Asian food was not easy to come by in El Paso, Texas when I was young. Or, should I say, good Asian food. As a result, I didn’t know much about it beyond Sesame Chicken and funky egg rolls with neon pink dipping sauce. And I loved it. But I also loved frozen waffles and boxed au gratin potatoes, so there.
When we went to Seoul, South Korea for my first 24 Hour Worlds in 2008, I was a little (okay, a lot) trepidatious about what kind of food we would encounter. When we first landed, we scoped out as much “American” food as we could, trying to play it safe before my big race. I was afraid to be too adventurous after training for a year and flying halfway around the world just to represent my country in my first international race. I didn’t want to ruin my possibly one-and-only chance to wear the USA singlet by ending up sick. Plus, to be honest, Korean food smelled funny.
But after very marginal experiences at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut, and a disgusting experience at an Outback Steakhouse, we waved the white flag and started eating what the locals ate. The first morning of our “eat like the locals” experiment had Grant returning from the breakfast buffet with a whole fish on his plate, glassy eyeballs staring at us menacingly. It was six o’clock in the morning. He was twelve. Um, gross.
Today, after living for most of the past four years in Los Angeles where Asian food is as common as Mexican food is in El Paso, I have much more appreciation for the word “good” when it is used to describe my new favorite cuisine. Cooked in the right hands, it is fresh, flavorful and oh, so addictive. I probably end up eating some sort of Asian food about six times a week. Seriously, yum.
An unintended side effect of all this chowing down on food cooked by Asian food afficionados is that I became obsessed with figuring out how to produce a few versions of my favorite dishes in my own kitchen. This was made much easier in LA because it is replete with grocery stores that carry genuine products for these dishes – no canned Chow Mein in sight (Remember that stuff? Just thinking about it gives me the willies.) Sauces that get you the “I have no idea what you are talking about” look in El Paso are easily found at my neighborhood Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I don’t have to know a “guy” to have access to Black Rice Vinegar. I just have to know what Black Rice Vinegar is.
When I first saw a version of this recipe on The Wednesday Chef blog, I was attracted to it because it promised to be quick and flavorful, something that chicken struggles to be sometimes. Often, I’m still frantically trying to get in my last run at five o’clock, and am in desperate need of something that I can have on the table in 30-45 minutes that doesn’t taste like a fireplace log. This is one of those recipes. And it’s delicious. I’ve tinkered with it a bit because I really like things spicy and serving it as a lettuce wrap just makes the whole thing heathier/fancier for grown up people (she usually makes this for her toddler), but the basic recipe is delicious. I served it with quick fried rice just so that my teenage eating machines would have more to shovel in their gullets.
I don’t know if this will qualify as a “real” Asian dish, but coming from the generation of canned Chow Mein, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Chicken Lettuce Wraps (adapted from The Wednesday Chef)
4 chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
2 Tbsp. sesame oil PLUS 2 Tbsp. for cooking
2 Tbsp. sugar (I used brown, but white would work just fine)
4 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. chopped ginger
1 chopped scallion
1 finally chopped carrot (about 3/4 cup)
2 Tbsp. garlic chile sauce (I use the VERY spicy version for a nice kick in the teeth)
8 chopped dried red chiles
4 iceberg lettuce leaves torn in half to allow for 2 wraps per person
Mix sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and scallion into a shallow baking dish (an 8 x 11 works nicely here). Chop the chicken breasts into small pieces and put into the marinade. Mix well so that all pieces are coated well. Put in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or leave out at room temperature for 10 minutes if you are in a rush.
Add 2 Tbsp. oil to wok or heavy skillet and heat on medium high. When hot, add the chicken, carrots and the chiles. Cook until chicken is cooked through – carrots will still have a bit of crunch. Stir in the garlic chile sauce and let cook for another minute. Transfer cooked chicken to a plate and serve with lettuce leaves.