressing that is very Thai. Instead of using oil, we don't use oil. A very simple simple simple salad dressing that is very Thai is that you just mix together some garlic, some Chile, and agave syrup.

CAVANAUGH: Agave syrup.

YU: Right. Instead of sugar use agave syrup. And then you could use different citrus, it's a different taste of sourness. So you could add both lime and orange or grapefruit juice. And if you don't want to eat sugar at all, you could substitute the agave with some apple juice. And if you're a vegetarian, just forget about the fish sauce and add some salt. And you have closest to a Thai salad dressing that you could put on all sorts of greens or baked tow few, that would make it interesting. And then a salad of Thai, you need to have some interesting garnishes, so peanuts are good, sunflower seeds are good, fresh herbs are good, like cilantro and mint and basil. And you got it. And fried shallots and that's it.

GOLDEN: And I can vouch for how good that dressing is. And I actually have a video of Su-Mei teaching how to make this dressing on San Diego food stuff if you want to watch her do this.


GOLDEN: It's fascinating of it's very easy to do. And that's why I got the red chilies, the Thai Chiles because I so fell in love with that dressing.

CAVANAUGH: That sounds like a pretty easy start for Ryan. And Hugh for the call. You know, is it -- it's kind of a myth that all Asian cooking is healthy right?

YU: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us why.

YU: Because of the fresh vegetables, and westerners are not used to eating a lot of greens. I think partly it is true, if you eat home cooked meal, I think that it is healthful. But I think that what has happened in western world is that Asian food because it does have a lot of greens, and it does have a lot of -- less meat, we seem to think of it as being healthful. But restaurant food in particular use so much salt, preservatives, sugar, and sometimes not very good oil. And also they add more meat to the dish because --

CAVANAUGH: Because of western taste.

YU: Because of western taste. And you know, coconut milk, I know that there's a lot of controversy about coconut milk. I grew up in Thailand, and we don't really have curry that often. And when you do have curry, you pair with other things. For example, green curry that people love in this country, to make a pot of green curry, you have to have [CHECK AUDIO] balance off the fat from the coconut milk. And then weep also, you know, make our own coconut cream, so it's as virgin as it is. But when you make it in this country, nobody's gonna great coconut and milk it like the way Karen saw how I taught my students of so they buy it out of a can, which is hydrogenated which is not very good for you.

GOLDEN: You can buy light coconut milk, which is what I do, I know it's not as good as, but if a pinch, if you want to substitute, it'll work.

YU: Yeah. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So what you're saying is we may get fooled by all the fresh vegetables.

GOLDEN: I have two words for you: Orange chicken. Who doesn't love orange chicken? It is so filled with fat and sugar, and everything. I've had to change my diet, and so I have to look at labels and have to look at the way that things are made now. And I can still eat a lot of Chinese food, but there is a whole lot that I've had to give up, because it is simply too fattening. The way it's prepared here.

YU: Well, I think the various herbs and spices, you know, Thailand, everything is medicine.


YU: So when we pair things with the purpose of thinking that if you're gonna deep fry something, you don't eat it just by itself. You eat it with something else like cool cucumber relish on the side that would then pair, and also dissipate some of the fat. So it's a matter of knowing how to balance your various dishes just like the way American people eat Hamburgers, you know? Hamburger has meat, it has carbohydrate, but if you just eat it just that, the meat and the bread, it's not as healthful as if you add lettuce, right, and then onions.

CAVANAUGH: Tomatoes.

YU: And some people put cucumber, all these different vegetable. So it's kind of like the same concept as the Thai people think of cooking of balancing the fat with something refreshing and light that would then --


YU: To make the fatty food less harmful.

CAVANAUGH: Less overwhelming.

GOLDEN: But there are things that you can do that really are so flavorful and little -- I brought in some Vietnamese spring roll wrappers, and these are very hard plastic things, you'll see it, they look like lay frisbee almost. And you soak them just briefly like 10, 15†seconds. And Su-Mei, you sell spring rolls at saffron. We're talking about shredding daikon, shredding carrots, making cooking up some shrimp, getting a nice peanut sauce together. You wrap it all together in this roll, and it's very satisfying, and yet it's very healthful.

CAVANAUGH: And that's the healthy stuff.

GOLDEN: That's the healthy stuff. Stir frying the vegetables if very healthy. If you want more flavor, add some condiments.

CAVANAUGH: Really quickly, Su-Mei, if people are interested now in taking a class of yours.

YU: Oh, my goodness.

CAVANAUGH: Just go on-line?

YU: Yes, but they have to wait until July because I'm leaving tonight for Thailand.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I think you've got enough people who are interested now. After hearing this hour. I want thank you both so much.

YU: Oh, thank you.

GOLDEN: It was great fun.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.


San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.