"Exotic cuisines"--remember the ring those words used to have? You still see them on magazine pages and book jackets, but what they tend to mean now is that somebody hasn't caught up with the real world.
"Exotic" honestly won't do any more for the daily bread of the people who might have put together your television set in Kuala Lumpur or grown your table fruit in Chile. Or are perhaps your neighbors .
Even places that remain nearly closed to foreign traffic--for instance, Myanmar (formerly spelled, and still pronounced, Burma)--can never again seem exotic as things did before the world became so dizzyingly interconnected. I believe the global village, and not the caprice of jaded tastemakers deciding "Scratch French Classic" (or whatever), is the true reason American cooks are seeking out guides to less-explored culinary territories.
The tastemakers may not have done a great job of registering the facts of life, but it isn't entirely their fault. There just aren't enough competent and genuinely bicultural cooking interpreters to introduce the rest of us to the "new" cuisines.
Luckily, some cookbook publishers are beginning to take up the challenge. The appearance of handsome paperback introductions to four Asian cuisines in the past year from a single publisher, Chronicle Books, is a happy instance.
The Chronicle series led off last year with Nancie McDermott's "Real Thai" and has continued with "Under the Golden Pagoda" by Aung Aung Taik, "The Korean Kitchen" by Copeland Marks with Manjo Kim, and "At the Japanese Table" by Lesley Downer. These attractive well-designed books would make someone a nice gift set--all the nicer in that the individual layouts seem to have been planned for contrast rather than uniformity.
The approaches of the four writers are also extremely divergent, which is great up to a point, but has a downside: Some fulfill expectations that others don't even begin to address. Whether by fluke or for good reason, the strongest book ("Real Thai") takes on the cuisine that has already put down the sturdiest popular roots on the American scene, while the least familiar food (Burmese) gets the poorest treatment.
On a less extreme level, Lesley Downer's Japanese survey does a thoughtful job with a well-recognized area while "The Korean Kitchen" is a hard-working but not always very illuminating addition to an amazingly neglected field.
The prettiest book is surely "At the Japanese Table" (companion to a BBC television series that hasn't been aired in this part of the world). It also ranks high for general sensitivity to its subject. True, you can buy a far more inclusive manual in Shizuo Tsuji's "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art" (Kodansha Press: $29.95) or even find guides to sub-specialties like sushi, \o7 soba\f7 , or Japanese garnishes. But for a brief general introduction, this has no competition.
Downer's aim apparently is to help the uninitiated understand a way of cooking and eating rather than to present a Japanese \o7 cordon bleu\f7 curriculum. The roughly 100 recipes (supplemented with Chris Turner's color photographs and a lot of detailed directions for such procedures as skewering, garnish-cutting, \o7 makizushi\f7 -rolling, etc.) present good versions of ordinary Japanese dishes like plain \o7 miso \f7 soup, spinach with sesame dressing, salt-grilled fish, or "moon-viewing noodles."
On the other hand, they also nod to the age of intercultural hybrids--duck breast simmered in a sauce bound with \o7 kuzu \f7 starch, "flower sushi" with "petals" of smoked salmon folded around rice, pan-braised sliced beef rolled around a trio of vegetables.
Downer astutely organizes her recipe chapters by Japanese cooking categories--e.g., steamed foods (\o7 mushimono\f7 ) or one-pot dishes (\o7 nabemono\f7 ) rather than American menu categories. In contrast to some who laud the supposed healthfulness of the Asian diet without facing up to its real emphases, she generally uses meat in modest amounts per person that underscore its historical rarity in Japan, and is no spendthrift with seafood either. Such choices in themselves do much to get neophytes off on the right educational foot.
If you know something about cooking you should be able to follow the pleasant, well-chosen recipes. I had no problems making the lovely \o7 chirinabe \f7 (a one-pot dish of fish, tofu and assorted vegetables briefly cooked in a light stock and served with several attractive accompaniments) or the salmon teriyaki. Those who might dither over how much liquid to use in the \o7 chirinabe\f7 ("a large saucepan" filled "two-thirds full") or what size pan to use for sauteing the teriyaki ingredients, or who aren't up to minor adjustments of timings and seasonings, may sometimes have a struggle.