All About Asian Food

April 2013 Archives

For over 5000 years sesame seeds have been cultivated for its culinary value. It imparts a nuttiness onto dishes that is rich and complex. In western cooking, sesame seeds are often relegated to use in confectioneries, usually as topping for buns or bagels; you may recall this jingle: "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun!" Sesame seeds are also added onto crackers and other snacks as a crunchy element. But there is much untapped potential in sesame seeds, way beyond a mere garnish or topping.

To make the full use of sesame seeds, we have to look towards the East and study how it is deployed in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Sesame seeds is suitable in both savory and sweet applications. Discover what this ingredient can do for your cooking and add a whole new robust flavor into your repertoire.

Super Sesame


As mentioned above, sesame seeds were first cultivated over 5000 years ago. It is one of the first crops to be pressed for its oil. Sesame has its origin in the subcontinent of India. From there, the seed spread to East Asian and the Middle East. For a small seed, sesame contains high amounts of calcium and magnesium, making it an mineral-rich option for healthy-conscious eaters.

Additionally, sesame oil contain two natural preservatives, sesamol and sesamin, that are known to fight free radicals, reducing the risk of cancer and other maladies. As you can tell by their names, sesamol and sesamin are compounds found only in sesame seeds. Behind its unassuming exterior, sesame seeds have quietly gained a well-deserved reputation as a superfood.

Beyond Oriental


For those unfamiliar with the ingredient, sesame is usually identified with "Asian" flavor. An Asian salad dressing is likely a sesame dressing. Sesame seeds is also widely used in Japanese cooking. It is one of the components of furikake, a rice seasoning topper. If you ever find rice a bit too bland, sprinkle some furikake over the top of it and be amazed at appetizing it suddenly becomes. The combination of sesame seeds, seaweed, and bonito flakes add a dose of tasty umami, making you wolf down whatever is in front of you. Sesame seeds are also found on the the popular California roll. When used in such a way, the impact of sesame seeds are subtle but pleasant. It does not overwhelm the dish, but takes a backseat instead and complement the other flavors while adding complexity and a toasty robustness to each bite. Being as such, there is no reason sesame cannot be used in more applications other than Asian cooking. Toss some in your pasta. Sprinkle it on your pizza. Put it in your oatmeal. It will taste good, not out of place, while bringing you its superfood benefits.

Black and White


Sesame seeds come in two varieties: black and white. There are little differences between the two in taste. Mostly an aesthetic difference, though some claim that black sesame seeds have a richer flavor. One observable difference between the two seeds is how they're used in cooking. White sesame seeds are used on savory dishes and as garnish, whereas black sesame seeds are sweetened and used in dessert. This is most likely due the fact that black sesame paste looks more dramatic, especially when oozing out of a mochi rice dumpling.

In addition to the seeds themselves, sesame oil also comes in two major varieties. Light sesame oil is pressed from untoasted seeds, while dark sesame oil is pressed from roasted seeds. Predictably, dark sesame oil has a stronger flavor, but it can overpower a dish with its intense nutty aroma. You may stir-fry in light sesame oil; dark sesame oil is more suited for making sauces.

Sweet Sweet Sesame


Black sesame plays a big part in Chinese desserts. One particular dessert that gives you a full frontal sesame taste is Black Sesame Soup. Yes, soups aren't known to be sweet, but the Cantonese tradition of tong sui (literally "sweet water") is one such sweet soup, and it simply works. Much like a hot chocolate on a winter evening, a hot bowl of black sesame tong sui warms the tummyh and soothes the soul. It is a comfort food of the highest order, and the sweet gritty texture of sesame paste plays no small role in that joy.

It is worth mentioning that sesame paste differs from tahini, a sesame condiment widely used in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisines. Tahini is made from hulled sesame seeds, whereas sesame paste as found in Asian cuisine uses whole seeds that are roasted prior to being ground. While tahini sits outside the scope of Asian Food Grocer, I can say it is plenty tasty on a gyro or as part of a creamy hummus. Goes to show that the appeal of sesame is universal, or global at least.

Now You're Cooking with The Power of Sesame


So you've got your sesame seeds, sesame oil, and sesame paste: the full complement of sesame goods. Now to start cooking with this new entrant to your cupboard. Start off easy simply by incorporating sesame seeds as a garnish. Think anytime you would add crushed peanuts or bread crumbs to a dish, and substitute it with sesame seeds. Just like that you've added a toasty and crunchy element.

If you have untoasted sesame seeds, you can quickly toast them for a stronger flavor by putting them in a skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes. No need to grease the skillet. Once toasted, it gains a new level of flavor that bursts out when you bite into a seed.

Next, begin to incorporate sesame as the main flavor component of your dish. This is most easily accomplished through the use of sesame paste and sesame oil. Sesame paste is useful when making thick sauces. By combining chili and soy sauce into sesame paste, you have a savory sauce that will work wonders as a marinade or grill sauce. Similarly, sesame oil is great as the base for a vinaigrette or salad dressing. Simply replace the olive oil in most recipes and you'll end up with a stronger flavored dressing. For more ideas on how to use sesame in your cooking, take a look at all these recipes in our recipe section.

We hope that by reading this article, you have learned about some of the benefits and applications of using sesame seeds or sesame oil in your cooking. It is a highly versatile ingredient that deserves to get out of its relative obscurity. There was a reason why "Open Sesame" was the password to a treasure trove in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieve. Indeed, sesame holds the key to a world of flavor.

Snacking in Anime

Anime has a wide influence, having garnered fans in countries around the world. Anime first appeared on American shores in the 1960s in the form of Astro Boy. Ozamu Tezuka's manga was adapted into an animated series, which laid the groundwork of anime aesthetics for the upcoming decades. Through the impact of anime and video games, Japanese popular culture has effectively been exported to all corners of the world. One result of such influence is the growing popularity of Japanese snacks. We at Asian Food Grocer wholeheartedly welcome the wider exposure given to Japanese snacks. Many of these snacks have found their way into anime episodes, piquing the interest and curiosity of anime fans. Let us tell you a bit about the snacks you may have spotted.

Pocky

Pocky is the by far the most iconic and popular snack to come from Japan. Is it any surprise that the cream-coated snack sticks makes it way into many anime series? Characters are seen in many anime series casually noshing on the ubiquitous cream-covered biscuits. 

Given its popularity, interesting activities have sprung from the consumption of this snack. Did you know that within each pack of Pocky, there are ample opportunities for romance? Much like the famous Lady and the Tramp scene with the spaghetti, Pocky lends itself to a smooch as well. Nicknamed the "Pocky Kiss," this ritual has been depicted in many an anime scene. Two people start biting at the opposite ends of a Pocky stick until their mouths meet in the middle. Try it out with a friend!

Konpeito

Konpeito sugar candy are a popular treat with an instantly recognizable look. The unique star shape and bright colors lends itself to being represented accurately in an anime, and these candies have been seen in Studio Ghibli movies anime series as well. Most famously, the candies were seen in this Spirited Away scene, in which black soot spirits pick up konpeito off the floor and scurry back into the shadows.

Konpeito does not have a distinctive flavor, as it is simply rock candy made from simple sugars. However, the process to make these candies is a long one. Each candy core tumbles in a large heated tub, slowly takes shape day by day as it crystallizes a layer at a time. It takes anywhere from seven to thirteen days to fully form a konpeito. Think about that the next time you pop one in your mouth and finish it in seconds!

Anpan

Anpan is a baked sweet roll pastry with red bean paste filling, topped off with roasted sesame seeds. Pan is actually a loanword from Portuguese meaning bread. The bun is a favorite of Gintama's Yamazaki Sagaru. Working as a spy, he eats anpans during long stakeout sessions, having them with milk to give him energy to focus on his mission. 

The anpan is even the subject of a anime superhero, appropriately named Anpanman. Having an anpan for a head means Anpanman never has to eat to nourish himself. In fact, he offers his head as food to feed malnourished people in need. If that isn't heroic, I don't know what is.

Melonpan

Melonpan, or Melon Bread, is named as such for the ridges baked into the cookie dough crust on the bread, which resembles the rind of a cantaloupe. This popular Japanese pastry is the favorite of the titular character of the series Shakugan no Shana. Shana starts off everyday with a breakfast of melon pan. She is often seen with a melonpan in hand, with its recognizable criss-crossed pattern on the crust. Melonpan does not actually taste like melon. Instead, the flavor is described as a bit lemony. The sweet yet light taste of melonpan makes it easy to get addicted to. If more Americans get a taste of this delicious bun, there could be a wave people running around craving for melonpan like Shana.

Dorayaki

Dorayaki is similar to a pancake, only difference being that it is made from two slices of  castella, a type of fluffy cake, sandwiching a layer of sweet red bean paste. So it's quite different, but it has the same flat, browned look. Dorayaki is called as such because it resembles a gong, or dora in Japanese. Dorayaki is a known favorite food of Doraemon. The blue anime icon gorges on the pancakes whenever he gets a chance, and he can be tricked sometimes when he is tempted by the sweet taste of dorayaki. Doraemon is almost as popular as Mickey Mouse in the international scene, but somehow the series has never been licensed for release in the US.

Ramune

Ramune soda is know for its bottles, which is sealed by a glass marble. Ramune, with its distinctive codd-neck bottle, can be easily spotted in anime. Animators seem to get a kick out of depicting the realistic motion of the marble held within the bottle. Check out this animation from the series Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. Notice the air bubbles, meticulously recreated in anime form. 

Rather than "cracking open" a drink, you pop open a Ramune by pushing the marble into the soda with a plastic plunger included with every bottle. The Ramune bottle is as much a symbol of Japanese culture as the Coca-Cola bottle is to American culture. Seeing a bottle evokes in the Japanese memories of childhood and warm summer evenings. Children often try to break Ramune bottles to extract the glass marble within. 

Of course, there are many more instances of Japanese snacks being shown in anime episodes. Anime characters are after all living creatures in their own way, and they have to eat. It's understandable that many favorite snacks of the Japanese populous make it into their media. Anime is very much a reflection of the Japan's culture. Just as Mickey Mouse and Elvis caused those overseas to yearn for authentic American culture, so anime has done the same for Japanese culture. It has made Japan's snack items seem that much more delicious.

Has watching anime ever whet your appetite? Let us know what is your favorite anime snack in the poll below! Also, check us out at the upcoming Fanime convention for your chance to taste some of these awesome snacks. We'll see you then!


Umami: A Primer

You may be aware of the four basic tastes, as taught by the following (since debunked) tongue map: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But there is an elusive fifth taste that many Asian chefs try to stimulate through their food. That taste is umami. The word umami in Japanese means "pleasant savory taste," which is about as good a description as you're going to get, as the taste is hard to pinpoint. But let me try describing it anyways.

At its most basic, umami is a sensation. It is a savory mouth feel. At its most concentrated, umami will cause your mouth to involuntarily salivate. It is literally mouthwatering. People have described umami as being "meaty." In my estimation, it is what makes food taste good.

The taste was first isolated by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor in Tokyo. He noticed how the addictive taste of kombu, or seaweed, cannot be attributed directly to any of the four known primary taste. There is a certain savoriness that escaped description. He investigated into the matter by looking at the chemical makeup of the food and discovered seaweed has an abundance of glutamates, an amino acid. As it turns out, our tongues have specific receptor for glutamate, which cemented umami as a basic taste within the scientific community.

The taste of umami derives chiefly from the breakdown of protein, whether through the process of fermentation, aging, or drying. Such processes increase the pungency of a certain flavor to the point where the essence is felt both on the tongue and in the back of the throat. It is more of a complementary flavor, working to enhance other present tastes. Subtle in impact but noticeable when it is absent, umami is an intrinsic part of any Asian meal.

The foremost purveyor of the umami effect comes from a chemical that has become a bit of a bugaboo among eaters: monosodium glutamate. Yes, MSG. You may be asking, isn't MSG bad for you? Well yes, in the way sugar and salt can be bad for you. When consumed moderately, MSG is no more nefarious that the common sugar or salt. There has not been any conclusive link between MSG and headaches. Nevertheless, many people swear off the additive and Chinese restaurants go out of their way to advertise not using the additive. MSG sensitivity is a real phenomenon, but it's not nearly as widespread as it may seem. If you don't suffer any outward adverse effects from MSG, I suggest you embrace this wonder seasoning. Or at least embrace umami.

http://www.asianfoodgrocer.com/product/msg-coated-saltFor those who want to steer clear completely of food additives, there is yet hope. Umami naturally occurs in many foods, like the aforementioned Kombu Seaweed. Among Western foodstuffs, parmesan and anchovies are particularly rich in glutamates and thus umami. Ripe tomatoes and mushrooms also contain large amounts of glutamate, making them good choices for vegans and vegetarians looking for that satisfying, meaty flavor.

Want to evoke umami in your own kitchen? Many of the Japanese food products on our virtual shelves offer umami in spades. Bonito Flakes are another great source umami, and are a traditional additive to dashi and miso soups. Sauces are another way to quickly infuse umami in your meals. Both Oyster Sauce and Fish Sauce have abundant amount of glutamates, making them lip-smacking choices for your dishes.

For quick umami fixes, check out some of our Instant Ramen or Instant Miso Soup. With this additional taste to acknowledge and wield in your cooking, may you reach new horizons in your cooking.

For more ideas on who to use your newly-grasped knowledge of umami to your advantage, head over to our Recipe Section. For example, you may harness the umami potential of miso paste by using it as a sauce component, as demonstrated in this delicious Marinated Pork Recipe.

You may have read this blog and still aren't sure what exactly is umami. Well, it wouldn't be any easier explaining sweetness to a martian. Just know that it exists and that it is in the food you crave and love. It is not a flavor of the month, but a taste to stay.

Happy Year of the Snake! The Lunar Calendar, based on the activity of the moon, is still observed in much of East Asia. With the Lunar Calendar come the 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Unlike the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac is based on a twelve-year cycle rather than twelve months. In the Chinese culture, time was told in units of twelve. Animals were assigned to the 12 Earthly Branches in order for people to easily memorize each branch. Read on to find out more about what significance the 12 animals of the zodiac hold in Chinese culture.

Race for the Ages

How were the twelve animals of the zodiac chosen? There are a good number of origin stories on how the twelve animals of the zodiac came to be. The most widely-told folktale tells of a banquet held by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the Heavens and Earth. He invited all of the animals in his realm to the banquet, and a race across a river would determine which animals would get to be in the zodiac and in what order.

Looking at the 12 animals, there is a conspicuous lack of the cat. The dog is there, so why not the cat? There is actually a story to explain this. It goes that the cat asked the rat to wake him up on the day of the big race. The rat, being aware of the cat's speed, goes to the race without waking up the cat. Having been betrayed, the cat now spends its days chasing the rat as payback.

The animal that came in first place was surprisingly the smallest as well: the rat. Having tricked the cat, the rat now used its cunning to win the race by hopping on the back of the ox as it paddled across the river. The ox came in second, with the tiger in third, then the rabbit, and so on. The goat, monkey and rooster helped each other in getting across the river, so people under those signs have an affinity for each other. The dog finished 11th because it wanted to wade in the water and take a bath. The pig came in last after it took a break to enjoy a snack and nap.

Interestingly enough, the cat appears in the Vietnamese Zodiac, in place of the rabbit. As a lover of both cats and rabbits, I am slightly bummed that they aren't together in the same zodiac.

Due to the widespread influence of Chinese culture, neighboring countries have adopted the Chinese zodiac, with slight variations. In the Vietnamese zodiac, the water buffalo replaces the ox; similarly in the Japanese zodiac, the wild boar takes the place of the pig. Because the Chinese characters for certain animals do not take into account differences in genus, the rat will often be translated as mouse, and the sheep may be called goat or ram.

Influence On Our Lives

Horoscopes according to the Chinese Zodiac are quite similar to western horoscopes in that they are chiefly concerned with the personal matters of love, money, and health.The Chinese believed that many aspects of human life are governed by the interrelationship between the animals and their human counterparts. One major ways this plays out is in our compatibility in our interaction with others. Be it social, romantic, or business relationships, zodiac signs play a big part in whether people will get along. Check out the compatibility chart below.

Each of the zodiac sign have qualities that affect our personality, based on the demeanor of the animals. For example, people born under the year of the dragon are perceived as being natural leaders due to the strength and reverence for the animal of the sign. Rabbit people tend to avoid conflict, in accordance with rabbit's peaceful nature.

The year of your zodiac sign rolls around every 12 years (when you're 12, 24, 36, and so forth), and that year is known as 本命年(bén mìng nián), or "year of origin life." According to tradition, that year of your own sign is actually one of bad luck. During these crucial years, you have to be on your toes and make careful decisions. One thing people recommend you do is to wear red, a fortuitous color, as often as possible to ward off the bad luck. Another possible defense during this shaky year would be to wear lucky jade jewelry on the left side of your body. The catch is that the jewelry has to be a gift from another person; you cannot generate your own luck by buying yourself things, unfortunately.

Show Off Your Sign

Now that you've found out more about the significance of the Chinese zodiac, what's your sign? Keep in mind that the lunar calendar does not align directly with our regular calendar, so people born in January actually below to the sign of the previous year. Be sure that consult a lunar calendar to find out exactly which sign you fall under. Do you find the animal in some way reflect who you are? Please let us what sign you belong to in the survey below. If you would like to show off your Chinese zodiac animal sign, we offer cute items for that express purpose.

Rilakkuma, the popular San-X character, loves to dress up as other animals. For the recent Lunar New Year, he appeared in plush toy form with the character dressing up as the 12 animals of the zodiac. You can get the corresponding plush for each of your family member's zodiac sign for nice, soft way to display your Chinese zodiac alignment.

We also have zodiac animal mini mugs. Each of these miniature cups include an adorable illustration drawn in simple black and white that shows off the charm and personality of each animal.To see all of our Chinese Zodiac-themed products, simply type "zodiac" into our search bar.

There is a reason why the popularity of the Chinese zodiac animals has endured. On the whole, people are basically self-centered. We love to find out more about ourselves, and zodiac signs, whether the Greek or Chinese version, offers us an opportunity to analyze ourselves and those around us. Our fate on this earth will always matter to us, and because of that, the animals of the Chinese zodiac will remain relevant as well.