Mother Earth Living

Flavor First: Chef Ming Tsai

Ming Tsai’s passion for cooking extends to legislation.
By Linda Shockley
October/November 2009

Thai basil and cilantro add flavor and nutrition without calories and sodium.
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Ask Chef Ming Tsai about his most memorable meals and his description covers all the senses: the flavors from subtle to bold; the precision of the chef’s technique; the clarity of the consommé; the shape of a platter in the waiter’s hands; the fragrance of a dish as it’s placed upon a table; and the sound of Thai basil hitting hot, browned butter.

• Sweet Potato Ravioli with Basil Brown Butter 

He takes such delight in food from kitchen to table that it’s no wonder he garners top accolades and enthusiastic audiences for his restaurant, Blue Ginger, and for his three cookbooks. His Emmy-nominated Simply Ming, for which he serves as host and executive producer, is in its sixth season on public television. He’s also a well-respected designer and product developer with a signature line of ceramic cutting tools, East-West meal solutions and an eco-friendly line of bamboo cutting boards and serveware. 

Ming is a founding member of Chefs for Humanity, an alliance of culinary professionals and educators that partners with U.S. and global organizations to provide nutrition education, hunger relief, and emergency and humanitarian aid across the world.

Additionally, as a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), Ming works to educate others and researches food allergies. He developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, first used at Blue Ginger, which has proven to be a pioneering system for helping food-allergic people dine safely. For the past four years, Ming worked with the Massachusetts Legislature to help write Bill S. 2701, which was recently signed into law. This groundbreaking legislation requires local restaurants to comply with simple food-allergy awareness guidelines.

The Herb Companion: What role do herbs play in your cooking?

Chef Ming Tsai: I use fresh herbs to add a pungent flavor, usually at the end of the cooking process, and always as a garnish. Thai basil and cilantro are two of my favorites for adding flavor and nutrition without adding calories and sodium.

HC: What is your favorite herb, and why do you like it? 

Ming: My favorite herb now—cilantro—was my least favorite growing up. I hated cilantro as a kid. And, growing up Chinese, we had a lot of cilantro. There was always a cilantro garnish on top of a baked fish and cilantro added to a tofu or stir-fry dish or a curry base.

I had a forced epiphany with cilantro when I was about 11 years old. I was attending a Chinese banquet, which was a common occurrence for me, and every single dish included cilantro: dish after dish after dish. After skipping about five dishes, I was really hungry.

There was a baked fish cooked in a deep dish with coriander, ginger, soy sauce and cilantro. The whole thing was splashed with hot oil and I decided to just dive in. I took a huge bite and it was delicious. Ever since that banquet, I can’t live without it.

It’s such a fresh, bright flavor that really nothing besides coriander seeds tastes like cilantro. It adds such character to a dish. For example, if you cook a fish and add cilantro, mint and ginger, it makes the fish taste sweeter and more exotic.  

HC: Please describe a dish that is transformed by adding a single herb.

Ming: I love the licorice flavor of Thai basil. On my show, I prepared a Sweet Potato Ravioli with Basil Brown Butter. To the hot browned butter, you add a handful of whole fresh Thai basil, which will make a splattering, crackling sound. That handful of herbs completely transforms the dish by making it more flavorful. It’s a vitamin-rich combination with the sweet potato, and it lightens the heaviness of the ravioli.

HC: What trends will influence the way we eat in the future?

Ming: People are eating better-quality food prepared simply with bold flavors. Americans know that you can take a great olive oil and garlic and make anything sing.
And, I think people are serving smaller portions. The big craze of the last 15 years of “who can eat the biggest rib eye” is ending as people realize that it’s just not good for you. More isn’t better.

HC: Tell us about your most memorable meal.

Ming: It had to be a 20-course, five-hour meal at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Restaurant in California. We were eating small portions and drinking wines, and it was a leisurely, beautiful day. I think Thomas Keller is the only artist chef in the country; the rest of us are craftsmen.

HC: What’s the meal you love to prepare for family and friends?

Ming: If it’s winter, I love to cook a Chinese fire pot, which is a pot of boiling broth in the middle, with peas, shrimp balls or fish, noodles and a dipping sauce. The French call it fondue. It’s a great communal way of eating. You eat what you want. I grew up eating that with my parents in Dayton, Ohio, and I still love eating this way. In the warmer months, I fire up the grill. We eat very simply at home and serve it all family-style on a large platter: grilled vegetables with fish, meats and lots of couscous.

HC: Your Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has enjoyed great success since its opening in 1998. What’s the key to making people happy at the table?

Ming: It’s a very simple formula: Make sure diners don’t have to think. They do have to choose whether they prefer meat or seafood, but they shouldn’t have to ask for more of anything: more water, wine to be poured or their coat at the end of the evening.  

Where to Find Ming

• Visit www.ming.com for more information about all things Ming.

Books: 

• Available at your local bookseller or at www.amazon.com
Ming’s Master Recipes (Based on the public television series Simply Ming)
Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking with Ming Tsai
Simply Ming: Easy Techniques for East-Meets-West Meals

Television Show:

• Simply Ming; check your local public television listings.

Products:

• Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger East-West food product line and Tru Bamboo eco-line of bamboo cutting boards and serveware: Available at Target stores nationwide. 


Linda Shockley writes from her home in New York City.


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