What happens when East and West, North and South all converge in the kitchen? Pacific Rim cooking! Truly a cuisine of medleys, Pacific Rim cooking combines Pacific Island foods, Asian cooking techniques, California freshness, and a host of other cultural and culinary influences. You'll find everything from seafood tacos and shitake mushroom quesadillas to Japanese potstickers and seared fish with peanut coconut sauce.
Pacific Rim cooking has been described as "ingredient driven," meaning that Pacific Rim cooks use a recipe's main ingredients -- most often a wonderfully fresh food -- as the focus of each dish. Also called "Asian fusion," "Euro-Pacific," or "regional Hawaiian" cuisine, it's a way of cooking that enhances a great diversity of beautiful fresh foods with healthful cooking methods, like grilling, wok stir frying, and steaming.
Essential Spices for Pacific Rim Cooking
The ingredients that drive the recipes include exotic, tropical fruits (including fruit salsas), fresh vegetables (like arugula, avocadoes, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers), just-caught seafood, sesame seeds, nuts, and flavorful, often-tangy sauces. Herbs and spices are crucial to Pacific Rim seasoning, but they're used to gently enhance the main ingredients, not disguise or overpower them.
Annatto Seed: These little, brick-colored seeds provide a rich color and mild but distinct flavor to a variety of Pacific Rim dishes, especially sauces and grain and seafood recipes. They're usually cooked in oil, and then the fragrant, colorful oil is used for cooking.
Basil: A native of Southeast Asia, basil's warm, minty, peppery flavor is used to season dressings and sauces, soups, meats, beans, vegetables and grains in Pacific Rim cuisine. Many varieties of basil are grown; Asian basil has a purplish hue. Basil combines well with many other seasonings and with citrus fruits.
Cardamom: Another native of Southeast Asia, cardamom's warm, sweet taste and exotic floral aroma are often enjoyed in rice dishes and desserts and with meats and vegetables. Pacific Rim cooks prefer the green cardamom pod, which is more aromatic than white. The seeds are sometimes removed from the pods and powdered before adding to recipes, especially in meat and vegetable dishes. Cardamom is also a main ingredient in the blend Garam Masala.
Cilantro: Also known as fresh coriander or Chinese parsley, cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant. It has a pungent, distinct flavor -- warm, mild, slightly lemony and sage-like. You'll find it in Pacific Rim recipes for salsas, sauces, and soups, sometimes along with chilies. Pacific Rim cooks often use cilantro both in cooking and as a garnish.
Cinnamon: The warm, sweet, earthy flavor and aroma of cinnamon adds depth to both sweet and savory dishes in Pacific Rim cuisine. It enhances vegetables and fruits as well as breads, meats, soups, and condiments. Cinnamon partners well with other warm spices, like ginger, cardamom, and pepper, and it plays a primary role in many spice blends, like Five Spice Powder and Curry Powders.
Cloves: The dried flower buds of the wonderfully scented clove tree, cloves are used to season condiments, many fruits, some vegetables (like sweet potatoes), sauces, soups (especially chili), poultry, seafood, and grains. In Pacific Rim cooking you'll often find the rich, aromatic cloves in tandem with other warm, strong spices like cinnamon and ginger.
Coriander: A primary ingredient in curries and other spice blends like Garam Masala, coriander is often toasted by Pacific Rim cooks to bring out the flavor before grinding. You'll also find its warm, mild, citrusy taste seasoning meats, seafood, vegetables and salads. Coriander is often paired with cumin.
Cumin: To release their earthy flavor and warm aroma, Pacific Rim cooks toast whole cumin seeds, then grind them just before using. Cumin is often paired with coriander and hot spices like chili peppers. You'll find it in soups and stews, bean and rice dishes, and many spice blends, like Garam Masala and Curry Powder Blends.
Fennel Seed: The slightly biting, licorice taste of anise is most often enjoyed with seafood in Pacific Rim cooking, but you'll also find it in soups, salads, dressings, and with grains, eggs, and vegetables. The small, oval, grooved seeds look a bit like caraway seeds -- except that the fennel seeds are green while the caraway is a rich brown.
Galangal: Also known as galingale, this aromatic seasoning is used in Southeast Asian dishes. Ginger can be substituted for galangal in most recipes.
Garlic: Used to flavor most any savory food in Pacific Rim cookery, garlic is an especially good bet with fresh foods -- seafood and vegetables, for example -- because it does such a remarkable job of enhancing existing flavors. It's also often found with chilies and cilantro in Pacific Rim cuisine.
Ginger: The spicy aroma and warm, sweet taste of ginger is enjoyed in both sweet and savory Pacific Rim dishes. You'll find it in stir fries, curries, chutneys, and condiments as well as grain, vegetable, and seafood dishes. Pacific Rim cooks sometimes pickle ginger in sweet vinegar. Ginger blends well with other spices, and with citrus fruits and garlic.
Lemongrass: Pacific Rim cooks use the bottoms of fresh lemon stalks that are one to two feet long. They rely on its fresh, light, lemony flavor and scent to enhance meats, seafood, and vegetables. You'll often find it along with coconut, garlic, chilies and cilantro, and in curries, soups, and marinades.
Mustard: Mustard brings a sharp aroma and fresh, warm, pungent flavor to condiments, soups, dressings, and sauces. It's often partnered with other strong spices like chilies and black pepper. Asian cooks use mustard to make a sauce for raw fish. The seeds are sometimes cooked in hot oil to bring out their nutty flavor before adding to dishes.
Pepper: Ground black pepper is used on Pacific Rim salads and other vegetables, and with meats, seafood, and grains. More-subtle white pepper is sometimes used in light-colored dishes, especially marinades and sauces.
Rosemary: A member of the mint family, rosemary's tiny, needle-like leaves add a refreshing, pungent taste and aroma to dressings, meats, and vegetables. You'll also find rosemary in some herb blends. Use it with a light touch.
Saffron: Saffron threads impart a beautiful golden color, distinct aroma and bittersweet taste to grain, and seafood dishes, salads and dressings, sauces and marinades. It's a precious spice, but a few threads go a long way.
Sea Salt: Indispensable in most savory dishes (as well as an occasional sweet), sea salt enhances other flavors and also seasons on its own.
Star Anise: This lovely, star-shaped spice is pungent and licorice-like in flavor. Pacific Rim cooks use it in meat and seafood dishes, as well as in marinades and stews. It's also an ingredient in Five Spice Powder.
Turmeric: Turmeric's golden color brightens curries, condiments, and seafood and grain dishes in Pacific Rim cooking. Warmly aromatic, like ginger and pepper, Asian cooks boil, dry, and powder the fresh turmeric rhizome.
Convenient Blends for Pacific Rim Cooking
If you enjoy Pacific Rim cooking, you'll want to stock up on Chili Powder Blend (choose from a regular blend, Extra Spicy Blend, Fiesta Blend, and Traditional Blend), Chinese Five Spice Powder, Curry Powder, Garam Masala, Garlic 'N Herb Seasoning, Garlic Pepper, Garlic Salt, Lemon Pepper, Peppermill Gourmet Blend and Veggie Pepper.
Garlic gadgets, grinders and graters, mills and shakers, mortars and pestles, salad spinner and colanders.
Other Important Ingredients
Agar Agar: Derived from a sea vegetable, agar agar sets at room temperature and is valued for its gelling ability. It is unflavored and needs only be dissolved in water, heated, and cooled. It can be used in equal amounts to replace unflavored gelatin in any recipe.
Dried Mushrooms: Chopped button mushrooms and shitake mushrooms are available in convenient, dried form, so you can always have them on hand. To reconstitute, simply soak them in water for an hour or two. Or simply add directly to a long-cooking soup or stew.
Dried Tomato Flakes: Reconstitute for rich tomato flavor in casseroles, sauces, soups and stews, pasta dishes -- anyplace you want tomato flavor. Soak in water for an hour before using, or add directly to a long-cooking soup, stew, or sauce.
Sesame seeds: These delicate, nutty seeds are folded into breads and batters, sprinkled on vegetables, or in stir fries, and ground with sea salt -- or with thyme and sumac -- to make a table condiments. Roasting them brings out their flavor.
Wasabi: Wasabi comes from the root of an Asian horseradish plant. Make the authentic, fiery Asian condiment in minutes by stirring 1 teaspoon of powder with 2 teaspoons of warm water until it becomes a thick paste. Let stand 10 minutes, then serve with sushi, sashimi, or noodles.