One of the trickiest parts of cooking is knowing when something is missing from a dish and how you can fix it.
We've all had the experience of meticulously following a recipe as the kitchen fills with mouth-watering aromas, yet when it comes to the taste test, the dish you have so lovingly prepared just doesn't sing the way you imagined it would. While recipes may sometimes need tweaking to account for different cooking conditions and personal tastes, it takes experience to work out how.
It never ceases to amaze me that simply by adjusting salt and acid, a dull dish can be coaxed to inspired heights. Salt, beyond making a dish salty, also enhances sweetness and suppresses bitterness. If you have made a dish too salty you might want to bulk it up with sturdy, starchy vegetables like pumpkin, potato, kumara and then dilute it with water — both will reduce the intensity. Adding sugar, chilli or extra sourness to an over-salted dish can also help to mask excess saltiness.
Getting the acid balance right is as crucial as the salt balance. Adding a spritz of lemon or lime juice or a few drops of vinegar goes a long way to coax flavour from a dish. But beyond salt and acid, the one thing that will transform it is umami.
The fermentation processes used to create many Asian sauces and pastes, such as soy sauce, fermented salted black beans, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste and miso, break down the proteins, releasing free glutamate acids and generating the flavour-elevating effect we know as umami.
No matter where you are in Asia you will find multiple umami-rich flavourings running through the backbone of a dish, and it is these that deliver a lip-smacking savoury deliciousness and satisfying depth of flavour to Asian food. Ensuring a balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter is critical, but at its essence Asian food relies heavily on umami.
With a pantry of umami-rich sauces and pastes at hand, and fresh aromatics such as garlic, ginger, shallots, spring onions, chilli, lemon grass and kaffir lime, you have the lexicon to create all manner of amazing Asian dishes. Familiarising yourself with the way these flavours go together enables you to cook in a new language and gives you the freedom to be creative in the kitchen.
This week I'm sharing my recipe for homemade teriyaki sauce, and two umami-packed dishes you can use it in.
Vege and Tofu Stir-Fry
Ready in 20 mins
Serves 2-3 as a main
250g firm tofu
½ cup teriyaki sauce
1 large carrot, angle sliced
1 small head broccoli, cut into thin florets
2 small zucchini, angle sliced
1 Tbsp neutral oil
1 tsp cornflour
1 Tbsp peanut butter (optional)
180g noodles, cooked according to packet instructions
2 cups mung bean sprouts or finely shredded cabbage
150g snow peas, halved on the diagonal (optional)
½ spring onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp shredded fresh ginger
2 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp sesame oil
Cut tofu into 2cm cubes and mix with ¼ cup teriyaki sauce. Set aside to marinate while preparing vegetables. Place carrot, broccoli and zucchini in a pot with ½ cup water. Cover and cook until just tender (about 3 minutes). Drain, refresh under cold water and drain again. Drain tofu from teriyaki sauce, reserving sauce to add at the end. Heat oil in a large frying pan and stir-fry the tofu over medium-high heat until golden brown (about 3 minutes). Remove tofu from pan and set aside. Stir cornflour and peanut butter, if using, into the remaining ¼ cup teriyaki sauce. Add drained vegetables to pan with cooked noodles, bean sprouts or cabbage, and snow peas, if using. Add the teriyaki sauce and cornflour mixture and stir-fry until bean sprouts or cabbage are wilted (2-3 minutes). Return tofu to pan, sprinkle with spring onion, ginger and sesame seeds, drizzle with sesame oil and reserved teriyaki sauce and serve immediately.
Annabel says: Tofu has a neutral flavour but it absorbs other flavours very easily. With a jar of teriyaki sauce to hand this quick midweek dinner is such a snap.
Ready in 15 mins
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup sake or sherry
3 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
½ cup sugar
2 tsp sesame oil
Place all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes until slightly reduced. Allow to cool then pour into a jar or bottle. It will keep for months in the fridge.
Annabel says: Of course you can buy pre-prepared teriyaki marinade at the supermarket, but I like to make my own as I prefer the flavour and I know exactly what goes into it. I often make it in bulk and keep it in a big jar. It lasts for months in the fridge and is super useful anytime you want to whip up a stir-fry, marinate pork, chicken, salmon or other seafood or flavour a sauce or soup.
Chicken Noodle Bowl
Ready in 20 mins
4 cups chicken stock
½ cup teriyaki sauce
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced thinly
Zest of ½ a lime, finely grated
3 heads boy choy, quartered lengthwise
2 spring onions, thinly angle sliced
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
270g udon noodles, cooked according to packet instructions
Juice of ½ a lime
3 Tbsp fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks
½ cup chopped coriander leaves
1 tsp finely chopped red chilli (optional)
Place stock and teriyaki sauce in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add chicken and lime zest and simmer gently for 3 minutes. Add bok choy and simmer until chicken is fully cooked through (about 3 minutes). Just before serving, mix in spring onions and season to taste with salt and pepper. Drain cooked noodles and divide between four warmed bowls. Top with chicken soup. Drizzle with lime juice, sprinkle with ginger, coriander and chilli, if using, and serve immediately.
Annabel says: Good-quality stock is the key to any kind of noodle bowl, as it provides a rich source of umami. Add a handful of sliced dried Asian mushrooms if you like. They won't need soaking in advance.