07 March 2011

pining for the tropics

If you know where to look in Cape Town, fine Indian dining and the ingredients required to replicate it are at hand. Fresh curry leaves? Easy, brought in from Durban several times a week. A vast and dazzling array of dried spices, secret and not-so-secret mixes, and sacks of rice in suitably picturesque printed cotton? No problem. Choose from dozens of shops, replete with ceiling high stacks of stainless steel tinware, and the heady scent of authenticity.

The rest of Asian cuisine is rather more of a challenge.

Anyone who's eaten in the happy food zone encompassing Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will never settle for insipid bottled Thai Green Curry or Tom Yum paste again. While the fine cuisines of the western world can produce a carefully conducted and moving symphony, the flavour notes of South East Asia are a dawn chorus of tropical birdsong. Each shrill and powerfully fragrant, yet somehow blending into a delightful whole. Don't count on local Thai restaurants to whistle up something comparable. No matter how authentically Asian the owners, a curry of broccoli and chicken chunks swimming in tinned coconut milk, flavoured with the same Taste of Asia jars you can buy in Pick 'n Pay is not even remotely comparable to the real thing.

But challenges are not insurmountable. Although these cuisines are all about barely cooked fragrant freshness, many once exotic ingredients are now easily located. Leaf coriander, ginger, chilies and spring onion are everywhere, even fresh lemongrass and Thai basil is not too hard - on many produce shelves or grow your own from the nursery. Once in a blue moon you will even find shallots in a the supermarket that have not been irradiated. Be sure to buy a load and plant at least half for a steady supply. Failing that you might discover with relief that common onions are a passable shallot substitute once crushed in your very large and heavy mortar & pestle. You don't even have to smuggle palm sugar or fish sauce in your luggage anymore. This is a very good thing, since I can assure you that the change in air pressure causes fish sauce bottles to break, and even the finest quality sauce is a little overpowering when distributed through your underthings.

But two key ingredients in many dishes from the region are likely to be particularly difficult to find locally. Having tried dried Makrut (kafir lime) leaves, you will already know that instead of singing, they barely manage a dusty whisper. But, dear reader, persevere. It turns out that Makrut trees can flourish this far south if you happen to know someone who managed to procure a few plants from an abandoned agricultural experiment, and is willing to bring you seed all the way from Pretoria. After that, nurturing the seedlings to sturdy young trees and finding their pots a happy spot with lots of sun and no wind is a mere trifle. Once they can afford to lose a few leaves, you're 80% of the way to authentic South East Asian, since they do most of the aromatic heavy lifting.

The final big hurdle is fresh Galangal, related to ginger, but adding another whole aromatic dimension. Should you ever manage to get living plants, you will discover, that at latitude 34S, in an average suburban home, they require a great deal of coddling. But with patience, you will find after several years of careful division, repotting and strategic disperal into the veggie patch that, 1) they like semi-shade, 2) they do not much resemble things the size of giant cannas you admired on your last Asia trip, and 3) you might, sometime in the next five years, actually have enough to sacrifice for eating.

Anyone got seed for eggplants that produce little bunches of round fruit? Water spinach? Oh dear. Time to start saving airfare.

P.S. if you don't have the access to a live Makrut smuggler, try fresh lemon leaves or lots of lemon zest. Not quite the same as fresh Makrut, but a whole lot better than dried leaves that lost their heady rutaceous scent long before they even left the tropics. Likewise, normal sweet basil isn't too bad a substitute in dishes that call for Thai basil.

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