This year, I amassed a 3-foot-tall stack of food-related books. I bought most of them, publishers sent me a number of them, and friends gifted me books picked up in Asia. There are cookbooks, reference works, and memoirs. I’ve cooked from a handful of them and read others like novels to absorb the authors’ ideas, nuances, and messages. The gorgeous four books above caught me by surprise with their approach to presenting Asian foodways. They were written by Australians or Brits.
Indochine is written by Vietnamese-Australian Luke Nguyen, a Sydney-based chef/restaurateur and television show host. His first book, The Songs of Sapa (reissued in the States as My Vietnam), surveyed the country’s food as part of his food show on SBS in Australia and the Cooking Channel. This time, Luke traces the French elements in Vietnamese cooking. His travels lead him to interviewing people in Vietnam as well as to meet up with family members in France. I can hear Luke’s Aussie voice in the personal narrative of his journey. It reminds me of his very generous soul and how he toured me through his Little Saigon in Cambramatta, outside of Sydney.
I am not one who wants to romanticize the French colonial period in Vietnam because a lot of terrible things happened and people suffered. Nor, do I ever want to give the impression that Vietnamese food is an offshoot of France. Call me a proud culinary nationalist.
Nevertheless, Indochine canvases traditional and modern Vietnamese food to paint a picture of timeless fusion cooking. Luke highlights the French-ness in each recipe but at the end of the day, they’re Vietnamese. Ingredients and cooking techniques travel the world as people immigrate and resettle. Indochine features Luke’s interactions with Vietnamese, French-Vietnamese, French, and Vietnamese-French people along with their recipes, which range from street food to fancy plated fare. From that mix of content, you get an interesting global perspective of Vietnamese cuisine.
(Note: If you yearn for a historic and rigorous look at the French colonial era in Vietnam, check Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam by Erica Peters.)
Bill Granger’s Bill’s Everyday Asian feels as bright, fresh, and exciting as his restaurants in Sydney. Last week when Karen Shinto came to work and taste instant pho, I showed her the book and she lit up. "Australians know how to style books," she remarked.
What’s more, they have a knack for juxtaposing cultures in a natural manner that’s not kitschy or ethnic-specific. Images like this one from the book are just delicious and beautiful:
I took one look and thought of the practically sinful Chinese-Portuguese custard tarts I made a while back. Granger’s food looks tasty and the situation can be anywhere. There is a balanced amount of respect and mash-ups in his recipes. For example, he understand that “tofu needs very little to make it delicious” and serves it simply with some seasoned soy sauce. On the other hand, he explains that the meatballs with tamarind are his Asian take on an American classic.
Granger conveys a progressive sensibility about Asian foodways, which means that he does not see them as mysterious or precious. He wants to enjoy them.
Nigel Slater’s Tender is a wonderful homage to gardening and home cooking. It is an infectious work filled with beautiful photography and inviting prose. I was delighted and surprised to find a chapter on Chinese greens.
Slater writes in his introduction:
There are moments when I long for a plate of steamed greens. … The greens I obsess over the most, the leaves I will take an hour’s bus journey simply to get my hands on, are usually the Chinese brassicas. The gai lan and bok choy, the choy sum, and mizuna leaves are ones I never seem to tire of… The real moment of glory for the Chinese brassicas is when they team up with high-octane dressings such as salty oyster sauce, searing chiles, and chopped and sizzling garlic.
I love his lively characterization of oyster sauce as ‘high-octane’ and chiles as ‘searing.’ One of the UK’s most respected food writers, Slater’s work is charmingly no-nonsense, enthusiastic, and encouraging. He discusses Asian vegetables as vegetables, without exoticizing or fetishizing them. They are part of his repertoire as much as beets and Jerusalem artichokes are. Slater cooks and writes like many of us do – in a cross-cultural manner. There’s a lot to savor and learn from Tender.
Yotam Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian but he runs a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant in London. His much-lauded and latest book, Plenty, embraces flavors and traditions from all over the globe. It's an uncommon collection of spirited vegetarian recipes.
For example, a recipe for savoy cabbage and parmesan rind soup sits next to a recipe for sautéed Brussels sprout and tofu. Black pepper tofu is triumphantly described as looking “as if it’s been prepared at a top Chinese restaurant” and employs a ton of butter, shallots, chiles, garlic, 3 kinds of soy sauces, and 5 tablespoons of crushed black peppercorns. Some may see Ottolenghi’s bold approach as jumbling up cuisines but he engages traditional Asian ingredients with as much gusto as he would give to any other ingredient. He treats them equally.
That perspective is seen in the two-page photo spread above. There are home kitchen scenes on the left and a close-up of cellophane noodles on the right. That’s how Ottolenghi cooks and lives. That’s plenty fine by me.
Good books reinforce universal lessons as they illuminate something new. In breaking down barriers between cuisines and techniques, these four works underscore a trend toward better appreciation and understanding of Asian ingredients and foodways. That makes me extremely glad.
Obviously, there are books that I’ve overlooked. In fact, my 3-foot stack of books is just a few feet away from my desk where I’m typing. Share your thoughts on these or your favorite cookbooks from 2011.
2011 recipes informed and inspired by cookbooks:
- Crunchy Shrimp Balls/Chef's Special Balls (Easy Chinese Recipes by Bee Yinn Low)
- Kaffir Lime Fried Chicken (Twenty by Michael Ruhlman)
- Tamarind Glazed Lamb Ribs (Odd Bits by Jennifer McLagan)
- Red Wine and Beef Stew in Claypot (A Franco-Viet Experiment) (Odd Bits by Jennifer McLagan)
- Honey and Rose Water Tapioca Pudding (Super Natural Cooking Everyday by Heidi Swanson)
- North Indian Egg Curry (Savouring India by Julie Sahni)