It looks like brown sugar, but it’s the most amazing salt. On the theory that you can’t have too many kinds of salt, I suggest a different one every year as a small but thoughtful Christmas gift.
But I’ve never encountered anything quite like Red Boat salt. Open the package and the most extraordinarily funky aroma comes leaping out. As the package says, “Caution, use sparingly”. But like the fish sauce that it’s made from, the flavor is quite different from the smell. Sprinkle a bit on anything you cook – vegetables, stews, steaks, chowder – and the umami does wonders, giving even the simplest dish depth and complexity.
This is not sea salt. (If you’re looking for great sea salt, I’m still a fan of Bitterman.) This is made from the great Red Boat fish sauce that’s been fermented in mango wood barrels and then dried. You wouldn’t want to put it on the table, but if you have an adventurous cook on your list, they’ll be very happy to have this incredible salt sitting by the side of the stove.
If ever there was a moment when people wanted to grow their own herbs, this is it. And everyone I know who has one of these Aerogarden hydroponic black light kits absolutely loves it.
Which is why I’m planning on buying these for all my friends who don’t. It’s looking like a difficult winter; we’re all going to be doing a lot of cooking. And what could be more encouraging than a few fresh herbs?
A notice just landed in my inbox – and I immediately ordered Momofuku Soy Sauce. If you have friends who love Asian food, you might want to act with equal alacrity. Momofuku products tend to sell out quickly.
Have I tried it yet? I have not. But I love this Bonji they made a few years ago, and the Bonjis they serve at a few of their restaurants, and I’m hoping that this is just as good. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have too many varieties of soy sauce.
A few years ago Francis Lam brought me back a tiny bottle of the legendary Yuan’s Royal soy sauce from Hong Kong. It was, hands down, the best I’ve ever had. Sadly, you can’t buy it here, but I keep looking for another one with equal depth.
I remember the first time I encountered kokum. It was at Lespinasse, where the late great Gray Kunz was using a whole range of spices found in no other French restaurant in New York. “What is that haunting flavor in this dish?” I asked the waiter. “I’ll find out,” he said.
He returned with the information that it was kokum. I’d never heard of it, and immediately went out to Jackson Heights to purchase the dried fruit.
I’ve been using it ever since. But now I’m discovering a whole host of new spices, thanks to this wonderful set of Tarot Cards produced by Tadaka Tarot. It’s an ingenious system for learning to use Indian spices: each card connects you to compatible spices and offers recipes. If you have friends who love Indian food but are intimidated by the range of spices, they’ll be thrilled with this gift.
And since I began by mentioning the late Chef Kunz, I might remind you that the famous Kunz spoon, which is found in great kitchens across the country. It too would make a wonderful gift. I wrote about it here in the Gift Guide of 2012.