‘Red Hot Kitchen’ offers recipes with plenty of heat and layers of flavor
I made sriracha. I feel like that comment should be followed by at least three exclamation marks. But the famous sriracha company with the rooster on the label, which apparently started small in a kitchen, has nothing to worry about. I actually prefer theirs. I followed Diana Kuan’s instructions in “Red Hot Kitchen,” simmering red jalapenos with plenty of garlic, rice vinegar, brown sugar (palm sugar is preferable), and kosher salt. It takes five minutes to cook, another five to puree, and seconds to strain. Maybe I’ll get better at this or maybe I’ll just buy the sauce. I’m not sure I’m geeky enough to perfect my own sriracha.
But I love the recipes in this book that use it, and other dishes based on one of nine homemade Asian hot sauces. Kuan stirs sriracha into hummus, and into a cornbread batter, she adds it to Shanghai noodles, uses it in a chicken wing marinade, and lets it heat up the aromatic sauce for the North African egg dish, shakshuka.
That shakshuka, also seasoned with ground cumin and smoked paprika, is pleasingly fiery (and I didn’t even add all the sriracha called for). When you cut into the eggs that poach in the sauce, the yolks mix with the hot red base to temper it a little.
You can make sambal oelek, the chile paste that goes into Indonesian and Malaysian food, or nam prik pao, a Thai chile jam, and use them in these distinctive dishes, or buy them; they’re mostly widely available.
Her intriguing recipes often cross cultures — like sriracha shakshuka — but the culinary blends are clever. One straightforward dish is a bowl of Korean chilled spicy noodles, made with gochujang, a sweet-hot sauce that makes everything come to life. Thin wheat noodles or buckwheat noodles are tossed with the sauce, along with fresh ginger, sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, honey, cucumbers, carrots, and shredded red cabbage. The heat, the sweetness, and the crunch make you keep putting your chopsticks back into the bowl.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author, who teaches cooking, food photography, and food writing, was born on mainland China, went as a girl with her family first to Hong Kong, then Puerto Rico (her father’s siblings owned restaurants there), and finally to Quincy, where she grew up. Her first book was “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” (2012).
Her family has Cantonese roots, so her childhood table didn’t have dishes made with the intense heat of Sichuan and Hunan. In fact, she writes, after squirting sriracha on noodles in Boston’s Chinatown as a girl — she used a Huy Fong brand botttle (the one with the rooster) — she didn’t touch anything hot again until she was living in Beijing when she was 25. She finally succumbed when she saw how many Sichuan restaurants were in the city.
Thai sweet chile sauce is an essential ingredient in a dipping sauce for fried squares of firm tofu; Thai red curry paste flavors a butternut squash soup made with coconut milk and seasoned with lime juice and cilantro; Sichuan chile oil goes into the sauce for wontons filled with dried shiitake and ground pork, “one of my favorite Sichian dishes of all time,” she writes, “with a deliciously savory, tangy, garlicky, and spicy sauce that is positively addictive.”
Most of this food, like many dishes with heat, has a way of keeping you coming back for more. But here it’s not just the chiles, it’s the careful recipes with layers of flavor and texture, and some cross-fertilization for fun. Diana Kuan will appear at Brookline Booksmith on March 12 at
7 p.m., 279 Harvard St., Brookline,
RED HOT KITCHEN
By Diana Kuan.
Avery/Penguin Random House, 256 pp