Vinh Phat owner Nam Thai directs Paul Wong to the thousand-year-old eggs.
This article was originally published in our August 2007 issue.
Let’s call it “Product Disorientation.”
We are adrift in the aisles of a grocery store, the shelves of which are lined with hundreds of things in brightly colored packages, but we scarcely recognize any of them. Dozens of varieties of dried noodles teeter in disorderly stacks. Promising-looking sauces and pickled somethings and exotic spices are piled from floor to ceiling. One aisle seems to be entirely devoted to brands of dried seaweed. Another sports about fifty sorts of soy sauce. Is that a couple of dozen duck eggs on the counter? Even the fruit and vegetable section seems intimidating. What, for example, is this huge, prickly, green thing? Or this bundle of what look like two-foot-long green beans? A huge stack of golden mangoes looks inviting, but what are we going to do with them? If it all sounds impossibly exotic—the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a market in Hong Kong or Hanoi or Jakarta—you’d be right. Except that this one is no further afield than Florida Boulevard. The store is Vinh Phat, a grocery that has been delighting devotees of Asian cuisine—and disorienting everyone else—in Baton Rouge since 1984.
Product disorientation is what makes experimenting with new ethnic cuisines hard for the home cook. After all, it’s difficult to try a new recipe if you can’t even be sure of recognizing all its ingredients. And Vinh Phat, with its thousands of products representing the cuisines of China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and more, is a tantalizing but confounding place to begin the journey.
So we got a guide.
Paul Wong is no stranger to Asian cuisine. True: more than forty years have passed since the owner of Paul Wong’s Chinese & Sushi at the Main Street Market in downtown Baton Rouge moved with his family from China to the United States. But in the intervening years the Wong family kept in close touch with the cuisine of their homeland. The family moved to Baton Rouge in 1969, and brought the city its first full-service Chinese restaurant—M.K. Wong’s Chinese Drive-In on Nicholson—shortly thereafter. Since then they have operated the Chinese Inn & Restaurant in Denham Springs and, since 2006, Paul has been serving Chinese delicacies and sushi to the Main Street Market’s lunch crowd. After the busy lunch rush one Tuesday recently, Wong joined us at Vinh Phat to introduce a few Asian culinary traditions to those of us who cook in western kitchens. The dishes he suggested lend themselves to preparation at home without a lot of new tools, while still promising a touch of the exotic into the bargain.
We started with a visit to Vinh Phat’s meat and seafood department, where familiar cuts like chops and ribs are displayed alongside more exotic-looking possibilities such as chicken’s feet and whole fish of various sorts. But Wong reached for a package of spiced pork balls from one of the department’s freezers. “Asian cooks love these,” he observed of the marble-sized meatballs, which are tender, flavorsome, and excellent in a soup or stir-fry. Thus inspired, Wong went in search of other ingredients to make a soup. He pounced on a package of dried seaweed and some green onions. “You soak the seaweed, then drain it, then put it in broth with the pork, and some vegetables, if you like. Easy.”
A couple of doors down from the pork balls, the discovery of whole frozen cuttlefish, or squid, gave our guide another idea. “Squid is great for a stir-fry,” he suggested. Stir-fry squid for a few minutes with garlic and ginger, then onions, celery, carrots, and mushrooms for flavor; and finish it with some oyster sauce. Fantastic.”
Into the basket went the cuttlefish. But once in the vegetable aisle to pick up shiitake mushrooms, garlic, and ginger (“Always look for ginger that’s smooth on the outside, not wrinkled or dried-up-looking”), the sight of bags of leafy green baby bok choy had Wong modifying his stir-fry suggestion a bit. “Take these baby bok choy and cut them in half lengthwise. Boil them in salted water for a few minutes, and lay them on the plate in a star. Then you can serve the stir fry over them. Makes it look really nice.”
Product disorientation is what makes experimenting with new ethnic cuisines hard for the home cook. After all, it’s difficult to try a new recipe if you can’t even be sure of recognizing all its ingredients.
These dishes seemed simple enough. But how about something a little more adventuresome? Wong turned to Vinh Phat owner Nam Thai: “OK; you got any thousand-year-old-eggs?” Also known as a “century egg,” this Chinese delicacy is a duck egg that has been preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and rice straw for several months. Completely black on the outside and amber within, the resulting egg develops a pungent cheese-like flavor. Nam Thai pointed us in the right direction and, in short order, my basket was furnished with a box of preserved eggs, a package of soft tofu, green onions and a kind of pickled cabbage that hails from Thailand. “Chop the onion up very fine, mix it with some pickle, then chop the eggs and the tofu up, too, and blend it all together,” said Wong. “This is a great appetizer. When we make this at my house, I’ll eat the whole thing!”
Thus equipped with the ingredients for an appetizer, a soup and a main course, we made for the register, via the tray of super sweet mangoes (dessert). The entire bill came to less than thirty dollars. “Everything you have there, my family would love,” said our guide as we parted ways—he back to his restaurant and I towards home to dust off my wok and get to work. These dishes turned out to be quite easy to prepare. Using only a saucepan, a wok, some peanut oil and the ingredients described below, I managed to produce a three-course feast that, while its presentation might not quite have been up to the standards of Paul Wong’s Chinese & Sushi, was rich, flavorsome, and fun to cook. Recipes based on Paul Wong’s suggestions follow.
Tofu with Thousand-Year-Old-Egg
Combining preserved egg with tofu as an appetizer is popular in Shanghai, and also common in Taiwanese cuisine.
- 1, 1 lb package soft tofu, chilled and chopped into chunks
- 2 preserved duck eggs, chopped
- 2 Tbsp green onions, greens only, finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp Thai preserved cabbage
Method: In a bowl, blend the sliced green onion with the pickled cabbage. Add the chopped egg. Then, gently so as not to let them disintegrate, fold in the chunks of tofu. Enjoy chilled.
Seaweed Soup with Pork Balls
Yield: six servings
- 6 cups basic pork stock (see below)
- 1 Tbsp Chinese wine or dry sherry
- 1 packet dried seaweed
- 1 packet pork balls, defrosted
- 1/4 cup green onions, sliced thinly
- 2 Tbsp. canned bamboo shoots, sliced thinly (optional)
Method: Bring the stock and Chinese wine or sherry to a boil, then add chopped dried seaweed, pork balls and bamboo shoots. Let boil a couple of minutes, then add the seasonings of your choice: salt, pepper, soy sauce, or a very small quantity (1/2 tsp.) of sesame oil, all work well. Serve garnished with green onions.
- 1/2 gallon cold water
- 1 lb. pork bones
- 1 onion
- 1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced
- 1/4 tsp. whole peppercorns
- 1 whole stick celery
- 1 carrot
- soy sauce and salt
Method: In a large saucepan, cover the pork bones with the cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and skim to remove fat. Add all remaining ingredients except soy sauce and salt and simmer gently, covered. After several hours, add soy sauce and salt to taste and cool. Strain the stock and refrigerate. Then remove fat layer from the top before using the stock.
Stir-fried Squid and Shiitake Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce, served on Bok Choy
- 1 lb. small squid
- 1 bunch baby bok choy, washed and halved lengthwise
- 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger, grated
- 6-8 shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup green vegetables such as fresh or frozen peas, or zucchini sliced into thin strips
- 2 tbsp. peanut oil
- 1/2 cup fish or chicken stock
- 1 tsp. light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. oyster sauce (at Vinh Phat, we chose Lee Kum Lee brand Premium Oyster Flavored Sauce)
- 2 tsp. cornflour
- 1 tbsp. cold water
- Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, then slip in the bok choy and braise for 3-5 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
- Slit the squid bodies lengthwise and, if large, cut them into manageable-sized pieces. Using just the tip of a sharp knife, make shallow crisscross slits into the flesh on the inside of each piece to create a pattern of little squares. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok, stir-fry the squid with the ginger on high heat for 3 minutes, then remove to a dish and keep warm. Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok and quickly toss the shiitake mushrooms, peas and/or zucchini on high heat. Add stock, the soy and oyster sauces and bring to the boil. In a separate small bowl, mix the cornflour with the cold water then stir into the wok. Allow the sauce to thicken for a minute or two then tip the squid back in and stir to combine.
- Serve on a bed of bok choy, arranged on each plate in a star pattern.