Garlic, ginger and scallions are the Asian mirepoix, the Far Eastern alternative to carrots, celery and onions, the combo that flavors both the wanton and the broth, the short ribs and the stir fry. It’s the characteristic Chinese/Korean/Japanese cooked-meat flavoring that you’ve known your whole life but possibly never placed. Along with soy sauce, it’s what grounds an otherwise arbitrary list of ingredients.
A few years back, I went into a dim sum craze, making all variety of dumplings six ways from Sunday. I found recipes in my ancient Chinese cookbook (Taiwan, actually, copyright 1978 or something, loads of MSG); I bought a modern beautifully photographed guide to dim sum; I even found recipes from computer users groups. (Dumplings are actually the nerdiest non-cheese-related food on earth.) I was focused on the dim sum experience, but at the same time, I was cooking (and eating) a lot of Korean and Japanese hot foods too.
One day I was sitting there, post-prandial, with a satisfying but presumably anti-social aftertaste in my mouth, and I put it all together. Suddenly, I knew what happened every time I tried–and failed–to whip together an authentic tasting stir fry with nothing but chicken, water chestnuts, baby corn, onions and soy sauce. I had been missing this holy trinity. Now revealed unto me, I felt whole.
I am proud of myself for having grasped the notion of the Asian mirepoix, but it turns out it’s pretty much common knowledge in the grown-up cooking world. I don’t want to shame my imaginary dead Chinese great grandmother by making shit up, so I’ll just say this: If you want to fake a quick Asian meal, don’t forget GGS. It’s the kind of thing I wish I had been told, a useful foundation for cooks who either don’t read cookbooks, or read too many.
Here’s a quick example–what I cooked tonight, in fact–to get you started. It serves two as an entree, four as a piece of a larger dinner spread:
Spicy Asian Lettuce Burritos*
For the Meat
1.5 lbs ground turkey meat (or other ground meat)
1 cup minced scallions
1/2 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup minced ginger
3 Tbs soy sauce (adding more at the end, to taste)
2 Tbs chili paste (or some other source of spice heat; add more to your liking)
2 Tbs Chinese cooking rice wine (buy the bottle you see at right–I have no idea of the brand, but I keep that stuff on me at all times, and splash it into just about every Chinese dish I cook)
Oil as needed
Other stir fry ingredients you feel like throwing in there, like green peppers, mushrooms, perhaps a little yellow onion (remember, nothing too bulky or unwieldy–no bok choy, no baby corn–since this is finger food)
For the Rest
Iceberg lettuce, carefully peeled from the head so they retain some kind of cup form
Chinese white rice (cook it, cuz I am not gonna tell you how to do that)
Sriracha (in case not everyone likes the kick as much as you)
• If you’re using ground turkey, heat some vegetable oil in your saute pan or wok, get it nice and hot, then add your turkey meat. Fattier meats don’t need the added oil. If you are adding some regular yellow onion, do it now. Cook the meat until its liquid boils away, and the stuff really does start to turn brown. It might stick to the bottom a little, but that’s okay. The term “brown the meat” is not a euphemism, so don’t be a pussy.
• Once you’re to that point, pour in your soy sauce. If you have green peppers or mushrooms, add them now. Cook a bit then throw in your GGS and stir it in good. Remember, garlic isn’t very pleasant when burned, but at this point, it’s hard to really burn it. Keep the heat up! Once you feel like the GGS has softened and integrated, stir in your chili sauce and then splash in that rice wine. Only after you feel the alcohol has cooked off the wine can you turn the heat down, but at that point, you’re done. Taste the meat, fix your seasonings, and put it into a large communal bowl.
• Hopefully you’ve got a rice maker, and you remembered to put it in motion. Scoop out rice into bowls, then serve everything all at once, each person getting their own lettuce cups and rice. The key is to roll up the meat in the lettuce, and eat it over the rice. That way, if you mess up and explode meat out the back of your lettuce burrito, it lands safely–and tastily–in your rice bowl.
I don’t know if this is Korean or Chinese or some kind of bastardization that my imaginary dead Chinese great grandmother is rolling over in her imaginary grave for me having mentioned here, but damn if it’s not a good quick totally non-boring meal to put out at a moment’s notice. And remember, it’s a documented fact that anything, when wrapped in lettuce leaves, becomes 60% healthier. Just don’t forget the GGS. Ever.
*Not their real name, if there’s any justice in this world