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Tour Asian markets to improve your cooking

by: BARB RANDALL Chef Surja Tjahara leads tours of Asian food markets and educates people on produce, meats, fish and sauces commonly used in Asian dishes. Lifting The Fork columnist Barb Randall recommends the tours to those wishing to improve the quality of their Asian cooking and cooking skills, and also to those just looking to do something new and fun.

I try to learn something new everyday. It doesn't have to be a big thing, or about any particular topic. I just think it's important to keep growing and expanding horizons at all ages. A few Saturdays ago, my lesson was a big, eye-opening one and my cooking has improved immeasurably as a result.

The teacher was my friend Chef Surja Tjahara. He took me and about a dozen other curious folks on a tour of the metro area's Asian food markets. I had shopped at Uwajimaya in Beaverton, H-Mart in Tigard and Fubon in southeast Portland, but I went in with a list and came out with just those items. I was missing out by not knowing what else was offered at the stores. And that's where Surja's expertise came into play.

Of Indonesian ancestry, Surja has a wealth of talent in cooking all Asian cuisines. He knows the subtleties of each - what gives Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. food their specific flavors. He knows what the exotic-looking fruits, vegetables, fish and sauces are and how to maximize their flavor.

The tour started with a customized luncheon at Hakatamon Restaurant, next door to Uwajimaya. Chef Toshi Koto prepared for the group Wakame Soup (seaweed soup), Yakitori and Tsukune (grilled chicken and chicken meatball skewers), broiled salmon topped with creamy miso dressing and avocado, Onigiri (grilled triangular rice cakes), Snow Crab salad in a wonton cup, Hawaiian ahi, two kinds of sushi and a dessert of Hood River pears in agar agar gelatin with plum wine sauce and caramel drizzle.

I am not going to tell you where Chef Surja took us on the tour - in fact, I may be hard pressed to find the shops again, even with my copious notes. Many of the best shops were in nondescript buildings you might drive right by unless you knew of the treasures to be found within.

Chef Surja took us to the shops where he specifically buys fish, special shops for produce, meats, tea and ginseng. The biggest advantage of being on the tour was hearing Surja explain what the items were and how to use them. He explained how to select premium produce and how to find the best buys on food. We found top quality Kobi beef, sashimi and spot prawns all at unbelievably low prices. Walking up and down the aisles of these stores, Surja pointed out sauces, miso, noodles, etc. and gave tips on how to best use them to create delicious and healthy foods.

I learned about hollow spinach and chrysanthemum, both of which are staples in Asian diets, power packed with nutrients and flavor. They are sold as huge bunches almost too pretty to eat.

I came home with red miso paste, sweet soy sauce, daikon radish, ginger, kefir lime leaves and mushrooms and created a simple stir fry with vegetables I had on hand that was miles above the quality of my usual Asian fare.

'It is so fun to see people get inspired by their discoveries,' said Surja. 'I love sharing this information with them.'

Surja is conducting tours again on July 30, Sept. 10 and Nov. 5. The tours start at 11:30 a.m. and cost is $35 per person (including lunch) or $50 if you want to tour both sides of town. Trust me, you will want to do the complete tour.

And if you get really inspired, he also leads tours of the Asian markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Wouldn't that be fun?

Surja is teaching a sushi- making class this Sunday, June 19. Vietnamese Salad Rolls are the topic of his class July 17 and Pad Thai is the topic of the class on Aug. 21. Visit chef2go.biz for a complete list.

I am going to have plenty of new lessons ahead of me as I explore Asian cuisine. Perhaps the first lesson will on finding my way back to some of the little shops!

The recipe included today is for Surja's Baked Egg Rolls. Don't be daunted by the long list of ingredients. Get a few friends to help you make them.

Bon Appetit! Eat something wonderful!

Baked Egg Rolls

It's hard to beat that crunch of a nice crispy egg roll. But so often they're so greasy. Here's a way to reduce the fat and enjoy the crispness of the wrapper with your own savory, healthful fillings. Enjoy.

Egg Roll ingredients

1 package frozen Chinese spring roll wrappers (about 30 wrappers)

1 pound pre-fried tofu, sliced into thin blocks (1 inch by ½ inch by ¼ inch size. You can use any uncooked firm quality tofu (cut to the same size) and fry it until the texture changes.

3 eggs beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper

4 large shitake mushrooms, sliced thin to ½ inch length (If using dried shitake mushrooms, presoak in water overnight to soften.)

1 cup tree ear mushrooms (also known as black Chinese fungus or wood ear fungus) cut to about the same size as the shitake mushrooms

1 cup shredded bamboo shoots

½ cabbage head sliced thin to 1 inch long

1 cup green onions, sliced thin to 1 inch long

1 cup shredded carrots, about the size of the bamboo shoots

½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

1 tablespoon soy sauce (Kikkoman or substitute)

Salt and pepper to taste

3 cloves minced garlic

4 tablespoons canola cooking oil

Sweet and Sour Sauce ingredients

2 tablespoons carrots, julienned

2 tablespoons daikon radish, julienned

1 ½ teaspoon cornstarch diluted with 1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons tomato ketchup

3 tablespoons water

¼ teaspoon salt (to taste)

1 teaspoon Sriracha chili

1 tablespoon green onions, julienned diagonally

Cooking process

Filling preparations: Add 1 tablespoon canola oil to a frying pan. Heat the oil, then scramble the egg and set aside. Next add 2 tablespoons canola oil to the frying pan. Using medium high heat, stir fry all the ingredients above in the following order:

1. Cook the garlic and shitake mushrooms (for about 1 minute)

2. Add the bamboo shoots and carrots (cooking for another minute).

3. Next add the tofu and egg, cabbage, five-spice powder, tree ear mushrooms and soy sauce, cooking for two minutes.

4. Finally add the green onions and mix well for three minutes. Then turn off the heat to cool the egg roll filling.

Wrapping the Egg Roll:

1. Place one egg roll skin wrapper on a clean, flat surface. Take about 2 tablespoons of the egg roll filling and place it in the corner of the square wrapper.

2. Roll the wrapper over the filling once.

3. Next fold the right corner of the egg roll wrapper to cover and roll once more.

4. Now fold the left corner of the egg roll wrapper to cover and continue rolling to the end of the wrapper. Place aside.

5. Repeat 1 through 4 until all the wrappers are folded.

Cooking:

Traditionally egg rolls are deep fried, but baking produces a crisp, less fatty alternative.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Put a baking pan on your work surface and place each egg roll, seam side down, on the pan. Use a brush to baste the top of each egg roll lightly with the remaining canola oil. Bake 30 minutes, then turn the egg rolls to the other side and bake for 30 minutes more. Place the baking pan on the highest position in the oven for even cooking. Serve on a platter with the sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet and sour sauce:

Bring all ingredients, except green onions, to a boil in a sauce pan and mix well. Stir for about two minutes, then turn off the heat after reaching the desired thickness. Add the green onions and mix well before seving with the egg rolls

Chef Surja Tjahaja, chef2go.biz

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at brandall@lakeoswego

review.com or by phone at 503-635-8811.