David Joachim, author of the upcoming "Cooking Light Global Kitchen" cookbook, explains how international foods can be healthy, flavorful and surprisingly easy to create from the comfort of your own home:
International foods can be healthy."In general, most cooking around the world stays pretty close to the ground," Joachim says, referring to healthy plant-based foods. While "Global Kitchen" is by no means a vegetarian cookbook, Joachim points out that "most cuisines around the world mix a moderate amount of meat with a lot of vegetables."
Think how a satay includes small strips of seasoned meat, Joachim says. "It's not a giant porterhouse." Or consider a Thai curry made of mashed chili peppers, which are loaded with antioxidants, along with lemongrass and shallots. This mixture would then be used as a base for, say, a dish of shrimp.
But it's really all about flavor. "When it comes down to it, no one eats something thinking, 'I want to eat this, because I just really love to lose weight,'" Joachim says. "They think, 'I want to eat this because it tastes good.'" Often, healthiness seems to be an added bonus to the flavor punch that many international foods pack with spices and herbs in lieu of fat. That bold, "awesome flavor" is what Joachim says distinguishes international recipes from many American foods, especially those from South America and Asia.
You don't have to travel far to find international ingredients. If you need an excuse to travel the globe, sampling flavorful, healthy foods, then by all means, go for it. A less exotic but more practical option is picking up these ingredients at the grocery store down the street and making these dishes in your own kitchen.
Yes, the very same stores where you pick up your dog food and coffee likely house ingredients that can take your dishes from typical to Thai, pedestrian to Peruvian. Start with the ever-faithful plant-based foods. “The produce aisle is a treasure trove of flavor,” Joachim says, but points out that many of us go straight for our go-tos, and then move on with the shopping. We scrutinize the bananas, for example, but skip the plantains, or we pick up parsley and leave the lemongrass.
You guessed it: Lemongrass is a type of grass that tastes like lemon. The plant adds the healthy zing you may have tasted in Southeast Asian cuisine, in a satay, for example. Joachim says lemongrass is kind of like a long onion or scallion in that you must peel away its tough outer layers before getting to the softer core, which you then chop up to use in, say, a shrimp dish or beef satay.
Lemongrass isn’t the only international ingredient you may have walked right by in the supermarket. “In every grocery store, tucked away in the international section, you will invariably find coconut milk,” says Joachim, who suggests using some for a marinade. Greek yogurt can also be a marinade for chicken, or mixed with vegetables and curry powder for a creamy sauce, or combined with sauteed squash, garlic and onions for soup.
[Read: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]
So get started. Joachim has a couple of pearls of advice for cooks who want to try more international foods. First, keep shelf-stable ingredients on hand, such as chili paste, coconut milk and spices like cardamom. Nothing throws off your cooking game like realizing mid-recipe that you’re missing something, and your neighbor is more likely to be able to spot you a cup of sugar rather than a couple spoonfuls of fish sauce.
The most important thing, Joachim says, is that cooks shouldn't be afraid of messing up. Have fun with it. Pick up herbs and vegetables you’ve never heard of, and follow a recipe or experiment on your own. “These are ingredients that are in your grocery store,” he says, “ just waiting to be turned into delicious food.”