Goya Champuru (Okinawan Bitter Gourd Stir-Fry)

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For the uninitiated, goya champuru is a bitter gourd, pork, and egg stir-fry originating on the Japanese island of Okinawa. It’s like the comfort food I never grew up with, a dish balancing soft with crunchy, bitter with savory.

But is my version even goya champuru? I omit the traditional pork belly, which I understand is a pretty consistent ingredient despite there being countless versions of goya champuru throughout Okinawa. But you know what? This is still one of my favorite dishes to cook and eat. If you’ve never had bitter gourd you’re in for a treat. The soft tofu and ethereal eggs are a perfect foil for the astringent bitter melon.

Goya champuru

Ingredients:

3 small bitter melons (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons salt
1 block (12 ounces) extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup dashi broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/3 cup bonito flakes

1. Cut each bitter melon in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, remove and discard the seeds. Slice the bitter melons crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons and transfer to a bowl. Add the salt, toss until evenly combined, and let stand for 20 minutes. Using your hands, squeeze the bitter melon to release as much liquid as possible, then transfer to a colander and rinse under cold running water. Squeeze again to drain any liquid, transfer to paper towels, and pat dry.

2. Place the tofu on a flat plate lined with a kitchen towel. Cover the tofu with another towel and plate and then weight the plate with two 14-ounce cans to press the tofu and release excess water. Let the tofu stand for 20 minutes. Remove the weights and uncover the tofu. Using your hands, crumble the tofu into 1-inch pieces into a bowl.

3. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over high. Add the bitter melon and cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes. Stir and cook 2 minutes more. Add the tofu along with the dashi and soy sauce and cook until the liquid has almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and cook, stirring to break up the curds, until the eggs are just cooked, 2 minutes more. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the stir-fry onto a serving platter. Sprinkle with bonito flakes and serve warm.

Suya (West African Chicken Kababs)

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Suya, where have you been all my life? Suya is a grilled and skewered meat dish in many parts of West Africa, including Nigeria. These chicken suya are abundantly flecked with crushed peanuts and spices, adding a wonderful texture and layer of heat.

I often cook suya on a cast iron grill but an outdoor charcoal grill will of course be more flavorful. They make a delicious appetizer served alone, or you can serve them with rice for a filling entree.

Suya (West African chicken kebabs)

Ingredients:

1 cup roasted peanuts
1 inch peeled ginger
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 chicken bouillon cube
2 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
1/4 cup canola oil
salt and pepper
20 wooden skewers, soaked in water for 30 minutes

1. In a food processor, pulse the peanuts until finely chopped. Add the ginger, garlic, bouillon cube, paprika, onion powder and cayenne and pulse until a coarse and crumbly mixture forms. Spread the peanut mixture on a large plate.

2. Rub the chicken 
with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Thread the chicken onto the skewers and press into the peanut mixture to coat both sides. Arrange the skewers 
on a plate. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

3. In a cast iron grill pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Cook the chicken in batches over moderate heat, turning carefully, until deep golden and the chicken is cooked through, about 8 minutes. Repeat with the remaining oil and chicken. Serve warm.

Salmon Fish Curry

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The story of migration is often told through food. Growing up, my mom made perfect potato tahdig atop Iranian-style spaghetti, a testament to Italian-American-Iranian fusion. We found that Thanksgiving turkey went perfectly with baghali polo, an aromatic basmati rice and fava bean pilaf.

As I learn to cook Sri Lankan food, I’m discovering a similar story. For example, my Sri Lankan cookbooks instruct me to make red fish curry with tuna, but Nishan tells me his mom always used salmon when he was growing up in Canada. After all, salmon is ubiquitous in the great white north. And as it turns out, this curry tastes better with salmon than it does with tuna. Or maybe we’re biased. Maybe it’s nostalgia.

I serve this healthy, easy curry with homemade lemon pickle and Iranian-style rice and tahdig, adding yet another layer to our collective story of migration.

Salmon red fish curry with sauted leeks

Ingredients:

2 pounds wild salmon fillet, scaled and deboned
1 tablespoon tamarind, soaked in 1/4 cup warm water and solids discarded
2 tablespoons roasted curry powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, chopped
2-inch piece ginger, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 green chiles (such as Serrano), halved lengthwise
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

1. Cut salmon into 1-inch pieces and marinate in a mixture of the tamarind, curry powder, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, and paprika for 30 minutes.

2. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Saute onions, ginger, garlic, green chiles, and curry leaves until onions are softened.

3. Add salmon to saucepan with water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes until salmon is cooked.

Kelp and Mushroom Relish

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My first taste of kombu tsukudani was as a university student in San Francisco. My roommates were Japanese (hi Sanae!) and we’d often head to Nijiya Market in Japantown to do our grocery shopping. The first time I tasted this kelp relish, I fell in love with the salty, slightly-sweet, oceany flavor.

This tastes perfect on top of rice or as a filling in onigiri, but I also like it eat it by itself. If you make homemade dashi and find yourself with lots of leftover pieces of kombu seaweed, this is a perfect use. I like to add enoki mushrooms to the the mix for a textural contrast, but it tastes just as good without.

Kombu tsukudani

Ingredients:

About 50 square inches kombu, leftover from making dashi stock (or equivalent amount soaked in cold water for 20 minutes)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sake
3 teaspoons mirin
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup enoki mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1. Slice the kombu into narrow strips 1 1/2 inches long. In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil and add the vinegar. The vinegar helps tenderize the kombu and eliminate bacteria.

2. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook the kombu for about 8 minutes. Test for doneness by pinching a strip of kombu: it should yield easily. If it does not, continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Drain under cold water and rinse.

3. Rinse and dry the saucepan and add the sugar, sake, mirin, and soy sauce. Bring to a simmer over low heat and add the kombu. Simmer for 4 minutes and add the mushrooms. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring often to not let the liquid scorch.

4. When the kombu looks glazed and the liquid has mostly reduced, remove the pan from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and serve.

Khao Soi (Chiang Mai Curry Noodles)

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Chiang Mai has two seasons: smoky and not smoky. Each spring, farmers create manmade fires to get rid of material from old rice stalks to clear the way for the next season’s planting. The air becomes polluted in addition to the stiflingly hot weather. It’s not the most popular time of year to visit Chiang Mai.

But I am undeterred. When I visited Thailand last year, I had to include Chiang Mai in my travels. Why? I wanted to eat khao soi. Khao soi is a soupy, curry-laden bowl of Burmese-influenced goodness, a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, shallots, lime, ground chilis, coconut milk, and usually meat. I researched the best khao soi restaurant in Chiang Mai and Nishan and I trekked through the smoggy heat until we found it: a nondescript outdoor restaurant with a corrugated sheet metal roof and plastic stools, identifiable only by the huge crowd of happy eaters.

The khao soi was worth the walk and when I’ve since learned to recreate these curry noodles at home, adapting my version from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. If you want to make this dish a bit healthier and easier to cook, omit the fried noodles. The red curry paste is a shortcut to making your own curry paste by hand, but the results are still delicious.

Chiang Mai curry noodles (khao soi)

Ingredients:

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1 tablespoon cooking oil plus more for deep-frying noodles
3 cups canned coconut milk, with 1/2 cup of the thickest milk set aside
1/2 pound sirloin beef, cut into thin slices
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 pound Chinese egg noodles
3 green onions, thinly sliced
2 shallots, chopped

1. In a small bowl, mix the garlic, turmeric, and a pinch salt until well blended. Stir in the curry paste and set aside.

2. Place a large heavy pot over high heat. Add the one tablespoon oil and when it is hot, add the curry paste mixture. Stir-fry for one minute, then add the reserved 1/2 cup thick coconut milk and lower the heat to medium-high. Add the meat and sugar and cook, stirring frequently, for 4 to 5 minutes, until the meat has slightly browned. Add the remaining coconut milk, the water, fish sauce, and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook at a simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lime juice. The soup can be prepared ahead of time and reheated just before serving.

3. Make the optional crispy noodles: line a plate with paper towels. Place a large wok over high heat and add about 1 cup oil, or 1/2 inch oil. When the oil is hot, drop in a strand of uncooked noodles to test the temperature. It should sizzle slightly as it falls to the bottom, then immediately puff and rise to the surface; adjust the heat slightly, if necessary. Toss a handful (about 1 cup) of noodles into the oil and watch as they crisp and puff up. Use a spatula or long tongs to turn them over and expose all of them to the hot oil. They will crisp up quickly, in less than 1 minute. Lift the crisped noodles out of the oil and place on the paper towel-lined plate. Give the oil a moment to come back to temperature, and then repeat with a second handful of noodles.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the remaining noodles, bring back to a boil, and cook until tender but not mushy, about 6 minutes. Drain well and rinse in fresh water to get rid of extra starch and stop the cooking process.

5. Divide the cooked noodles among four bowls. Ladle over the broth and meat. Top with crispy noodles and a pinch each of shallots and scallions.