Walking down grocery store aisles is a much different experience today from how it was 10 years ago, when the ethnic-foods section often meant tortilla chips and jars of salsa. Now an intrepid shopper might stumble across anything from unsweetened coconut milk to bonito flakes (thin flakes shaved off a piece of bonito tuna that has been smoked, dried and fermented). The question is, how often does stumbling turn into buying?
New and unfamiliar ingredients are naturally intimidating, but often worth investigating. Such is the case with fish sauce. I must admit that based on the name alone, this might be an ingredient I would ordinarily ignore. Frankly, taking a whiff of it doesn't help its case much.
As it happens, though, I love Thai food, and fish sauce is a key ingredient to almost every Thai dish. Its salty earthiness lends a unique flavor to anything it's added to and most Southeast Asian cooks find it indispensible. So, if I wanted to cook Thai food, I needed to get over my fish-sauce apprehension, as did the rest of my family.
Once I started cooking with it, I quickly discovered that its name and aroma didn't translate at all into how it would actually taste in a dish. In fact, much like salt, the addition of fish sauce tends to enhance all the other flavors in a dish without imparting a strong flavor of its own.
Time to experiment
Introducing a challenging ingredient to your family can take some creative thinking. If you're not yet in the habit of pushing your family's culinary envelope (and even if you are), it's helpful to get everyone invested in the experience along the way. That can mean taking a trip to the store together so everyone can participate in choosing the "mystery" ingredient. Or in the case of these Mango Summer Rolls, get everyone involved in making a dish that includes the ingredient.
What's so interesting about these rolls is that they include a few items that may be new (such as fish sauce and rice noodles), and to kids, one that is definitely exciting. Rice paper wraps are rounds of brittle translucent material that, when soaked momentarily in hot water, turn soft and pliable. The transformation is fast and can seem almost like a magic trick to a young child. When soft, these rounds make the perfect wrapper for an array of fresh fillings.
Although it might take you a time or two to get the hang of making these summer rolls, don't be discouraged. The results are worth it and the learning curve is fast and fun, especially when you're doing it together. Remember, the summer rolls don't have to be perfect. They'll taste good even if they have a few holes in them.
So next time you're wandering up and down the supermarket aisles, keep an open mind. You never know what you -- or your kids -- will find.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.