Isolation Style Shrimp Mee Goreng (Asian 258 Student Submission)
Whenever I look for recipes online, I try to find at least two to compare and end up going with kind of an average between the two approaches. In this case, I found two recipes that described two different preparations of shrimp mee goreng: Indonesian and Malaysian style. The version I cooked (and will describe here), used aspects of both recipes and was also limited by the ingredients available to me.
1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
1 ½ tbsp soy sauce & 2 tbsp brown sugar combined
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp worcestershire sauce
½ tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp chili garlic sauce
Chili flakes (to taste)
½ tsp white pepper
4 tbsp ketchup
A small amount of ginger paste
A small amount of mango pickles
5 cloves garlic
1 cup of carrots, julienned
1 to 2 cups of greens
¼ cup green onions
¼ cup fennel
~200g shrimp (I used half a bag of Aldi frozen shrimp)
2-3 tbsp canola oil
Cilantro for garnish
Double boiler operation to heat 1 ½ tbsp soy sauce & 2 tbsp brown sugar for kecap manis
Step 1: Boil your noodles. Cook them for only 1 minute or so. Drain them, rinse in cool water, put a little oil in there so they don’t stick, and set them aside. (They don’t need to be fully cooked at this stage, because you’ll be heating them again later.)
Step 2: Heat the 1 ½ tbsp soy sauce & 2 tbsp brown sugar together until it thickens. Then mix all of the sauce components together in a small bowl.
Step 3: Chop all veggies.
Step 4: In a tablespoon or so of oil, sear your shrimp. Once they’re cooked, take them out of the pan and set them aside. Don’t clean the pan.
Step 5: Add a bit of oil to the pan and saute garlic, fennel, and most of the green onion. Save some green onion to put on top of the finished product.
Step 6: On medium-high heat, add half the sauce and all non-tomato veggies. Toss until greens are wilted, 1-2 minutes.
Step 7: Push veggies to the side of the pan, add a little oil, and put your eggs in the pan. Scramble them a bit and let them cook halfway, then mix together with the veggies.
Step 8: On medium-high heat, add shrimp, noodles, and remaining sauce. Stir/heat until the sauce is absorbed and the temperature is even throughout.
Step 9: Turn off heat, mix in tomatoes and remaining green onion.
Step 10: Top with cilantro garnish (if you want) and serve!
The end result was a satisfying meal. Though I had not quite nailed the sweet part of the sweet and savory blended flavor I had been aiming for, my parents and I happily ate our fill.
There are several ingredients that are intriguing to find in a Southeast Asian dish: particularly ketchup, chili peppers, and tomatoes. The presence of all of these items is a result of the Columbian exchange. As Crosby notes in his book “The Columbian Exchange,” on page 170, both chili peppers and tomatoes were first cultivated in the Americas, and brought back to Asia and Europe via the Columbian Exchange. Neither of these items were seen in any Asian cuisine until after 1600 (Dr Brown lecture 2/10/2020, slide 28).
Ketchup presents a more complicated story. In Andrew Smith’s “Pure Ketchup : A History of America's National Condiment with Recipes,” the author suggests that tomato ketchup is a product of local adaptation. The word ketchup is likely a loan word, borrowed from Cantonese qiezhi / keizap, and was originally made as a preserved fish product (Dr Brown lecture 2/12/2020, slide 24). Tomato ketchup’s predecessors— including peach, walnut, fish, and walnut ketchup— were different from the tomato ketchup we know today. As these ketchups grew even more popular in the U.S., more economical and locally available ingredients were used to replace expensive fish and walnuts. Tomatoes, which are cheap and plentiful in the U.S., were a perfect way to locally adapt this recipe. Another mark of modern Heinz tomato ketchup is the addition of sugar to suit the American cultural matrix.
Once tomato ketchup was perfected for mass-production, the product spread around the world. Such an “American” kitchen staple like ketchup is the product of centuries of contact between the Americas and the Old World, and became a key ingredient of dishes like mee goreng. This shows the layered influence and piecemeal adoption of Western food items into Southeast Asian food culture.
The original recipe of shrimp mee goreng was shaped by locally adapted components like ketchup, and the recipe as I made it was also informed by local adaption. Because of COVID containment measures, I only used ingredients that were already in my parents’ kitchen. Costco salad green mix was used in place of heartier cabbage, fish sauce combined with worcestershire sauce substituted for oyster sauce, and I made my own kecap manis following this recipe I found. Even the noodles were not quite as suggested— I used wide egg noodles (the kind that usually accompany Swedish meatballs, in my house) instead of mee or instant noodles.
With so many adaptations to the recipe, I found myself wondering: did I really make authentic shrimp mee goreng? I didn’t even use a wok! What constitutes authentic food, anyway?
One reason I like to use more than one recipe as a reference when I am cooking is to get an idea of how different people make the food, so that I can emulate its original style more closely. But if I don’t have the exact same tools or ingredients, is it possible to claim authenticity? Or just good taste?
Authenticity is an incredibly challenging concept to define. My intuitive definition of authentic food centers around the idea that the food is made by following the right recipe, using the right ingredients and tools, and probably by people who have been making and eating this kind of food for their whole life, and their ancestors probably made that same type of food for years before they were born. One relevant example to challenge this intuitive definition is pad thai. Although it is now popularly understood as the definition of authentic Thai food, pad thai became the national dish through a government-supported campaign to improve public health by championing and adopting the originally Chinese dish. Does this history affect the authenticity of pad thai as quintessential Thai food?
Over the course of this semester, we ASIAN 258 students have learned countless ways in which different food and people interact and change each other. It’s nearly impossible to find a food culture or even a singular dish comprised of components that come from exclusively its own culture. As we struggle to define authentic food, I think it’s equally important to interrogate our fascination with authenticity. What is so important about food being “authentic,” especially when we can’t even put our finger on what defines food as such? Perhaps authenticity of food is not as important as understanding the food’s history and how it came to be.