Market Talk: A Conversation with Tammy Wong, Part II

Friday, September 18, 2009 40 comments

Tammy Wong's Curried Summer Vegetables

Several weekends ago, I had the pleasure of touring the Minneapolis Farmers' Market under the guidance of Tammy Wong, chef/owner of the popular and well-regarded Rainbow Chinese Restaurant, located on Minneapolis' culinary corridor, 'Eat Street' (Nicollet Avenue). In addition to cooking for the restaurant, Tammy also caters private dinners, for which she works closely with her clients to create menus that reflect their tastes and her skills.

Tammy and I talked about the farmers' market and the Twin Cities' ethnic (particularly Chinese) food scene, some highlights of which I posted in Part I. Now, I'm pleased to share more of Tammy's insights on her cooking inspirations and about encouraging others to try new flavors with confidence.

On finding, and providing, inspiration at the farmers' market:

Tammy has been doing cooking demonstrations during Market Talk at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, where she uses ingredients purchased there that morning. While the fresh offerings inspire her to create original recipes, Tammy also inspires the market's vendors by showcasing their food in new, delicious ways. In turn, they often share her cooking tips with their customers.

"I shop from the farmers' market [for her restaurant and catering menus] because it's just a completely different group of people who love food . . . It's really rewarding for me that many of the growers know me now much more. [They would ask], 'Tammy, do you cook this weekend*?' Or this sweet woman [a local grower who supplies her with long beans] would come up to me and ask, 'How are you going to make this? Could you please tell me how you cook it to make it taste soft, not hard?'"

"[I've had vendors] tell me, 'Normally, I don't have time, but whenever I take a break, I just listen to you and I think [the demonstration] was really good. I learned something from you, too!'"

*Tammy will be at MFM this Saturday (9/19) at 10:30am, preparing a dish of my current favorite - wild rice! She'll also share her recipe for candied crabapples, which she created for a client's dinner party after spotting them at the market.

"I was able to find crabapples and I had never seen it before. First of all, it looked beautiful - bigger than a kumquat and it was pale yellow with a little bit of pink. Beautiful. And so [I said], 'I'm going to get this' . . . I did gingered candied crabapples [for the clients] knowing that they would appreciate it. And they did - there were a lot of children at the party and it was a lot of fun for them to eat."

On being a better cook than writer:

In addition to the candied crabapples, Tammy had also picked up rhubarb, which she paired with rock sugar, ginger and tapioca for a delicious-sounding dessert. After my unsubtle hints about sharing the recipes, she admitted to being lax about saving the details of her creations:

"I was telling [my sister] how I'm inspired to make this and this dish, and how you put them together. And she said, 'Tammy, you really have to write them down because you're going to forget!' [She's right] because every [catering] job is very different, and it depends on what I find at the market and who is my client . . . but I don't write. I can tell you stories all day long [but] I don't have the patience and I don't feel confident to write." (I should offer my services as recorder and taste-tester!)

What confidence she lacks in the composition of words is more than compensated by her talent for composition with food. And she's not intimidated by cooking in less than optimal conditions, as is often the case at the farmers' market:

"Cooking comes very natural to me, since I was very young . . . I'm not afraid to cook. In Vietnam, I was cooking with fuel or coal or wood - I've done it all! Cooking outside is definitely challenging. The first [MFM demo], it was really windy and the second time, it was raining. Everybody was holding down the tent and here I was, trying to coordinate the time and I didn't have assistants. [It can be hard] trying to keep the audience interested. People are curious, they want to learn but they also want to taste!"

Something new: amaranth leaves

On encouraging others to find a similar confidence in trying new foods:

Tammy takes into account her clients' preferences when developing a menu but she also tries to encourage diners to venture into new flavors:

"[Clients] will say they are only meat-and-potatoes people and they don't like this or that, but it turns out they love [all kinds of] food. As long as you do food really simple, people are willing to try it . . . so you have to start with very good ingredients."

She understands that many diners are reluctant to go beyond familiar and comforting foods. She's particularly sympathetic to native Chinese diners for whom the authenticity of Chinese cuisine is important in reconnecting them with home; she will even go so far as to recommend other restaurants if customers are looking for regional dishes that she does not offer (many want Szechuan food, whereas Rainbow offers primarily Mandarin- and Cantonese-style preparations). But Tammy would also like diners to judge food on  its own qualities rather than just on a sense of familiarity:

"People will ask me to come up with a menu that would please their guests from China. When I come up with one that I think would be a really nice experience for them to try, they will say, 'Well, this is not Chinese, this is American.' I thought that was really interesting. Now, when I'm going to New York or to Hong Kong, I wouldn't expect to have the same experience that I would find [in Minneapolis or America]. It would be different [because] different chefs make different things, and sometimes people don't understand that."

But she's confident that given enough encouragement and opportunity, most diners are willing to be adventurous. So, she makes it a point to greet her restaurant customers at their tables:

"When they see me and they know me, they say, 'You know what, I'm going to try [a different dish].' They feel more confident to try - people are willing to try when they see you and how you do it. That is the comforting part."

"[When people] really love food, they pay attention to every little thing that I serve and they will tell me what they like or what they don't like about it. People have really loved the food [if I] just give them a different kind of experience."


And a different kind of experience is exactly what Tammy inspired me to attempt with a couple of strange vegetables that piqued my curiosity: amaranth and Thai eggplant. Fortunately, and despite her admission to the contrary, Tammy posted on her restaurant's website the recipes for Curried Summer Vegetables and Stir-Fried Amaranth, which she prepared during Market Talk demos this season.

I recently made both dishes with a few changes, which I hope Tammy doesn't mind. The original recipes can be found at Rainbow Chinese Restaurant's website.

Curried Summer Vegetables with Walleye
(adapted from a recipe by Tammy Wong)

Tammy used young squash in her recipe; I decided to incorporate a fillet of walleye with the intent of having nice chunks of tender fish. But I added it too early and the fish flaked apart during the cooking process. Happily, my mistake resulted in the flavor of the walleye being spread out, even if the texture of the fish was missing. Tammy also used Penzey's Hot Curry Powder spice mix, which I didn't have, so I used a variety of spices found in that product.

Serves 4 to 6


1/2 lb green beans, end sliced off and cut into approximately 2" pieces
1 lb cauliflower florets, cut from stalks (I used Romanesco broccoli**, a.k.a Roman Cauliflower and fractal cauliflower - superb flavor!)
1/2 lb (approximately 5) round Thai eggplants, tops cut off and quartered)
2/3 lb fresh walleye fillet, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large onion, chopped

1" piece fresh ginger, slivered
1 shallot, sliced thinly
5 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
1 cup fresh Thai basil leaves
1/4 cup canola oil
Patis (Filipino fish sauce) to taste; salt may be used
1 (14 oz) can coconut cream (coconut milk, which contains at least 25% water, may be used)
1/2 tsp EACH of turmeric and cayenne pepper
1 tsp EACH of ground coriander, ground ginger, cumin, Jamaican allspice (for cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves)

**For another great recipe using Romanesco broccoli, check out this dish from Amy at Green Your Plate!

To make:

1. Boil 1.5 quarts of water in a pot to blanch vegetables (approximately 2-3 minutes), one at a time. For each, remove from boiling water and run under cold water to stop the cooking process, then add next vegetable to the pot;
2. In a large wok, heat oil and sauté ginger, onions, garlic and shallots until soft and fragrant;
3. Add walleye (this tender fish will flake up and all but disintegrate during the remainder of cooking; if you prefer, add at the very end);
4. Add Thai eggplants and beans, stirring until beans turn bright green;
5. Add cauliflower, followed by spices;
6. Add coconut cream and stir until thoroughly mixed. Add patis to taste, followed by Thai basil, stirring until blended and basil leaves are slightly wilted;
7. Remove from heat and serve with steamed rice.

Stir Fried Amaranth
(adapted from a recipe by Tammy Wong)

During the market tour, Tammy commented that amaranth was used in Filipino cooking, proving that she knows a lot more about my native cuisine than I do! Called kulitis in Tagalog, it is used in such favorite Pinoy dishes as sinigang (a sour soup). However, in the Americas where it originated, the grain is more widely used, first as an ancient dietary staple in both Incan and Aztec civilizations, and today, as a popular food in South America and Mexico (such as popcorn-like snacks). In the U.S., it is perhaps best known as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour (source: Wikipedia/Amaranth). Its similar taste and texture make it an excellent substitute for spinach.

Tammy's original recipe was for a simple stir-fry of the leaves, but I opted to add shrimp and tofu. I also replaced the main flavoring ingredient, miso paste, with balaw-balaw - a fermented rice and shrimp paste similar to more traditional Filipino bagoong, a by-product of fermented fish sauce.

The pinkish tinge comes from balaw-balaw, 
a fermented rice & shrimp paste from the Philippines

Serves 2 to 4


1/2 lb fresh shrimps - peeled, deveined and chopped into small pieces
1 cup diced firm tofu
1" piece fresh ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs canola oil, divided (2 & 1)
1 bunch amaranth, stems removed
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsps balaw-balaw or bagoong

To make:

1. In a large wok, heat 1 Tbs canola oil over medium heat and sauté 3 cloves of garlic and minced ginger, being carefully not to brown. Add shrimp and tofu, cooking until shrimp is done (I neglected to add the tofu at this stage, which is why it looks rather pale in the above photo). Remove shrimp and tofu from the wok;
2. Add 2 Tbs canola oil to wok and heat; add amaranth, remaining garlic and balaw-balaw and cook, stirring constantly, until leaves turn a bright color and become wilted; add cooked shrimp and tofu, and stir to mix;
3. Garnish with green onions and red pepper flakes, and serve with steamed rice.


  • Jenn said...

    Nice post. Don't think I've had walleye before. Or I've had it and just never knew exactly what it was. Now-a-days, I'm try to be a little more adventurous in the type of foods I eat, though I'd still stick with some of the stuff I already do eat.

  • Maria Verivaki said...

    amaranth is eaten right throughout the summer in crete and in most of greece, simply boiled with a lemon and olive oil dressing.

    i have also heard about its use a gluten free flour - a lot of cultures use th leaves in a similar way to theone you have prepared - and yes, it is very similar to spinach

  • Amy P. said...

    I haven't made my peace with amaranth yet, so maybe I'll have to give this recipe a shot next time I get it.

    Where can I find Filipino ingredients (sauces and seasonings) in the Twin Cities?

  • Palidor said...

    Your dishes look wonderful! Currying fish is always a bit difficult to do because of the flaking issue. Yours looks fabulous, and would be excellent on top of steamed rice.

  • Susan @ SGCC said...

    I have a package of amaranth in my pantry with no idea what to do with it. Now, I have something to go on!

    Living in an area with no real ethnic flavor, I yearn for the opportunity to try authentic foods from other cultures. I find that too many chefs in ethnic restaurants here "dumb down" their food because they think our American palates can't handle it. I'd at least like to have the option!

  • nora@ffr said...

    Curried Summer Vegetables with Walleye sound delicious. but i haven't tried Stir Fried Amaranth before :) shud get the ingredients soon and try it soon. thanx for sharing all the infos. this post is great!!

  • zerrin said...

    I've never had amaranth. Actually, we love this as a flower and I didn't know that it can be used in a recipe. It will be a real surprise for my friends when I use it. Thanks for the recipe.

  • Lo said...

    Love curries -- and this one looks particularly delicious, as it makes use of everything that's just PRIME at the farmer's market right now.

    I've not cooked regularly with amaranth before, but this recipe looks phenomenal!

  • Lori said...

    Sounds like you had the opportunity to have some great food-focused conversation. Those recipes sound wonderful and I am especially interested to learn more about amaranth. I haven't heard much about its other uses aside from the grain in the US.

  • Anonymous said...

    Terrific dishes! I am certainly intrigued by all of the unique ingredients you are using here! I've seen the Thai eggplants & Romanesco broccoli but had never cooked with them. I've always wanted to try Amaranth but that one I have never seen, will need to have a chat with someone at Wegmans.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Sorry for the late replies again but I spent a good portion of my weeked at - where else? - the farmers' market! I'll be there again this coming weekend on an exciting endeavor - details will follow!

    Rebecca - Thank you! And Tammy was a great guide. I've had the opportunity to speak with her again and she's such a great person as well as a wonderful chef.

    Jenn - Honestly, even though it's the state fish, I haven't had it all that much either. It's actually rather pricey in comparison to other fish but it has a wonderfully delicate taste and texture. I'm only just now starting to branch out into different foods; so far, most have been good experiences but some have been fails. I'll keep trying!

    Caroline - It was new to me, too, until I saw the reference to kulitis! But I don't doubt it would be great in something like sinigang. As for balaw-balaw, I've heard that it's a regional version of buro; I bought my bottle in Angono (and will get some more when we visit the Philippines again in December!)

    Mediterranean Kiwi - I had absolutely no idea about amaranth leaves: yet another sad case of being unfamiliar with my food in its natural state. My only encounters with amaranth has been as a type of flour. I will have to try your suggested preparation with lemon & olive oil dressing!

    Amy P - I went into this completely clueless and without expectations; fortunately, it was a positive experience. I hope you do try it out and let us know if the second time's the charm! I can tell you that the Romanesco broccoli was on my mind after reading your post so I snagged it at the U's farmers' market. Delicious!

    Palidor - That's exactly how we had it - on steamed jasmine rice. My husband usually prefers Basmati but I told him for this kind of coconut curry, we needed the soft, sticky rice! At first, I wasn't pleased about the fish flaking issue but the flavor wasn't compromised so all's well. Next time, though, I'll try to use a firmer type of fish and add it toward the end.

    Susan - Yay! Please let me know how you decide to prepare the amaranth and how it tastes! I've found that one of the downsides of reading food blogs is learning about all these different dishes - although recipes are provided, I want to taste them first so that I know what I'm aiming for. Minneapolis' ethnic food scene has vastly improved, according to Tammy, so I count myself lucky that among the 'Americanized' offerings are those that don't compromise - Szechuan spicy pig intestines, anyone? 8-)

    Velva - Thank you! I stopped in at your site and drooled over the fool!

    Greg - I love reading about your foraging forays! I really need to get out more - I knew amaranth only as a grain and gluten-free flour, and it's not the only food that I would not be able to recognize in its natural state.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Replies, cont'd

    Nora - Thank you! Amaranth leaves were totally new to me as well, but I enjoyed it very much.

    Zerrin - I thank you! It's amazing that the amaranth plant is well known only by its parts! How is it that different cultures latched on to particular parts and not use the entire plant? I didn't even realize that this produce flowers . . . I will have to look into amaranth a bit more! 8-)

    Lo - My husband and I are big curry fans as well but this was the first time I tried making it without some sort of pre-made spice mix. It turned out better than I'd hoped! Tammy Wong's original recipe called for squash and she even suggested yams or sweet potatoes. I'm going to start canvassing the Farmers' market for other veggie ideas but I'll definitely keep the Romanesco broccoli - that is one delicious cruciferous!

    Lori - Just as Tammy says she can tell stories all day long, I definitely enjoy listening to them! The curry was delicious (I loved the one you posted recently) but the amaranth was really something new. It is very similar to spinach although at the beginning of the cooking process, I thought the aroma was bitter and worried that the taste would be too. No worries - it was quite mild!

    Sarah - Thank you! I have been raving about the market walk with Tammy and I hope the Mpls Farmers' Market will consider making it a regular offering. I don't know how adventurous I would have been without someone as knowledgeable as Chef Wong to point out these great veggies that I normally bypass!

    Kiss My Spatula - Thank you! They were all great although my most enthusiastic recommendation would be for the Romanesco broccoli - all I can say is that it was delicious and so unlike any broc or cauliflower I've ever had!

    Joelen - Thanks! These became instant comfort foods the moment I spooned them over steaming hot milagrosa/jasmine rice! 8-D

    Duo Dishes - I second that emotion! 8-)

    5 Star Foodie - I'm raving over the Romanesco broc, so I'd love to see what you could do with it. I found the flavor to be almost sweet in comparison to the slight underlying bitterness of broccoli. As for the amaranth, I've seen both this deep purple and the all-green varieties. I wonder if the color is just varietal or if it is indicative of flavor as well. I noted to Lori above that when at the beginning of the cooking process, I thought the leaves smelled bitter. But by the time they were just wilted and ready to serve, the actual flavor was quite mild.

    I hope you get a chance to cook with these vegetables and share your thoughts on them!

  • Barbara said...

    What a great post! Farmer's and green markets are such fun and you can make some wonderful finds. I have actually fished and eaten walleye. So I loved seeing the recipe. Have never tried Amaranth..this recipe looked super too!
    (And thanks for visiting my blog!)

  • lisaiscooking said...

    I love trying new things in the kitchen (and on my plate), and both of these recipes look fantastic! I'm trying to grow my own amaranth, so hopefully I can make a homegrown version of this dish some day.

  • Phyllis said...

    Hi TN, awesome interview with Tammy! So clever of her to make adorable candied apples from crab apples (and to think of all those apples I let rot on the ground when I was a kid!) I know what she means about Chinese food being different in New York vs Hong Kong etc. My parents are staying with me right now and they are always perplexed whenever we order Chinese food in NJ - it's nothing like what they are used to having in Vancouver! I'm not sure whether I've ever tried Amaranth before, but maybe I would know it by it's Chinese name? Thai eggplants are so cute (especially the pea sized ones) I really love them in curries but I hardly ever see them around here. And I tried gorgeous raw Romanesco for the 1st time in Montreal at Atwater & Jean Talon markets - I can't wait to cook with them one day!

  • The Chickenless Chick said...

    What an inspiring interview! How true that it's easier to get people to eat something simple. Once I fed my husband a casserole that had a layer of potatoes mashed with bananas. The rest of the ingredients list was a mile long. I thought all those flavors balanced nicely, but he hated taking a bite of mashed potatoes and getting something too far off from what he expected, so he just ate around that layer. I do weird combos with composed salads all the time, and he scarfs those right down because he can see what he's getting. Nice to know that a professional also needs these sorts of tactics to bring out a sense of adventure in her customers!

  • foodcreate said...

    I'm so intrigued with this dish love to try this recipe look's deli sh and your pictures are beautiful

    thank you for sharing your recipe :)

    Have a wonderful Day ~ Love your Tangle noodle Dog she beautiful :)

  • Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

    Tammy is so interesting. How fun that you got to visit with her. I've never had walleye (I have heard of it) and have never seen it in the market. I must live in the wrong part of the country for it. I'm also not familiar with amaranth. There's so much for me to learn in this post.

  • Table Talk said...

    Really nice job with this post---your stories are educational and so nicely balanced. It's a bit drizzly here today, and that pic of the curry is something I think I will crave the remainder of the day!

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    we were going out for thai curry tonight, but it's not yet 5pm here so I think I can manage to get to the store and eat in instead. Romanesco broccoli looks so cool - don't think I'll be able to find that for tonite, but I know I can get some purple sprouting broccoli so will have to go with that. and yum to coconut cream!

    I'm loving your farmers market conversation posts!

  • Daily Spud said...

    You should absolutely offer your services as recorder and taste-tester for Tammy, or if not, I will! It sounds like exactly the kind of food adventure I'd love :)

  • Chef E said...

    I miss the Market Talks that used to go on, but chefs and their restaurants have cut back on demos and samples with the economy... I am happy to hear she still does this, and the dish, or anything with curry is my kind of meal!


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