Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Noi’s Thai Kitchen
(in Asheville, North Carolina)
A Quiet Adventure in a Diversity of Flavors

by Pasckie Pascua

MY affinity with food is as frenziedly varied as my unpredictable taste for art. I am not a follower of minimalist treatments, one-dimensional perspectives, or simplistic elements—therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that my natural choice for food is a blend of many cultural traditions. Hence, Southeast Asian cuisine—notably Thai and Vietnamese—greatly appeals to me. Although Thai cooking procedure emphasizes simplicity, its finished food’s pungent aromatic components—by way of a wide array of spices and herbs—make dining such a pleasant adventure.
     Like the Philippines where I was born, Thailand’s diverse ethnicity offers a rich row of ingredients and an extremely varied food preparation ways. Common herbs include cilantro, lemon grass, basil, and mint. You could navigate in a bowlful of flavors that emanate from ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, soy beans, shallots, white and black peppercorn, kaffir lime and, chilies. Then, there’s my favorite, generous use of coconut milk and curry, a variety of sauces and condiments—and, not to forget, the staple steamed or boiled white rice.
     That’s the paradox of Thai cooking. Preparation seems easy and simple, yet the dishes’ demand of capturing a sumptuous flavor via a dizzying mix of ingredients, herbs and spices makes it all complex. Hence, I must say Thai cooking is not mostly taught—it grows in you. It is more a traditional experience than an acquired skill.
     This makes Noi’s Thai Kitchen, located on Merrimon Avenue in Asheville, stand out among a growing number of Thai and Asian restaurants in Western North Carolina. According to co-owner Lenny DiMaio, his wife, Noi, wants to make it clear that she does all the cooking herself. A diner is certain he/she gets exactly what is offered menu…
     “Noi won't let anyone else help cook. She runs the kitchen and wants everything to be consistent," DiMaio told The Indie. Such sweeping hold could appear a bit weird to a typical Western observer, but such an attitude is daily life in Southeast Asia—where cooking is almost like a one-person job to a designated cook.     
     Noi grew up among the rice fields in Northern Thailand where people learn to cook by themselves at a very early age. Her father passed away when she was only 7… Noi, who also studied dentistry, had to take care of feeding her family, as well as help in putting siblings to school.
     Before moving to Asheville, Noi worked in Raleigh—in commercial kitchens at night and dental offices during the day. But it’s the kitchen that deeply defines her passion. That passion translates in how she diligently cooks and prepares dishes at her restaurant: very personal. You are sure to experience a member of your family feeding you: intimate, meticulous and sure.     
     Try my favorite appetizer, Tood Mun Goong—fresh shrimp and clear noodles wrapped in crispy skin served with sweet sauce. The “secret” remains the sauce. Then decide on a choice of these two awesome dishes: Gang Kiew Wan (red curry with coconut milk, bamboo shoots, zucchini, green bean, sweet basil, and bell peppers) or Panang Curry (green curry with coconut milk, peas, green beans, celery, zucchini, carrots, sweet basil, and bell peppers).
     But don’t let this article mislead you. Your tastebuds should be the judge. All I can assure is—everything in Noi’s super-busy kitchen is prepared fresh by an experienced cook. You could almost hear Thai monsoon rains trickle and smell lemongrass steaming… 

[NOI’S THAI KITCHEN is located at 535c Merrimon Ave., Asheville, NC 28804. Tel # 828 251 1960]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Complex Flavors, Simplified

ON AVERAGE, the human tongue has 2,000 to 8,000 taste buds, which contain the receptors for taste. They are located around the small structures on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus and papillae—all involved in detecting the five (known) elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami (savoriness)… What I am driving at is—the tongue makes eating such a cool, extremely pleasurable habit; food such a gift of life and a basic human need.I was born and grew old(er) in a culture whose people eat three full meals a day (7am, 12 noon, 8pm), excluding two or three snack sessions (or meriendas—10am, 4pm, and 12 midnight). Usually, dishes and foodstuff that are served differ per meal or snack—hence, we are talking about a frenzied diversity of flavors. Those 8,000 taste buds really get to work on a daily basis.
Needless to say, Philippine cuisine—the style of cooking and the foods associated with it—have evolved over several centuries from its Austronesian origins to a mixed cuisine with many Hispanic, Chinese, American, and other Asian influences adapted to indigenous ingredients and the local palate.
You get my drift. My tongue—or mouth, and of course, stomach—could easily welcome or reject (mostly, the former) any flavor there is. (Move over, Mr Andrew Zimern!)
Yes, indeed—I have lots of fun “interfacing” flavors and tastes that emanate from herbs, seasonings, condiments, natural juices, and other ingredients. I also gotten used to “fixing” flavors or mixes as the need warrants… uhh, throw in some parsleys or mix some mirin or maybe dab some more ground black pepper etc.
But I don’t mean to scare you… my tongue, like my ears, is “genre-flexible,” sort of.
A few hours ago, I had this little buttered mushroom side that I really enjoyed at a local Fatz. Simple dish, uncomplicated flavor… Made me recall a “sides-eating peculiarity” of my childhood. I used to boil or steam bitter gourd (“ampalaya”) and banana blossoms and just threw down on them, as is. Sometimes I dipped them on fish sauce sprinkled with calamansi (calamondin or lime) juice and chili peppers—but mostly, just the slightly-cooked gourd and blossoms on my plate.
So whether it’s multi-flavored or no-flavor—as long as they’re edible and look good, I eat `em. Pretty much like music. Unplugged and minimalist sets, when performed good—is as good as orchestral maneuvers in the dark executed ethereally. Less blurry metaphors in a few, structured lines in a verse are as endearing and pleasing—as an epic poem.
It’s all about cooking as art and craft, sensibility and sensitivity.
Here is a dish that exemplifies my point—a less complex recipe—yet it still challenges a cook’s ability and cunning to make diverse, at times contrasting flavors work.
“Sauteed Fish Fillets, with Orange Butter Sauce (or Pineapple Chunks)”
INGREDIENTS:3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar (or mild Mexican vinegar)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 (6 ounce) white fish fillets, each about 3/4 inch thick
1/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
1 tablespoon tequila
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

DIRECTIONS:[1] In a small saucepan, boil the orange juice and vinegar until reduced to about 1/3 cup; reserve off heat.
[2] Heat the oil in a big nonstick skillet and cook fish 3-4 minutes per side or until it is golden brown on the outside, opaque but still moist inside and just barely flakes when tested with a fork.
[3] Season with salt and pepper; remove fish to a serving platter.
[4] Add the tequila to the skillet and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits; add the reserved orange juice reduction to the same skillet and bring to a boil.
[5] Immediately decrease the heat to low and add the butter, 1 piece at a time, whisking just until melted.
[6] Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro; spoon sauce over the fish; serve immediately.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

COOKING is an endearing gesture of connectedness, a sublime intimacy that is anchored to a strong feeling of family. It connects me to my family oceans away. But these days, cooking and dining at home—with mom, dad, sons, daughters, and pets present—has almost become a forgotten facet of family bliss… Everybody has an important task to finish, or an electronic bauble to play with… So I cook. I cook for friends like I am cooking for the spirits of my past—both excited and enthralled what sort of culinary magic I’d come up with for dinnertime. I’d like to infect that same vibe and wavelength to as many people that I could possibly reach.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

LONG time ago, cooking was spontaneous—a daily task, 3 meals with some snacks in between. Food recipes are public domain. People have their own individual treatment or personal style or “secret” about how to cook a certain dish. Stews, casseroles, grills, soups and broths, baked dishes, stuff fowls etc. Cooking was a transcendent art form—it feeds both the body and spirit. Most of the know-how that I employ in cooking I get it from memory, observations on diverse cooking styles by my grandmother, my dad (mom didn’t cook much)—and many people I met in my travels. No recipes, no written instructions—no fancy gadgets, no expensive cooking machines whatsoever… It’s all instinct and feel.
PHOTO (my dinner dessert last night): PLANTAIN BANANA STRIPS with Pineapple Chunks fried with Honey on Lumpia Wraps—with Aunt Jemima syrup and sweet butter Ice Cream.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

THERE’s nothing more passionate—leading to most passionate moments—than a good dinner, caressed and cuddled by sumptuous words and sweet music. So let me tell (or whisper) you something cool: “Poetry, Food… Intimate Moments” is a freeflowing program of my poetry readings interspersed with my food offerings or what I call, “cooking gig.” Around a stream of scented candles and easy-wafting music, I’ll read poems while you dine and drink—all seated or comfortably slouched on the couch or throw pillows. So since spring is already dancing and summer is about to rock—why don’t you unleash those beautiful spirits off your winter hangover and open your house and/or property (farm, backyard, barn etc) to friends and acquaintances for some laid-back, intimate fun. By the way, we may also adapt the evening’s ambiance (or format) based on the particular day’s importance or significance (birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s dinner etc). [For other infos, go to: HIRE ME page]

Friday, April 15, 2011

ROCK your paradigms, align wavelengths, and please your epicurean madness—in an intimate vibe… Enjoy and savor warm poetry, intimate music, and sumptuous food: “Live good, love good, and eat only good food,” so chants the superhomey on wok. So have a poetry dinner party in the privacy of your home with your friends. Email me

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

IN THE ISLANDS… the obligatory greeting when a visitor enters a house is: “Have you eaten already?” Food is always an object of offering or the centerpiece delight in any gathering—from formal meetings to spontaneous hang outs to funeral wakes. Filipinos eat three full meals a day: breakfast at 7am, lunch at 12, dinner at 7pm—at exactly at those precise hours. In between, meriendas (snacks) are served at 10am and 4pm, sometimes even at midnight… I never really gotten over my weird “food sense” all through these years, wherever country I crashland. I think about cooking and eating a lot. On romantic dates, friendly hangouts, random convergences… I always offer to cook or always inquire, “When are we going to eat?”