Cookbooks, Ethnic Markets, and Growing My Own Stuff

All Cookbooks My collection of cookbooks

My interest in ethnic food isn’t just limited to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines.  A cousin took me to my first Thai restaurant nearly a decade ago, and during my college internship years I was introduced to Indian, Greek, and Middle Eastern dishes, thanks to fellow interns from around the world.  My own heritage is Scots-Irish, with a little Jewish, Armenian, and Lord only knows what else thrown in.

It wasn’t until I began watching Jdramas that I became serious about Asian cooking.  I began to accumulate cookbooks and specialty cooking utensils – woks of different sizes, a bamboo steamer, a rice cooker, chopsticks.  But there was one major problem: I live in a small southern town, and there is a severe lack of variety of the international grocery kind.  Oh sure, my local Walmart carries plenty of ramen, soy sauce, mini bottles of sesame oil, sushi and jasmine rice (the cheapest grades), even Pocky!  But let’s face it – there’s not much demand for fresh lemongrass or daikon radish or wakame in these parts.

Walmart
Asian section at my local Walmart – that’s all there is, folks

Branching out into Kdramas only served to increase my cooking fervor.  Maangchi’s awesome site became my portal into the world of Korean food.  But if I thought it was difficult to find certain ingredients for Japanese and Thai recipes, it was nothing compared to what I faced trying to find things unique to Korean cooking.

Over the past 3-4 years, I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to search out and visit ethnic markets in various parts of the state.  Visiting my brother?  There’s a Korean market and 2 Korean restaurants 30 minutes away.  House-sitting for my aunt?  There’s no less than 10 Asian markets (2 of which are Korean), 2 Indian/Middle Eastern markets, and 2 Korean restaurants within 45 minutes of her house.  Unfortunately, it’s a 5 ½ hour drive to my aunt’s and a 3 ½ hour drive to my brother’s, so day trips to these markets and restaurants are a wee bit impractical.  Fortunately, my cousin-in-law and I recently discovered several Asian/Korean markets in two coastal cities, both of which are only 2 hours away – a much easier trip, especially when we shop together.

I’ve painstakingly built up a pantry of Asian groceries so that now, if I want to cook something, I most likely have everything I need – except produce.  At the nearest market, I can find daikon, napa cabbage, and a decent selection of Asian produce, but I have to range farther if I want something less common, like Korean radish or fresh lotus root.

The difficulty I face in getting produce has led me to try growing a few things myself.  I’ve discovered just how easy it is to grow lemongrass – plus it has the added benefit of being a mosquito repellent, always a good thing in the south!  I began with about five stalks that I purchased while house-sitting for my aunt a couple of years ago.  They rooted easily in water, then I planted them in a large pot.  Each stalk multiplied into clumps.  This year I separated the clumps and planted them in various spots of the garden.

Lemongrass
This bunch began as one stalk two years ago.

I tried planting daikon and Korean radish last year, but heavy rains ruined the garden.  This year I’m experimenting with growing them in large pots.  So far, so good.  I also have perilla started; I tried it once and liked it, but it’s another of those hard-to-find items.

I really like lemon rice, but I need curry leaves to make it.  Unlike kefir lime leaves, curry leaves have a very short shelf life and don’t freeze or preserve well.  So I ordered a curry tree.  It’ll be a few years before I can use the leaves, but it’s an investment I’m willing to make.

Curry Tree
Itty bitty baby curry tree

At some point I’ll probably go ahead and buy a kefir lime tree.  I’m just a bit too far north to plant citrus trees in the ground, but they do well as container plants.

As for what’s next?  Well, watching TW dramas has stirred my interest in Taiwanese food….

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