Just Add Soy Sauce

I recently watched a live cooking demonstration given by a home cook, a retired chiropractor who’s taken to cooking to promote healthy eating. He presented his demo in front of some Health and PE colleagues and to our department head as a precursor to a similar demo that is going to be given to our sixth grade students in the fall. The demo will tie-in with the Nutrition part of our Health curriculum. The presenter had fantastic cutting technique and, while the dish contained foods I don’t eat (like kale), it smelt great as he cooked it. After talking to those who tried it, I can report that his sautéed veggie combo over pasta and kale and bean salad was tasty.

Throughout his demonstration, he’d rubbed me the wrong way. It’s an unfortunate thing in human beings but as soon as I saw him he was instantly not one of my favourite people. There was an air or vibe about him that didn’t sit well with me at the off. Then he did his demo which, and and this is purely my opinion, was given arrogantly and condescendingly. He insisted that in every commercial cooking show the chefs use butter, especially when sautéing or searing shrimp. When he said that, my friend and I glanced at one another quizzically. I’ve watched plenty, and do watch plenty, of cooking shows and I can honestly all the searing and stir frying and sautéing is done with olive oil; mostly, with extra virgin olive oil (evoo) at that. But it wasn’t until he had his veggies in the pan and they were gently sizzling in olive oil did he make a horrendous blunder – a blunder that insulted me on a personal level as well as on a cooking one.

Here’s what he said: “And if you want to give it an Asian flavor, just add soy sauce and throw in some baby corn and broccoli florets.”

WHAT?!

On a personal level, I’ll say this: Most stir fries that I’ve encountered in my life – I grew up in Hong Kong and travelled around Asia – are not just flavoured with soy sauce and have broccoli florets and baby corn. If anything, those are staples of Asian American cuisine found in takeout joints and geared to American/non-Asian palates. I can’t, honestly, recall a stir fry in Hong Kong that I’d eaten that had baby corn, broccoli florets, and sliced button mushrooms. On a cooking level, and also on  a personal level since I am an Asian home cook, I took offense in how he reduced Asian cuisine to soy sauce. Forget about the other aspects of Asian cooking for now. Since we’re taking about sauces what of patis (Filipino fish sauce), oyster sauce, red chili oils, sesame oils, peanut sauces and oils, bagoong (Filipino shrimp paste), Sriracha, just to name a few? Adding any of these to his sautéed veggies would’ve given it an Asian flavour, too. And of the non-sauce flavours, what of lemongrass, tamarind and, good old fashioned, ginger?  I can cook a stir fry without using soy sauce and it’ll be just as tasty – or differently tasty – and authentically Asian. Following his advice would be akin to simly adding tomato sauce and garlic if you wanted to make something Italian. But, wait, isn’t garlic also a large part of many South American cuisines, Spanish cooking and, oh my goodness, Filipino food. And, yes, Filipino food is a kind of Asian food.

I doubt that he meant to be ignorant and offensive and exhibit a kind of unintentional racism. I think he’s trying to promote something he believes in (healthy cooking and healthy eating for kids) while, at the same time, making a name for himself. I have nothing against either. I’ll completely in favour of self-promotion. Just be less ignorant about how you do it.

So, having said that, if you’re new to Asian food, whether  as a foodie or as a cook,  remember that there’s more to it than soy sauce. If  soy sauce was all there was to it, there’d be a billion bored eaters in this world and Asians, well, we’re not about boring.

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