Haley Nguyen, one of the Vietnamese "boat people" who settled Little Saigon in Newport Beach, Calif., recently showed how to unlock the mysteries of international ingredients for fellow members of Les Dames d'Escoffier International,
At the annual conference of this group of women in the food, beverage and hospitality professions, Nguyen discussed how and why to use some ingredients she had pointed out during a tour of Little Saigon - ginger, bitter melon, turmeric, lemongrass and wood ear mushrooms.
"Because I'm a chef, I like to talk about making these healthy ingredients flavorful," she said. "When I was little and I'd get a little tummy-ache from eating street food, my mother would make a tea of water and a lot of ginger. It didn't taste very good. But mother said it wouldn't work if anything else was added."
Now the mother of three boys, Nguyen wanted to continue to use Eastern homemade remedies but make them tastier.
"So for the ginger tea, I add lemon or lime juice and honey. Now it tastes better and doesn't taste like mud water."
The bitter melon was a little harder sell.
"In Asia, we can get fresh bitter melon or a dry form," she said. "It's believed to be good for Type 2 diabetes by lowering glucose levels ... it hasn't been FDA approved, but there is evidence in research."
After scrambling some eggs with ginger and scallions, she cut off both ends of bitter melon, removed the toxic inside meat and added the green outside - the only edible part - to the eggs. She thinned the mixture with a little chicken stock.
The cooked bitter melon was not awful but was, well, bitter.
"The bitterness is what makes it healthy," she said. "Mom would say, 'The good medicine is bitter.'"
Turmeric, like ginger, is a more familiar ingredient and a little easier to enjoy.
"Turmeric can be found fresh, dry or sprouted," she said. "It's part of the ginger family. Historically in India, it was used to dye fabric or in perfume. Later it became an ingredient for cooking."
She made a delightful smoothie of two parts carrots, one part fresh peeled turmeric and an apple. Water was added to blend it all together. The mixture was strained to remove the pulp, resulting in a refreshing, brightly colored, yellowish beverage.
"This will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge," Nguyen said. "Carrots add natural sweetness. Keep the pulp to add to soup."
While tumeric has no recommended dietary allowance, it is believed to relieve symptoms of ulcers, arthritis and acne.
Lemongrass is a fragrant ingredient essential for the floral flavor of Southeast Asian dishes. Nguyen recommends grinding the plant's white part in a spice grinder to make a powder so people can eat it.
"If you don't have time to grind it, smash the white end to release oil and put it into soup," she said. "Remove it before serving. Use the green part for lemongrass tea with kaffir lime leaves. It lowers cholesterol and is good for digestion."
The wood ear mushrooms, shaped like ears, were brown to black in color.
"These are a fungus found on dead trees," she said. "Use in cooking if you like a crunchy texture. They are used in a lot of Asian dumplings or as a meat substitute. They lower cholesterol, help digestion and constipation."
Always check with your health care provider if using these ingredients for medicinal purposes. If you just like to experiment with exotic ingredients, have fun discovering some new flavors.