Secret (Menus) and Lies

Following this week’s post on spring peas for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, here is another spring/summer recipe for green vegetables.

Over on Salon.com, food writer Francis Lam, formerly of Gourmet, hosts a weekly food writing and recipe challenge, the Salon Kitchen Challenge. Francis announces a theme as broad as “a meal for someone you love” or as narrow as “egg salad,” and entrants are asked to write a story and a recipe fitting within the theme.  The prize is the honor of being selected by such a talented food writer, as well as publication in the Food section of Salon.  This was my entry from March, on the theme of ”asparagus.”

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Asparagus_botanical

Asparagus is one of those foods which inspires passion and mania among its fans.  People start looking for it in farmers’ markets and produce stalls with the first signs of Spring, and snatch it up greedily in neat bundles.

There’s obsession, and then there’s obsession.

It was a month after I had given birth to my first baby, and I wasn’t getting out much.  Cambodian food was the cuisine my husband and I had adopted as our favorite when we were in college, and so it carried special meaning for us. So I was excited when my husband called me from work to tell me that he would be picking up some Cambodian food on his way home. (At that point, I would have been happy with anything edible that I didn’t have to prepare; that it was Cambodian food was a bonus.)

He came home with a large brown paper bag emanating the seductive fragrances of lemon grass, turmeric and coconut milk.  But he looked agitated.  Before I was able to dig in, he said, “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I paused for a second, wondering about the anxiety in his voice.  But my postpartum mind was too muddled, and my stomach too hungry, to wonder too much. I just wanted to eat.  “What?”

“Well, you know how when we go to Chinese restaurants, and there are two menus, with the better and more authentic food on the menu written in Chinese?”

“Yeah.” I said, opening takeout cartons in a rush.

“So, well, the nice lady at the Cambodian restaurant was so happy to hear that we had a baby, and um, she thinks you are Cambodian.”

This got my attention enough that I looked up from the food.

“She asked me if you were Cambodian,” he continued, “and I said you were half, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”

“You didn’t want to hurt her feelings so you made up my heritage?”

“I was hoping there was a secret menu.”

See, my husband’s obsession is getting authentic food, the “real” food in any ethnic restaurant we go to, and he’s convinced that every restaurant has this food on a secret menu.  You just have to be worthy of it.  The secret password, he clearly thought, was to say that I was Cambodian.

“Was there?”

“No.  And, um, next time we go there, you might want to speak Khmer.”

We should have been able to, we had eaten Cambodian food so often over the years.  When were in college, there was a hole in the wall Cambodian restaurant near campus.  It had fabulous food and an amazingly long menu (maybe 200 entrees).  We became so close to the owners, that by the end, we were being comped more food than we were paying for.  You see, they, too, thought that we could be Cambodian, and even when they knew that we weren’t, they adopted us into their community.  We attended weddings, heard about relationship problems and all the gossip.  A local seamstress made me a gorgeous traditional silk skirt embroidered with silver thread.  I felt like an apsara when I wore that.

Apsaras

Oh, we loved that place.  We had our engagement party in the cramped and dingy little restaurant basement, and they catered our wedding appetizers.  We still miss some of the entrees there, and I remember an unusual category on their menu: “Strange Flavor.” You could get Strange Flavor chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, etc.  It was sort of a sweet and sour taste, but more complex.  I couldn’t quite place all of the flavors.

We were sad to leave our college town and our favorite restaurant. When we relocated to San Francisco, we were excited to find out that there was another hole in the wall Cambodian restaurant within walking distance from our apartment.  It was fancier and more expensive than the first place, but I could see from our very first visit that my husband was angling to have an in.  I just didn’t know how far he would go to get there.

The food at this place is fantastic.  It has more of what is considered royal Cambodian cuisine, including the fish and lemongrass mousse called ahmok.  Sadly, it does not have a “Strange Flavor” category on its menu. But it does have another unique section.  Besides the usual sections you’d see on any Southeast Asian menu–Appetizers, Soup, Curry, Poultry, Beef, Pork, Noodles, and Vegetables– there’s a final category before the desserts: Asparagus.

As far as I know, asparagus is not a common part of Cambodian cuisine.  Certainly not enough to be its own category.  But at this restaurant, it is.  You can get it sauteed with shrimp and shrimp sauce, sauteed with yellow curry, or sauteed with undisclosed spices and coconut milk, the latter two with either beef, pork or squid.

I’d normally inquire about the special prominence given asparagus on the menu, but it seems somewhat impolite.  Plus, I don’t want to draw more attention to the fact that, as someone who is supposedly half-Cambodian, I don’t know much about Cambodian food.  And I definitely don’t speak any Khmer.

*   *   *

Grilled Asparagus with Curry, Lime and Lemongrass Aioli

Despite my love for Cambodian flavors, and with all due respect to our favorite restaurant, I find that the delicate taste of asparagus is overshadowed by heavy sauces.  To preserve the elegant beauty of asparagus, I prefer it grilled, with aioli on the side.  As an ode to Cambodian cuisine, I’m spiking the aioli with the flavors of lime, lemongrass and curry.

grilled asparagus by Linda Shiue

Grilled Asparagus

Ingredients

2 lbs. of asparagus, trimmed

coarse sea salt, coasely ground black pepper, both to taste

2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

extra virgin olive oil

Technique

1.  Toss asparagus stalks with extra virgin olive oil, chopped garlic, sea salt and black pepper.  Let marinate for 10 minutes.

2.  Grill on an outdoor grill or grill pan for a few minutes on each side, until just cooked.

3. Serve hot with curry, lime and lemongrass aioli as a dipping sauce.

Curry aioli by Linda Shiue

Curry, lime and lemongrass aioli

Ingredients

Yolk of 1 large egg

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

1 tsp. vinegar

1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard

3/4 cup Canola oil

2 tablespoons of Thai yellow curry paste

Technique

1.  Put garlic and lime juice in a blender and blend until smooth.

2.  Place egg yolk, lime juice mixture, vinegar and mustard into a bowl and whisk together until thickened.

3.  Slowly drizzle in oil, a few drops at a time, while gently whisking in a constant motion.

4. Stir in curry paste until combined.

5.  Add salt to taste, if desired.

© 2010 Linda Shiue

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