On December 13, 2011, just last month, I went on an Odyssey in search of a blend of spices that were new to me in every way. Similar to the poem Homer wrote about a Greek hero called Odysseus in which, he had to endure a long journey home after the fall of troy. However, my journey took place in modern day Oklahoma City as I scoured the city looking for something called oriental five spices. It has existed long before me, and still is used in Asian-style cooking today.
It is a delicate blend of fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and szechuan peppercorns and I needed this as I was going on a journey east, a place that I have never gone before. I was gathering ingredients to prepare a new dish called Char Sui pork belly and it called for the oriental five spice powder. As you can see by this first image on the left that I did indeed find this aromatic sweet smelling blend of spices that originated in the east, but what you do not know is the adventurous time I had finding this spice blend and much more.
So, it was quite a dreary day outside on the 13Th of December, as well as chilly and rainy and let me tell you, I don't typically go out driving on days like that unless I have too; so this let's you know that I really wanted to find this spice blend. I had every thing else that I needed for the recipe except this. I gathered all my things including my trusty camera and headed out in pursuit of my spices. The first place I went to is Whole Foods. A place that the great state of Oklahoma is proud to have in our city. A place where I have wanted to go since it arrived here and the place where my favorite t.v. show Top Chef contestants shop at wherever they are taping. It felt like I was at home when I walked into this market because I have seen the inside a thousand times on the show and all of them are constructed the same inside. I get to looking around in awe and amazement just having the time of my life. It was like I was a kid at Disney World. So, I ask the clerk where could I find the five spice powder and she takes me practically by the hand to the spice aisle and we look but they do not have it. However, if you have ever been to Whole Foods, you may know that they have a section in the spice aisle where they can blend almost any spice you want as a special blend, custom to your specifications. A guy that worked in the cooked foods area of Whole Foods goes out of his way to help me. He was on his break and said "I don't mind helping you, I'm in no rush to get back to the kitchen". They had every spice in the five except the star anise, but this nice young man told me about a place that I had never heard of called the Super Cao Nguyen market, which I would soon find out is the mother of ALL things Asian from A to Z. He took a piece of paper and drew a map to the place and told me how to get there. So I left, but first I took a detour to a place that I had been once before, to get some Italian Lady Fingers for when I made Tiramisu.
This detour would be to a little quaint establishment called the Mediterranean Imports and Deli. It's a wonderful place with international type foods specific to the middle east.
Meanwhile, I noticed my surroundings and how eclectic this place was as I took a seat to regroup plus, it was cold outside. There were people of different nationalities there and it felt like I stepped into Morocco or some cool place like that where they eat things like couscous. This gentleman in the photo below works at the deli and was chowing down on his lunch.
Okay, I'm warm now and decide to start looking for my five spice blend and the female clerk in the picture was very helpful in helping me look for it. I believe she said she was new and did not know where everything was so she looked high and low. There may have been a slight language barrier as I repeatedly said what I was looking for and out of know where, this customer shopping herself over heard me, turned to me and said, "you should go to the..... can you guess, Super Cao Nguyen market on 25Th street". I'm thinking wow, that's the second person that told me about the market. Well, I don't have to be told a third time, so I left again on my journey to the find the five spice powder.
Only this time I felt a certain excitement that made me feel like I could leap tall buildings, I had a feeling that this was going to be the place where I find my five spice powder. So I make a mad dash to my car in a single bound, on a mission to the east. So now, I used the directions that the cook from Whole Foods gave me and don't you know, a person with direction issues had no problem finding the next adventure on my journey.
As I drive up to this place in the Asian district in Oklahoma City, I think I hear angels singing and birds chirping because I know in my inner self that they have my five spice blend. I can feel it even before I walk into the Super Cao Nguyen Market.
Now as I said, I had never heard of this place, never knew it existed before that day. When I entered this market, It felt like I walked off the plane into Asia, China or Japan one. I brought my trusty camera in with me like any tourist would, and just as I was about to take my first photo inside, as I metaphorically drooled while looking at the Cao Nguyen's authentic Chinese vases and such; a security guard raced over to say "No picture taking allowed inside". I apologized profusely to the guard, he said that "it was okay". They had all kinds of cool things that you just wanted to touch and look at and all for a ridiculously low price. So I am really loving that and this whole experience. I ask what looked like the owner, "where can I find your five spice powder" and he said, "aisle 13". I go towards aisle 13 and on the way there, aisle 9,10, 11 and 12 have all these different new to me Chinese cooking wines, all kinds of Asian spices, marinades, sauces, everything that you might find in a Asian kitchen or a Chinese restaurant including art work. Things that I bet you could find over seas. I am just amazed and taken a back as I make my way over to aisle 13. I take my time savoring every moment as I look at everything before I get to my spices. I creep up on what looks like it could be my spices and sure enough, It was. I finally found my oriental five spice powder and I felt so elated and full of joy, a sense of fulfillment came over me. I felt like I could do anything because now, I get to go home and execute the Char Sui Pork Belly recipe.
A long days journey came to a climactic end as I purchased my five spice powder with joy and achievement in my heart. Here is the finished dish below and it did not disappoint. It was well worth the journey as it was full of flavors that I had never cooked with before. When you bite into this pork belly you can taste all the Asian seasonings that I used. Thanks for coming with me on my Odyssey to find my oriental five spice powder. I'll See you in the kitchen!
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Passionately Yours AJ