Local Spring Flavors Dance Together in a Global Fusion

There are few flavors more evocative of spring than asparagus, lamb, green garilc and mint. And, as it so happens, they are also extremely local flavors as well; all over the farmer’s market on Saturday, there were bundles of asparagus, ranging from thumb-thick spears to dainties thinner than a pencil. Lamb, too, is a traditional spring food enjoyed all over the world, and I had some tiny lamb flank steaks in my freezer from Bluescreek Farms Meats wiating for something special to happen with them. Green garlic tempted from several booths at the market as well; I bought enough of it to last a week. (The farmer quipped to me, “You got vampires?” “Nope,” I answered, “just a bunch of garlic-loving eaters.”)

And nothing, but nothing is more local than the mint that is springing up all over my perennial bed. We inherited it from the house’s former owners, so I have no real idea what variety of mint it is, though from the color of its leaves and stem, and the shape of it, I think it is probably chocolate mint. Some think it was named for a chocolatey flavor, which is something I cannot personally discern; I think it was named for the dark reddish brown of the stems and the veins in the leaves.

Whatever kind of mint it is, there is a lot of it, and it is very strongly flavored. A little of it goes a long way.

What to make with this abundance of springtime joy? What sort of dish could utilize all of these happy flavors in a cohesive fashion?

I immediately latched onto the idea of a stir fry for several reasons. For one thing, lamb flank steaks are perfect when they are sliced across the grain and stir fried, and it just so happens to be my favorite method of preparing that particular cut of meat. Besides, stir frying asparagus is also a very fine way to showcase a flavor that is to me, the epitome of spring.

So, a stir fry it was to be, but in what context? Green garlic obviously will do well in a stir fry, but mint?

It was the mint that got me to thinking.

I had read about Chinese food in India on Meena’s blog, Hooked on Heat a while back, and the thought that I should attempt some sort of Indo-Chinese fusion had been simmering in my head ever since then.

“Why not,” I thought to myself, “do an Indian-Chinese fusion stir fry?”

Fusion cuisine can be either some of the best food in the world when it is done well and with care, or a nasty, messy glop when executed poorly. In my opinion, there is seldom any comfortable middle ground.

In my opinion, the best fusion foods are those that arise naturally from the interaction between two or more food cultures. This intaction often comes about because of immigration, but it can also come about through trade in foodstuffs.

India and China have a long history of cultural interaction between the two countries, both directly, through immigration and indirectly, through trade and trade routes. Both countries have long culinary histories, with very diverse regional differences in cooking style and flavors. And, as Meena pointed out in her post–there already exists in India, an Indo-Chinese fusion that came about when Chinese restauranteurs did what they always do in whatever country they settle: cook their foods to reflect the foods of their new homeland, and the tastes of their customers.

My general personal guidelines that I use in determining whether or not I will attempt a culinary fusion between cultures is to look at the two cusines and pick out commonalities. If there are enough commonalities between them, then a fertile and flavorful fusion is more likely to be successful.

In the case of Indian and Chinese food, and in the ingredients I had chosen, there are a great deal of commonalities.

Lamb is one of the most commonly eaten meats in India; it is also popular in some parts of China, noteably the northern and western provinces.

Garlic of any sort is popular in both cuisines.

Mint is extremely popularly used in Indian foods; while it is not common in Chinese foods, there is still a tradition of using fresh herbs, noteably cilantro, in garnishing stir-fried dishes.

Finally, while asparagus is not generally considered either a Chinese or Indian vegetable, I have cooked it in the contexts of both cuisines to excellent effect in the past.

So–a fusion it was to be.

What other ingredients would I add as I performed an alchemical marriage between Indian and Chinese cookery?

Ginger is an obvious ingredient; it, like garlic, is extremely prevalant in both culinary traditions.

What spices should I use? Black or white pepper would be the perfect answer–they are common to both cultures–but, since I have discovered I am allergic to peppercorns, I saw no reason to use them. Cardamom popped into my head first; its flowery scent would go well with the verdant snap of the asparagus and it always tames the gamy richness of lamb. Coriander, which is used sometimes in red-cooked dishes, and is, of course, the seed of the cilantro plant, is another good idea. It also pairs well with cardamom, because its lemony flavor blends seamlessly with the floral qualities of cardamom. My third and final spice was a tiny bit of fennel seed. It has a similar aroma and flavor to star anise, which is favored in Chinese cookery, and when used sparingly, heightens the effect of any other slightly sweet spices that are used with it.

I decided on premium light soy sauce, and after sniffing my ground masala mixture of cardamom, coriander and fennel in tandem with it, Shao Hsing wine. The sweetness of the spices brought out the nuttiness of the rice wine perfectly, while the soy sauce would add depth, umami and a salty richness to the entire dish without being overpowering.

I have to admit to being somewhat nervous when I served the dish to Zak and Morganna, since it was very much an experiment.

However, my fears were groundless. Once they smelled the dish and then tasted it, there was no dissent: it was a very good marriage between fresh, locally available foodstuffs, and two distant cultures.

My fnal proof that they liked the dish: there were no leftovers in evidence. Every scrap of it was eaten.

So, I want to thank Meena for giving me the inspiration for trying such a fusion, by naming the dish for her.

Meena’s Stir Fried Asparagus and Lamb

Ingredients:

3/4 pound lamb flank steaks, trimmed of silverskin and excess fat, and sliced thinly across the grain
1 tablespoon premium light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon coriander seed, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom seeds and a pinch of fennel seeds, ground together and divided
3-4 tablespoons peanut oil
4 stalks green garlic, white and light green parts sliced on the diagonal 1/4″ thick, green tops sliced on the diagonal 1″ long, separated
1 1″ cube fresh ginger, cut into thin slices about 1″ long and 1/4″ wide
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1 tablespoon premium light soy sauce
1 pound very thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 2 1/2″ lengths
2 tablespoons chicken broth
handful of fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped

Method:

Mix together the lamb, the first quantities of soy sauce and wine, and 1/3 of the spice pixture with the cornstarch and toss until well coated. Marinate at least for twenty minutes, but no more than an hour.

Set aside the rest of the spice mixture.

Heat wok until it smokes, add oil and heat until it shimmers. Add garlic and ginger and another third of the spice mixture and stir fry for about one minute, or until very fragrant.

Add lamb, reserving any liquid marinade in the bowl. Spread into a single layer on the bottom of the wok and allow lamb to brown on the bottom–about one and a half minutes. Stir fry with the aromatics until the cornstarch marinade browns on the sides and bottom of the wok. Add second quantities of soy sauce and wine, and deglaze the cornstarch, stirring the meat in well.

Add the asparagus, stir frying all the while, until it begins to deepen in color.

Add two tablespoons of chicken broth, and stir fry until sauce clings to the meat and asparagus. Sprinkle the reserved green garlic tops and mint leaves over, stir to wilt and combine, and sprinkle a pinch or two of the last third of spice mixture over the dish, stirring once more to combine.

Scrape into a heated platter and serve immediately with the steamed rice of your choice.

Note: This dish is my entry for Kevin of Seriously Good’s “Asparagus Aspirations” blog event. If you are into asparagus, go check out the great lists of recipes for the noble harbinger of spring that participants from all over the world have sent in so far.

15 Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. That’s what I call good eats. And the lamb was a brilliant idea.

    Comment by Kevin — May 4, 2006 #

  2. I have chocolate mint growing in my garden, it has a very distinct choc-mint smell, and slightly less distinct but similar flavour.

    I also have normal mint with dark colouring in the stems and leaves.

    The recipe sounds amazing

    Comment by Bri — May 4, 2006 #

  3. Barbara,

    I hope all is well for the two, three, four of you ;-)

    This is completely off topic, but have you ever made tea eggs? Do you know of a good recipe? My mom makes them in the taiwanese fashion but i recently ate some very different ones in Chinatown and wondered what was the difference in the recipes.

    Comment by Rose — May 4, 2006 #

  4. Hey Barb!

    That’s so sweet of you! Awww… I think I’m going to cry!!! :o)

    Your recipe looks great, will surely have to try t out. I just love lamb. I’m not too fond of beef so don’t really eat as much Chinese beef dishes. Just wished they’d make it with lamb too!

    I’ve been so busy lately, just feel like I’ve been away from the food blogosphere!! Will be back shortly and with a BANG!! :o)

    Comment by Meena — May 5, 2006 #

  5. Glad you liked the recipe, Kevin!

    Bri–I think mine is just a dark version of peppermint. Whatever it is, it is prolific and invasive. Which is why I use it a lot in cooking….

    Rose–I have several recipes for tea eggs–but they are mostly very similar. I have never made them, though, as no one but me really likes boiled eggs in this house.

    Meena–I am glad you liked the recipe.

    You know, many of the beef recipes in Chinese cookery can be used with lamb, with very little change. If you see any of my Chinese beef recipes you want to try as lamb, let me know and I can help you with the few substitutions you might want to make to make it easier.

    I am happy to hear about your new job! Good luck!

    Comment by Barbara — May 5, 2006 #

  6. This looks wonderful! I’ve been in the mood for lamb lately (I have $20 of lamb in the fridge right now to make biriyani with), so I’ll have to try this when my wallet recovers from the biriyani.

    On an unrelated note, I read an article in Wired about molecular gastronomy that really bothered me (here). I tried to articulate my feelings about it here, semisuccessfully, but I’d really like to hear what you think of the article. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a Food in the News post?

    Comment by Mel — May 5, 2006 #

  7. Mel–I have been meaning to comment, if not on molecular gastronomy itself–I can’t comment on it directly, having never tasted any of that sort of cuisine–but on the writings -surrounding- it, for a while.

    There was a piece that originally appeared in the NY Times, that subsequently was in one of the anthologies The Best Food Writing (of whichever year) that bothered me, much like the article you wrote about which bothered you.

    There is something all too clever and disengenuous about the ideals of molecular gastronomy which I find to be soulless and discomforting. I don’t know why. I suppose it is the flash of it all–as of to say, “Look, am I not clever?” To me, a good chef is one who steps back and lets the food take center stage, and doesn’t draw attention to him or herself with a lot of flashiness.

    But I still haven’t really sat down and articulated it yet.

    Comment by Barbara — May 6, 2006 #

  8. I’ve seen some uses that don’t bother me, like the experiments to figure out different ways of hard-boiling eggs. But others…it kind of seems to be taking the soul out of food. Or something.

    When you do manage to articulate, I’ll be interested to read it.

    Comment by Mel — May 6, 2006 #

  9. [...] This is my second entry into Kevin’s Asparagus Aspirations event. (My first one was Meena’s Stir Fried Asparagus and Lamb.) [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » The First Pesto of the Year! — May 8, 2006 #

  10. Lamb also marries well with Hoisin sauce, on or off the bone. Use the Hoisin as a bbq glaze and grill your lamb. Use in a stir-fry sauce with stock, shoashing wine, salt, pepper and sugar. When it’s coated your ingredients in the wok, Add 1tsp corn starch with 1tsp water to thicken. Broccoli, carrot, red pepper and cashews work well with lamb in this dish. Garnish with sliced Shallots.

    Comment by Simon Parkins — May 9, 2006 #

  11. [...] I’ve always talked about my love and appreciation for Indo-Chinese fision cuisine, so much so that even dear Barbara decided to name a slightly influenced creation of hers after me. While we craved for the spicy goodness that it offers on this rainy droopy day, we were in no mood to drive through the bad weather to get a bite. No matter how strong a craving, I always feel that there must be a solution to it. And on this day, I found it in my kitchen. [...]

    Pingback by Hooked on Heat » It was a Sunday… — July 24, 2006 #

  12. Wonton Soup, Kulfi, and Lamb Stirfry

    Last week I made a big batch of spaghetti sauce and ate spaghetti pretty much all week. I’ll post a recipe for the sauce when I have time to write it up. Until then, summaries of what I’ve been making:
    Wonton Soup
    I used homemade chicken/…

    Trackback by The Love of Spice — July 26, 2006 #

  13. I made a version of this the other day and it was excellent, asparagus aside (I think I let mine hang out in the fridge too long).

    Comment by Mel — July 28, 2006 #

  14. Hey, Mel!

    I am glad you made this and liked it. Asparagus is only really good when really fresh. It can get woody and dry and kind of nasty when it is dried out and old. Or it can get rubbery and slimy and have a weird fishy smell.

    Neither of which is good.

    Try it again next spring when the asparagus is as fresh as you can get it, and see the difference. It is a striking one. (Zak had only had bad asparagus before–and he hated it. Then, I introduced it to him fresh–and he is now in love with it. And this from the man who used to eat no vegetables!)

    Comment by Barbara — July 28, 2006 #

  15. Hey Barbara,

    Really nice site…it makes me feel so good when I go through it…haven’t tried out anything yet but just reading your descriptions makes it worthwhile:)

    Comment by Deepa — November 20, 2006 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.