by Ruth Lively
from issue #21
When you think “salad,” Asian food may not come to mind.Salads are few and far between in the cuisines of Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and their neighbors, but they do exist. However, Asian salads don’t bear much resemblance to the crunchy greens with oil-based vinaigrettes of western fare.
My introduction to Asian salads came about ten years ago, when I was given a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Far Eastern Cookery. In it was a recipe for a salad of kohlrabi and carrots, dressed simply with salt, vinegar, sugar, and hot pepper. No oil was called for. I was a little skeptical, but the results wowed me. The flavors were bright and clean, a tantalizing mix of spicy heat and refreshing coolness. I studied other Asian cookbooks for similar salads, and began to experiment with my own vegetable and dressing combinations. Here are thre of my favorites:
• Four-Vegetable Salad with Sesame Seed Dressing
• Kohlrabi and Carrot Salad
• Asian Slaw
Vegetables in Asian salads are rarely totally raw and crisp. Instead they are either slightly cured with salt or lightly cooked. Both methods draw out moisture, leaving the vegetables limp but still crunchy. With their cells opened up, the cut vegetables are more receptive to soaking up a tasty dressing.
The foundation of the dressing is typically an acid and a little sugar. In fact, you can use only vinegar and sugar. For more complex flavor, add ingredients like soy sauce, ginger, hot peppers, and sesame oil; herbs such as mint, cilantro, and basil; and toasted peanuts or sesame seeds. Ingredients for my recipes are supermarket standbys. I prefer unseasoned rice wine vinegar; if you use the seasoned kind, you’ll probably want to cut back on the salt and possibly eliminate additional sugar altogether.
Consider these recipes jumping-off points. They’re all flexible. If you don’t have kohlrabi, substitute broccoli stems; use shredded and salted green cabbage in place of steamed spinach, or broccoli instead of asparagus.