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Tour of Southeast Asian cuisine via eclectic cookbooks

With varying success, 'Ricelands,' 'Southeast Asian Food,' 'Southeast Asian Flavors' and 'Cradle of Flavor' give Western cooks insights into the region's food.

September 16, 2009|Anne Mendelson

The culinary tag "Southeast Asian" has cachet in American foodie circles even though it has not yet achieved the all-purpose buzzword status of "Mediterranean" (though I seem to recall that someone has invented a "Southeast Asian turkey burger"). Books about the food of this vast and complex region are multiplying fast.

And as with Mediterranean, surveys that encompass at least a few locales somehow get cooks grasping principles faster than ones focused on the food of one place. But also as with the Mediterranean, choosing an ideal introduction is impossible; everyone has a different geographical and culinary take on the region's food.

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Several approaches

Four current works on the subject all present their own trade-offs. Do you want the book that covers the largest number of countries (Michael Freeman's "Ricelands"), or that has the largest number of recipes (Rosemary Brissenden's "Southeast Asian Food")? The one that charges at the subject with the most irrepressible energy (Robert Danhi's "Southeast Asian Flavors"), or that gives cooks the most careful guidance (James Oseland's "Cradle of Flavor")? Each is bound to meet some expectations and thwart others.

We can start with the fact that "Ricelands," my favorite of the lot, isn't even a cookbook. Freeman, an English photographer, has produced a wonderfully intrepid, quirky Southeast Asian pictorial overview based on many years' traveling, shooting, eating, and above all, thinking.

Reliving multiple journeys to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, he asks us to care deeply about lands not just sustained by rice but literally sculpted by it. He writes at fascinating length about things that get jettisoned from most cookbooks -- the sheer demands of this crop, the rural poverty of "ricelands," the historical logic behind the brilliant "vocabulary of taste" (aromatic spices, multitudinous herbs, pungent fermented fish products, galvanizing chiles) with which Southeast Asian cuisines surround the basic foodstuff.

Reading this book means casting loose from familiar culinary moorings and following Freeman on the trail of the birds' nests harvested (for the Chinese market) by death-defying Thai or Malaysian collectors scaling vertiginous ladders in remote caves. Or meeting a small, earnest-faced monkey trained to pick coconuts at just the right stage of ripeness. Or being reminded -- via Freeman's annotated litany of popular Southeast Asian wild foods including game, ants' eggs and dragonflies -- that not everybody shares our distaste for "creatures running around unwrapped and without a barcode." The 21 recipes appended at the end (metric measurements only) would give a test kitchen director fits, but can be tackled with a few interpretive liberties.

At the other end of the recipe spectrum, Brissenden's "Southeast Asian Food" first appeared in Australia as a slim volume (1969) and then as a greatly expanded one (1996). The version now being distributed in this country is a slightly rearranged Americanization (with a new section of informational color photos) of the 1996 Australian edition -- which I've lived with for many years and think that for sheer range of material still can't be beaten.

There are about 550 recipes from seven nations (no Philippines or Burma), together with large amounts of preliminary background information. It's too vast an agenda for anyone to tackle with flawless consistency; the wonder is not that Brissenden does better by some things than others but that she manages as much as intelligently as she does. The places she covers in greatest depth are Malaysia and Singapore (treated together), Indonesia and Thailand.

Having successfully cooked from the '96 Australian version, I can report that it offers many pleasures -- from Sumatran or Javanese fish stews to Nyonya-style tamarind-marinated fried shrimp to Vietnamese beef braised with lemon grass -- for U.S. cooks. Or at least, cooks unfazed by terse directions like "deep-fry the fish in hot oil in a wok until brown" or un-annotated terms such as "yellow soybeans" (meaning fermented Chinese soybeans in jars).

The U.S. edition, though welcome, is not all joy. Whoever undertook the uncredited American adaptation did the book a service by making the relative roles of different ethnic groups in Malaysia and Singapore clearer than they were in the original. But meanwhile, he or she also did very peculiar recipe makeovers resulting in gems like "3 cherry tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges" (the original has "egg tomatoes," meaning plum), while leaving details like some Down Under fish varieties unaltered.

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