When I think of food cultures that have mastered spices like no other I always turn to Southeast Asian cuisine. Personally, I have always had a deep respect for food cultures that prioritize ingredients over fancy technique and instead find ways to coax intense flavors in very simple, modest ways.
Nothing showcases this respect for simple, yet intense flavors like Southeast Asian cuisine. While most Southeast Asian dishes are known for their spicy flavors and sauces, many Southeast Asian food cultures developed based on what was available locally, making each region’s food culture unique and distinctly their own.
When making this soup I loved that most of the ingredients for the soup itself I was able to buy locally and in-season at my local farmers market. This ability to create a dish made primarily from local ingredients, but with origins from half way around the world, was just another reminder of how powerful global food cultures are, and how capable they are of connecting us even when we live a world away.
Southeast Asian Food Culture
At the foundation of most Southeast Asian dishes is a unique mix of spices that are added to soups and rice dishes to magically transform simple ingredients (like rice) into an explosion of unique flavors.
In Thai food culture for example, all five tastes (salty, sour, sweet, spicy, and bitter) are masterfully highlighted in every meal to create a simple, yet incredibly satisfying meal. While here in Western food cultures we tend to focus on one taste to highlight at a time, in Thai food culture herbs like cinnamon, garlic, ginger, chilies, lemongrass, lime, mint, and turmeric are combined to evoke all of these flavors in one dish without any one flavor necessarily overpowering the other.
When traveling in Southeast Asia I often have thought about the many differences between Western and Asian food culture. The most apparent to me has always been what we choose to highlight as the “main attraction” of our meals. Here in the United States the main attraction is often meat, which has led to an incredibly meat centric culture that prioritizes quantity of meat over taste, nutrition, and almost everything else.
Yet in Southeast Asian food culture, the mastery of tastes by utilizing local spices and ingredients is something that allows for simple, and cost-effective dishes that quickly become elevated into something that is incredibly satisfying and nourishing. Meat does not need to be the main attraction, although it is often included, because the spices and local flavors are what really make or break each dish.
This ability to elevate meals through thoughtful combinations of local spices and ingredients is something that Western food cultures could benefit tremendously from, and are starting to catch on to. If we chose to make flavor the main attraction of our meals we would leave each meal feeling more satisfied, and would be able to enjoy responsibly raised meat in our meals without it being the main attraction.
Spicy Ginger Bok Choy Soup
This spicy ginger bok choy soup combines many traditional Thai flavors for a simple, yet incredibly satisfying soup. What I love most about this soup is that it can come together in about 30 minutes, while still packing an intense flavor and cost less than $10 (with left over spices and other ingredients) and was able to serve four people.
- 4 cups vegetable/chicken/beef broth
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons red curry paste
- 1 large garlic clove (chopped)
- 1 thumb size knob of fresh ginger (chopped)
- 1/2 medium yellow onion
- 1/4 cup tamari sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 cup sliced crimini mushrooms
- 1 carrot peeled in ribbons
- 2 small bok choy heads
- 1 bunch green onion (chopped, save the green tops for topping)
- 4 oz Vermicelli rice noodles (about half a 8oz package)
- Juice of one lime
- Optional: Red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, additional tamari for topping
- In a large sauce pan heat olive oil over medium heat.
- Once the pan is hot add chopped onion, garlic, and ginger.
- Allow onion, garlic, and ginger to soften, stirring consistently.
- Next, add curry paste, tamari, fish sauce, and sea salt to pan. Allow to simmer for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the broth and water to pan, and cover lowering heat to simmer.
- Allow broth mixture to simmer for 10 minutes before adding carrot ribbons, green onion, and mushrooms.
- Cover the pan and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- Next add the bok choy (simply shop the end of the base and slice the bok choy lengthwise down the center) to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes or until the bok choy stem has begun to soften.
- Lastly add the vermicelli rice noodles to the pan. These will cook in about 2 minutes. Once soft remove soup from heat and serve immediately.
- Top with additional tamari sauce, lime juice, red pepper flakes, green onion tops, and sesame seeds to your personal taste.