Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's up with the leaves?

Take a trip to any farmer's market and you'll notice stand after stand filled with bundles of leaves. What are they and how do people cook them? For the most part, the answer to that has been a secret among many Asian American market-goers. In my home, these leaves were a staple -- from bittermelon to sweet potato to kangkong (water spinach) to saluyot (jute leaves), and the list goes on and on. They are especially used in soups and other provincial dishes containing fish. In a related, but inedible note, some are used for varying medicinal purposes. When I was a kid I had a bad case of eczema on my arms. My Grandma Patricia would grind up bittermelon leaves and spread the pulpy juice all over my rashes. Not very appetizing, I know, so back to food.

In my home, a typical dinner would include a common Ilokano salad using any one of these leaves, tomatoes, onions and and a heavy portion of bagoong (a very earthy, salty sauce made of fermented fish) as its dressing.

On a recent trip to my local farmer's market, I decided to try and replicate this salad, substituting the heavy, high-sodium bagoong with just a teaspoon of patis, the more popularly known fish sauce that is the clear, refined by-product of bagoong. You wouldn't know the difference just by smelling the two. If blindfolded, you would think they were equally pungent (it's kind of difficult to make fermented fish smell anything other than fermented fish). Appearances, however, are a different story. Bagoong is thick, dense and mud-like, with pieces of the fish remaining. Patis is a clear, amber-colored sauce, with no visible signs of whence it came.

I was surprised to find that the substitution didn't sacrifice any of the tastes that I remembered. The only difference was a much lighter flavor, allowing the leaves to play a much more prominent role. I also substituted the cherry tomatoes my grandmother usually used with the beautiful heirloom tomatoes I found at the market, and instead of her favorite yellow onion I used a fresh red onion. On your next trip to the market, I suggest you buy a bundle of these leaves for a different type of salad. You'll find it quite easy to prepare:

1 bundle of leaves (Any of the aforementioned will do, but beware: The bittermelon leaves are in fact very bitter, and the saluyot has a slimy, okra-like texture when cooked)
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 heirloom tomato, diced
1/2 red onion, chopped

Separate the leaves from the stems and wash thoroughly. Bring one cup of water to a boil, adding a pinch of sea salt. Add the leaves in the boiling water until slightly wilted, drain in colander and rinse with cold water. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and lightly toss.

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