Thursday, February 17, 2005

Laotian (?) braised chicken with Thai noodles

Sometimes I feel guilty about blogging. "Why," I ask myself, "would anyone want to read what an anglo in central Jersey has to say about cooking Asian food, when there are so many real Asian food blogs out there?" I love Asian food, but it is hardly my birthright or heritage. So many people out there know so much more than me. Does the world really need one more well-meaning American indulging in cultural appropriation?

Take tonight's dinner. I decided I wanted to try Bruce Cost's "Laotian Braised Chicken with Shallots and Cracked Black Pepper" from Asian Ingredients. I've cooked this before, but it came out too salty; it was also one of the first dishes I ever cooked using fish sauce, so that threw me.

Once I decided on the menu, I got a little more curious about Laotian food. To say it has a low profile in the States is a vast understatement (though apparently there are a couple of restaurants in Philly that serve it). I did a Google search and found that most of the hits ran to reviews and sales links for a handful of Lao and partial-Lao cookbooks. There were a few restaurant reviews. But one phrase seemed to recur with worrying frequency: Laotian cooking doesn't use coconut milk. Since Cost's braised Laotian chicken leans heavily on coconut milk, I began to wonder whether I was cooking an Authentic recipe.

The most detailed information I found was in a review of a cookbook called Taste of Laos. The review is here, should you care to peruse it. I couldn't begin to paraphrase it, but it sounds convincing and makes me want to learn more about Laotian cooking.

Asking someone completely clueless about Laotian cooking to judge the authenticity of a dish claiming this nationality is probably too much, so I got back to the actual cooking. In spite of halving the recipe, there was still way too much food, especially sauce. I suppose I could have reduced the sauce further than I did, but I got impatient. I browned the shallots, scallions and chicken pieces in a cup of peanut oil, then poured out most of the peanut oil so I could stir-fry the chicken in the oil and coconut milk. Progressively, one adds water, shallots and fish sauce, then covers to simmer for about ten minutes. I omitted the chili peppers and settled for some Tabasco sauce, which was completely lost in the final product. I also omitted the initial step of salting the chicken pieces and letting them sit for half an hour. This time it wasn't salty at all, but probably sweeter than the recipe intended.

Once the dish is done, you are supposed to serve it over the scallions, but I decided to use Thai "rice flake" noodles instead. These were the big discovery of the evening. I got them at the Asian supermarket when attempting to find an equivalent for some wonderful wide egg noodles I had at a restaurant called Aroma in Franklin Park. The rice flakes are brittle large triangular pieces of vermicelli, for lack of a better description. When cooked, they rolled up into tubes like penne pasta. Tasting one was a rude shock, however, as it tasted like tap water. Bad tap water.

Eventually the rice flakes were done and I poured them into a big bowl. When the chicken and sauce were done, they went on top of the rice flakes. And what a change in the rice flakes! Now they had a wonderful buttery, egg noodle-like consistency, very rich and decadent. Like vermicelli, they take on the nature of the sauce or soup in which they are cooked. I will definitely be looking for more rice flakes when I go to the Asian supermarket next. Mmmmm!

So, whether or not the recipe was authentic to start with, it sure wasn't when I got through with it. But it was quite tasty.

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