From the delicate steamed and simmered dishes of Japan to the earthy sesame and chile flavors of Korea to the huge variety of Chinese cooking, the subtle caramel-anchored dishes of Vietnam and the intricate chile and spice blends of Thailand and Indonesia, Asian cuisines offer enough flavors for a lifetime of exploration by the beer-loving cook. No wonder European-style brewing has found a foothold throughout East and Southeast Asia.
As a broad generalization, Asian cuisines do a better job than their Western counterparts of integrating the five primary flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and hot) in the food. As a result, they rely less on beverages like beer and wine to "complete" a meal. This can make certain matches tricky, especially with highly hopped beers. The bitter astringency that makes a dry-finishing pale ale so refreshing with European-style meat dishes can throw the whole balance of an Asian meal out of whack. It's no wonder, then, that the beers imported from the home country in most Asian restaurants tend to be bland, pale "international" style lagers; close your eyes and you could be drinking Bud (and probably should, since it will be cheaper and fresher). But we don't have to fall into the same trap at home. I look to amber and brown ales and Märzen and dunkel style lagers to bring a nice malty richness to the equation without overwhelming the food with hops.
Pantry Notes: East and Southeast Asia
Many of the Asian ingredients called for in this chapter are available in supermarkets, but wherever there is a significant Asian population you are likely to find specialty stores (and, increasingly, pan-Asian supermarkets) selling fresh, dried, and canned goods from many Asian countries. These are also likely to be the best sources in town for really fresh meats, seafood, and poultry. Here are some things to stock up on.
• Soy sauce: Unless noted otherwise, the recipes in this chapter were developed with a standard "thin" soy sauce. I mainly use Pearl River Bridge Superior Thin Soy Sauce from China, but ordinary Kikkoman or Yamasa will also work fine.
• Fish sauce: A thin, salty liquid extract of anchovies, used like soy sauce in mainland Southeast Asian cuisines. Most fish sauces come from Thailand, even when labeled in Vietnamese. The brands sold in glass bottles are generally much better than the plastic-bottle versions and are not much more expensive.
• Ginger: Now available in most supermarkets, but the quality is usually better in Asian markets. The color and thickness of the skin varies with the season and source, but anytime of year look for firm rhizomes with tight skin. Store ginger in the vegetable crisper, wrapped in a paper towel, replacing the paper each time you cut some and it will keep for weeks.
• Galangal, galanga: A cousin of ginger with a mustardy, medicinal aroma, used in Thai cooking. Dry forms (slices, flakes, or powder) may be labeled "laos root" or simply "laos."
• Lemongrass: An aromatic stalk like a stiff, waxy scallion, now cultivated in North America, lemongrass keeps for weeks in the refrigerator and also grows easily from stalks rooted in water.
• Curry pastes, thai: Purists still pound their own curry pastes out of chiles, garlic, onion, lemongrass, galangal, and spices, but very good commercial versions are sold in most Asian markets. Green pastes are generally the hottest, red pastes slightly less so. Mussulman (the spelling varies) pastes include an Indian-style blend of spices.
• Coconut milk: Again, you can grate and squeeze fresh coconut, but with excellent canned coconut milk available from Thailand and Malaysia at less than a buck a can, why bother?
• Mushrooms, black: Widely known under the Japanese name shiitake. Good dried versions come from China, Japan, and Korea. Fresh shiitake are grown here and are widely available, but I'm not crazy about the flavor and generally prefer the dried ones.
• Sesame oil: A brown, deeply fragrant oil pressed from toasted sesame seeds, used in small quantities as a flavoring condiment in Chinese, Japanese, and especially Korean cuisines. Look for 100 percent sesame oil; some cheaper brands are blended with other oils and have less flavor. Do not confuse this oil with the lighter-colored cold-pressed sesame oils sold in health food stores.
At the Malt Shop: Amber, Red, and Brown Ales
This category is admittedly a catchall for various "not too" styles, often occupying a middle ground in a brewer's line — copper-colored to reddish-brown ales that are darker than pale ale but lighter than porter. "Red" is less popular as a label term than it was a few years ago, but "amber" is still in wide use. A few examples are labeled "altbier" (or abbreviated "alt"), German for "old beer," old in this sense meaning old-fashioned ale brewing as opposed to the more modern lager.
As a group, these ales tend to emphasize malty flavors, sometimes finishing dry, sometimes noticeably sweet. The hop element is all over the map but tends to be higher in beers labeled "amber" and lower in those labeled "brown" (though the latter is still likely to be more bitter than an English brown ale). All in all, these are very agreeable beers that are often a better match for spicy foods than hoppier ales. But more than any other group, this is one where you have to get to know individual brands to find your favorites. Mine include Full Sail Amber Ale (on the hoppy side for an amber), Lost Coast Downtown Brown (a sweetish ale that goes nicely with spicy foods), Pete's Wicked Ale (a brown that is far milder than its name would suggest), New Belgium Abbey Belgian Style Ale, and Widmer Springfest (a seasonal altbier).
Recipes from Malt and Hops, meet Ginger and Soy:
The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook
From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.