I have been coming to Paris at least once a year for the past 10 years and noticed a proliferation of Asian restaurants over the past five years. Vietnamese food has always been popular in Paris, encouraged by the local Vietnamese community but there are now many Japanese restaurants as well as Thai restaurants.
I popped into one called Baan Thai today to get a quick plate of Pad Thai noodles. I only had 45 minutes and I knew that compared to a bistro or any other casual French eatery, an Asian restaurant would always be faster and I could be out the door in 45 minutes. I laughed out loud when the noodles arrived because it was so ‘un-Thai’. The flavours were not too far off and the noodles were authentic but the proportion of chicken to the starch was untraditional.
When we enjoy a bowl of rice or a bowl of noodles, the protein portion of the meal is about a ratio of 5 to 1 or even less, with meat (chicken, beef, pork or other meat) treated like garnish. This Phad Thai arrived with just under half of its ingredients composed of strips of chicken. I placed it on one side because it was too much chicken and devoured my noodles. What was left was over a third of the plate covered with strips of chicken. It made me realise what a starch loving society Asians are and how the carb-free diet that was such the rage in other parts of the world at one point would never have taken off in Asia.
It’s easy to imitate flavours and source the right ingredients but the two things about cooking well that is hard to master is the balance between the ingredients and the timing of cooking and serving. Timing involves mastering the ideal temperature in which the food should be prepared and just as important, the temperature of the dishes when it arrives at the table.
Many Asian dishes cooked over a hot flame, often in a wok, needs to be served piping hot with steam streaming from the food. Thus many Asian hosts will insist that one eats as soon as the food arrives, when it is at its optimal hot temperature. Getting the balance right comes with practice, skill, understanding of the ingredients and experience.
Cooking and life are not that different — now if I can only master balance and timing in my life!