One of my favorite things to do is wander around the Asian grocery stores. While Milwaukee doesn’t have the supermarket-esque Super 88 grocery store that I came to adore while living in the Allston neighborhood of Boston during grad school, there are a few smaller Asian grocery stores that still have fresh produce and trans-Pacific items that I can’t find in the traditional big box markets. Here’s a video of the Super 88 and why I fell in love with it:
Whenever I walk into an Asian grocery store I always feel like an outsider. I don’t look overly Asian even though I’m half Filipino. I think more people would peg me as being Mediterranean before Asian. Still, I like the adventure that is always in store at the Asian grocery. I love being able to pick up the thick-skinned prickly fruit that looks like a puffer fish, hearing the different languages from shoppers and filling my basket with treasures to cook in my bamboo steamer.
The aisles of the grocery stores are tightly packed with items that I don’t recognize the writing on but I can gather that some are oyster sauces, some are noodles, some are remnants of livestock that have been frozen or pickled. As I travel up and down each aisle scanning the contents, I’m taken to a completely different time and place. For other people walking the aisles, they’re taken to a familiar place. The items they place in their carts remind them of home – the land they left. I wonder to myself, “What’s his/her story?” and “What brought you here to this country?”
A trip to the Asian grocery is like taking a trip to the Philippines. I’ve never been to the country that is the home to my adoptive father, or my biological mother, or the hundreds of cousins who I’ve never met. This whirlwind tour of exotic items is an inexpensive way for me to experience the culture that has always been a part of me and my soul, although a part of me that has been Americanized through the years.
Recently, I started reading Michelle Maisto’s memoir “The Gastronomy of Marriage.” Maisto, an Italian-American Gen X-er, describes how food helped connect her and her husband-to-be, an Asian-American. As I read her story, I can’t help but feel a connection. So many Gen X and Gen Y-ers are the byproducts of immigrants. It’s inevitable that cultures will clash as a result of marriages. Maisto recalls meeting her husband Rich’s parents for the first time. Thinking the meal was over, a waiter brings out a huge broiled redfish – a crowning achievement for the dinner.
“That Rich’s and my ethnic backgrounds are resources that we can draw on and share with other is a point I appreciate now, though back then they hadn’t seemed much more than aesthetics. With the arrival of the big redfish, however, it was clear that Rich has upped the ante on what it was he brought to the relationship.”
-Michelle Maisto, “The Gastronomy of Marriage”
A newlywed-no-more (my husband and I have been married almost two and a half years), I don’t bring much to the table in regards to my cultural upbringing. I don’t have anecdotes to share from my first trip to the Philippines, and the foods I can cook well aren’t Asian. I’ve never taken it upon myself to ask my dad how to cook adobo or pancit. My husband actually has learned how to do that more than I. So, when I walk around an Asian grocery store and bring home some new ingredients or some freshly-made sio pao (steamed buns), it feels like I’m finally making that connection to my Asian roots.
Feeling inspired by Maisto’s book and her experience learning about Asian culture, I wanted to create my own experience today. I picked up some fresh Chinese mushrooms and thick rice noodles. Also some carrots, cilantro and chicken. I was going to make a quick, and Asian-inspired lunch.
My dad ate it and said it was good. His positive critique is more than enough for me. Plus, it leaves me with the incentive to go back and try something new in the future.
Quick ‘n Easy Noodle Lunch
I took my inspiration for this recipe from Pad Thai – the noodle dish with cilantro and peanuts. Also, I’m not one for measuring accurately. I usually like throwing things in the pot and seeing that the concoction I make is edible. So, these are rough estimates.
1 – Chicken breast (cubed into small pieces)
1 – Carrot, julienne
1 cup – Mushrooms, rough chopped
Thick rice noodles – enough for 4-6 servings
Ginger, to taste
3-4 cloves – Garlic
1/4 cup – Cilantro
6 tablespoons – soy sauce
1 tablespoon – Hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons – olive oil
1/4 cup – water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Lime, to taste
First, prepare the noodles as per box instructions.
Heat oil in a large pan to medium. Add chicken, salt and pepper to taste, and brown. Finely mince the garlic and ginger and add to the chicken, heat until fragrant. Add the carrots and water to the pan. Cover and let steam for about 5-7 minutes until carrots are tender. Add mushrooms, recover and let steam another 2-3 minutes. Add soy sauce and hoisin sauce and mix well. Return to a simmer for about 1 minute.
Add noodles to the mixture when to desired tenderness. Mix well. Add cilantro at the end, just before serving. Add lime juice if you desire for extra depth of taste.
Serve in large Asian-style bowls. Chopsticks are optional.
You can easily substitute another meat or tofu for chicken. You could also use another type of noodle or whatever veggies you like that are in season.