Urbanite Treasure

One of the gems found in most cities is the Asian market. Here in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, we are fortunate enough to have eight. What an adventure it is to explore the aisles and look at the array of ingredients, that to many of us, seem quite exotic! Everything from bean sprouts to Quail eggs. Buy something interesting and don’t worry about what to do with it. Look up a recipe on-line that uses it and let the adventure begin.

Shrimp chips are awesome. What appears to be slices of translucent hard plastic, pop into a delicious treat as soon as they hit hot cooking oil. Many brands come in pretty colors so they make a wonderful display amid the dips and sauces, but are flavorful enough to stand on their own.

The prices are as much a treat for the wallet as the produce is for the eyes. Mini bok choy, a fraction of what it costs in trendy grocery stores. Even utensils are a bargain. This is the place to go when you’re shopping for a sturdy hand hammered wok or bamboo steamer. And if you’re hosting one of the ‘tasting’ parties so popular right now with its multi mini servings, check out the ceramic spoons, individual dipping sauce dishes and sake cups.

Another wonderful find is the huge bundles of stick incense. If you burn a lot of it, as I do, you will really appreciate the price. The scent is delightful and I have found that the flame extinguishes itself once the stick is lit and ready to smolder nicely.

When I was seventeen years old, I received my first wok and a Chinese cookbook as a gift. Soon, I was a regular in what became my favorite Asian grocery store in my native city of Milwaukee. I’d host parties and delight guests with things they had never experienced. The addition of lily buds or lotus root turned a dish into something memorable. Many items come in a dried form and just need a quick soaking in hot water to bring them back to life.

Asian cuisine is far too exquisite to be categorized by the term ‘stir fry’. That is a method of cooking, not a dish. It would be like saying, “I made ‘baked’ last night. In many kitchens, this is becoming a lost art. Care should be taken when preparing the ingredients. Fresh vegetables are often cut diagonally to expose more of the cooking surface and meats are cut paper thin to allow it to be equally dispersed throughout the dish in a country where meat is costly and hard to come by except for special occasions. Items are added to the wok in the order of the time it takes to cook and each ingredient should be the same size to assure the proper state of doneness.

Make this a ‘cooking meditation’ and not a means to clear out the fridge. Prepare the ingredients mindfully and with gratitude for its source. Thank the Earth, Water and Air when preparing vegetables, seafood and fowl. Finally, thank Fire as you set flame to your wok. And don’t forget the garnishes. It can take an Asian chef hours to carve vegetables into birds and flowers, but the addition of scallion brushes or a quick toss of fresh herbs is all it takes to create something beautiful for guests or yourself.

So, when you want a worldly adventure without having to find your passport, take a trip to an Asian market. Explore and enjoy the beauty of getting to know another culture through the intimacy of one of Earth’s greatest comforts and pleasures. Food, glorious food!

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