After driving around Malaya and Singapore in the early 1980s, where the full spectrum of oriental food - including a few horrors - was on offer, I learned to "cook Asian" by working my way through two books.
Together, Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery (BBC Books) and Rosemary Brissenden's South East Asian Food (Penguin) do the business - and they are still in print today.
Hom's recipes, drawn from the four culinary regions of this vast country, clearly show that Chinese food does not equal Cantonese takeaway, while Brissenden's doorstopper reveals the distinctive yet sometimes overlapping cuisines of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Fresh greens are central to most Chinese meals, prized for their nutrition, colour, texture and balance. Of the hundreds of varieties grown, four are familiar to us: pak choy (bok choi), joy choy (choi sum), Chinese broccoli and Chinese cabbage.
Needless to say their preferred partners are soy and oyster sauce, garlic, chillies, ginger, rice wine and the like, and they are at their best when stir-fried, steamed, added to soups or braised whole.
To make traditional southern Chinese stir-fried greens, wash and roughly chop 700g of pak choy. Heat 1 Tbsp of sunflower oil in a wok or frypan over a medium heat, add greens and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes, until greens have wilted a little.
Add 1 Tbsp of soy sauce and 2 Tbsp of chicken stock and continue stir- frying for 2-3 minutes, until greens are cooked but still have a little crunch. Serve at once over plain rice.
Once mastered - and it takes a few goes, as heat and timing are crucial - you can vary this classic stir-fry with other vegetables and flavourings, according to taste.
As they are slightly bitter, Chinese broccoli and joy choi are perfect with a sweet and sour sauce. Heat 1 Tbsp of sunflower oil in a wok or frypan and toss a small chopped chilli over a low heat for 1-2 minutes. Increase heat and add 700g chopped greens, stir- frying for roughly 2 minutes.
Combine a pinch of salt, 2 Tbsp of sugar, 1 tsp of cornflour, 2 Tbsp of red rice or red wine vinegar, 2 Tbsp of light soy sauce and 1 Tbsp of dry sherry or rice wine in a bowl and stir until mixture has combined. Tip into the wok, stirring vigorously, until sauce has thickened and vegetables are still tender-crisp.
The kids will want to help with today's recipe, fresh spring rolls, which are great fun to make. Vary the ingredients (quantities are approximate) if you like with carrot and celery, say, or use shredded lettuce instead of pak choy.
Make them ahead of time and keep moist under a damp towel, or set out ingredients in bowls and let everyone assemble their own.
VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLLS
Makes 8 large rolls
For the dipping sauce
1 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
2 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp finely chopped coriander
1 finely chopped small red chilli
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
For the rolls
50g angel's hair (vermicelli) noodles
2 spring onions
1 Lebanese cucumber
30g snow peas, trimmed
2-3 small pak choy
1 Tbsp sunflower oil
1 clove crushed garlic
1-2 tsp grated ginger
8 large round rice paper wrappers
30g bean sprouts
leaves from small bunch coriander
Soak noodles in hot water until soft and drain.
Cut onions and cucumber into snow pea-like lengths and shred or slice these three vegetables lengthways.
Trim pak choy of thick stalks and roughly chop.
Heat oil in a wok or frypan and fry garlic and ginger for 30 seconds or so.
Add pay choy and stir-fry until wilted.
Soak each wrapper in lukewarm water until just soft, and place on a clean tea towel.
Arrange strip of noodles on one half of the wrapper and top with the other ingredients. Fold top and bottom of wrapper over vegetables then roll tightly in the shape of a cigar.
Serve with dipping sauce.
- The Southland Times