By Sandy Hu
When I worked on a national campaign to promote potatoes years ago, we did extensive research to learn how moms felt about the dinner hour. In focus groups, one woman drew a time bomb about to explode. Another sketched a stick figure of herself backed into a corner with the dog barking and kids clamoring…you get the picture.
So I started to pay attention to people in the supermarket. They were pushing their carts aimlessly past the meat counter, obviously in a dilemma about what to cook. Then I happened to be in a Japanese grocery store and overheard an older woman wheeling her cart, muttering under her breath in Japanese, “What to cook…what to cook.…”
It dawned on me then that, no matter what your culinary culture, everybody’s in the same boat. So if you’re looking for quick meal ideas, why not turn to other culinary traditions – especially ethnic grocery stores or the international aisles of your local supermarket – for new inspiration?
Over the weekend, I stopped at Nijiya, a supermarket in San Francisco’s Japantown, to look for convenience foods you might like, with English instructions. If you don’t have an Asian market, try any other ethnic supermarket to see how their customers are using timesaving food products that you can adapt to your own cooking.
• Somen noodles. These ultra-thin wheat flour noodles cook in just 2 ½ minutes. They can be served chilled with a dipping sauce (great for hot summer days when appetites are sluggish) or in a hot broth as soup noodles.
• Tsuyu. No need to make the dipping sauce or broth from scratch for your somen. Instant bottled tsuyu sauce does double duty. Dilute with water to the proper strength according to package directions – more concentrated for dipping; more water for a broth.
• Dehydrated, single-serve miso and other Japanese soups. Add water and microwave or heat in a saucepan. You could add fresh tofu cubes and green onion slices to garnish.
• Fresh udon noodles packaged like instant ramen soup but a million times better. These chewy wheat noodles take 2 to 3 minutes to cook and come with their own broth mix. Because they’re fresh, not dehydrated, you’ll find these noodles in the refrigerated section.
• Curry sauce mix. Japanese curry is not like Indian or Thai curry – it’s sweeter, and thicker. The curry comes in small bricks. Stir-fry meat and veggies, add water and the curry sauce mix. Serve over hot rice.
• Salad dressings. You can find Japanese-style dressings to give your tossed greens flavor variety.
• Kamaboko. Like surimi, it’s processed white fish, pureed and reformed into half a cylinder, then steamed on wooden boards. It is fully cooked; just slice in half-moon shapes and serve. Kamaboko makes a great garnish for noodle soups.
In San Francisco, we are fortunate to have, in addition to Japanese markets, Korean, Eastern European, Mexican, Chinese – an international smorgasbord of wonderful options. If you have any ethnic markets in your area, take a tour, experiment with a few new ingredients and grow your repertoire of quick and easy cooking.
If there are convenience foods you use from ethnic markets to jump-start your cooking, please share your tips with us.
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