Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why You Need Several Asian Cookbooks

I have been a big fan of Asian cooking for a long time, and a dish that my wife and I both like a lot is Pad Thai, described by Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion as “Thailand’s most well-known noodle dish.” It came as an unpleasant surprise, then, to look through several Thai and Asian cookbooks that had a whole bunch of really great recipes, but no Pad Thai. The experience highlights one of two key reasons why it is important to have more than one Asian cookbook. The other reason has to do with finding unfamiliar ingredients.

The first reason it is important to have multiple cookbooks – for any cuisine you like, but especially for Asian cuisine – is that, as the Pad Thai example illustrates, your favorite cookbook for a particular cuisine may not have all of your favorite recipes from that cuisine. As a specific, non-Asian example, the movie “It’s Complicated” left us craving croque monsieur, which featured prominently in the story line. When we looked for a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, we were quite surprised not to find it there. Ultimately, we did find a very good recipe for croque monsieur in The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Ironically, it turns out this book also has a Pad Thai recipe that we never thought to look for when we were craving it some weeks earlier. Because Asia is larger both geographically and culturally than European countries like France or Italy, the problem of finding all of your favorite Asian recipes is even more challenging than finding all of your favorite French or Italian recipes. Fortunately, there are some really excellent Asian cookbooks available, and I have listed three of them here, along with a fourth book to help with the ingredients problem.

My three current favorite Asian cookbooks – mostly acquired after the Pad Thai craving episode – are The Food of Asia (Murdoch Books, 2009), The Essential Asian Cookbook (Murdoch Books, 1997), and Culinaria Southeast Asia (Tandem Verlag, 2008). All three of these books are large format (roughly 8.5 by 11 inches), and lushly illustrated with color photographs of Asia, key ingredients, and the completed dishes. Also, each book covers the cuisines of a range of different Asian countries: Culinaria Southeast Asia focuses on Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, The Food of Asia concentrates on China, India, Japan, and Thailand, and The Essential Asian Cookbook covers all of these countries, along with The Philippines, Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Since Culinaria Southeast Asia does not discuss Thai cuisine, it is not surprising that Pad Thai does not appear there, but it is surprising that the dish does not appear in The Food of Asia, either, since that one does feature Thai cuisine. (That said, the “noodles and rice” section of the book is about 40 pages long and it includes a lot of fabulous dishes I had never heard of before, ranging from Thai “stir-fried noodles with holy basil” to “crossing-the-bridge noodles” from China.) Fortunately, there is an excellent Pad Thai recipe in The Essential Asian Cookbook, complete with a mouth-watering photograph of the finished product.

I mention the Pad Thai example, not as criticism of these excellent cookbooks, but to illustrate the nature of the problem: Asia is an enormous place with a long cultural history, so no single book, no matter how good, can hope to capture it all. The second reason you need more than one Asian cookbook is that having multiple sources can be an enormous help with the ingredients problem. In fact, this second problem has two important practical components: first, how to find an ingredient you don't have, and second, how to decide what to substitute if you just can’t find it anywhere. For example, since they both discuss Thai cuisine, both The Essential Asian Cookbook and The Food of Asia give brief descriptions of “holy basil.” In the glossary of The Essential Asian Cookbook, a main entry on “basil” begins by noting:

“Three varieties of basil are used in Asian cooking; all of which are very aromatic. If any are unavailable, substitute fresh sweet basil or fresh coriander in cooked dishes and fresh mint in salads.”

The entry then goes on to list the three types, including a color photograph of each, the name in Thai, and a brief description. The description of “purple or holy basil (bai kaphrao)” notes that it has “narrow, dark, purple-reddish tinged leaves with a pungent, clove-like taste.” The glossary entry in The Food of Asia is shorter, simply noting that “Holy basil is either red or green with slightly pointed, variegated leaves,” but it does refer to page 228 for more details; that description includes a color photograph, the Thai name “bai ka-phrao,” and the additional information that holy basil comes in both red and white varieties. This description accompanies a recipe for “chicken with crisp holy basil leaves,” described as “one of the most common dishes you will come across in Thailand.” In contrast, while The Essential Asian Cookbook gives the potentially very useful substitution information quoted above for holy basil – information I have not been able to find in The Food of Asia – it does not give a recipe for this “most common of Thai dishes.” So, if you want both Pad Thai and chicken with crisp holy basil leaves, you need both books. (The Joy of Cooking doesn’t list “holy basil” in the index).

Asian grocery stores – some of them quite good – are becoming more common, and this helps greatly with the problem of finding ingredients, but matching what you need with what is available can still be a problem. One factor that is both a complication and something of a simplification is the influence of Chinese culture on Asian cooking. This point is illustrated clearly by Culinaria Southeast Asia: although China is not one of the countries included, the book begins with a discussion of Chinese cooking in Singapore that features 32 color illustrations of different dim sum dishes, each with their anglicized Chinese names (e.g., “Zha nai huang bao: deep-fried dumplings filled with lotus paste, on a garnish of omelet and cucumber”). This is followed by a discussion of China teas (with photographs of nine different kinds, with the names in Chinese characters accompanying each photo) and then a discussion of traditional Chinese herbal medicines and more exotic treatments (dried sea horses, geckos, and monkey head fungi, anyone?), all as a lead-in to soups. In fact, throughout the Singapore section of the book, Chinese characters accompany almost all of the descriptions of dishes, ingredients, cooking utensils, and food art. The color photos of 16 exotic vegetables on pages 56 and 57 include brief descriptions in English, with the anglicized Chinese names and the name in Chinese characters. All of this can be extremely useful if you are looking for some unfamiliar ingredient in an Asian market: if your recipe calls for “bitter melon,” it may be useful to know that the Chinese name is something like either “foo gwa” or “ku gua.”

This last point is the reason that I also particularly like A Popular Guide to Chinese Vegetables, by Martha Dahlen and Karen Phillipps, which may be regarded as a book-length expansion of pages 56 and 57 from Culinaria Southeast Asia. Published by Crown Publishers in 1983, their little book (113 pages) appears to be out of print, but it is still available used through Amazon. Each entry includes a detailed color drawing to help you identify the vegetable, an anglicized Chinese name, and the corresponding Chinese characters, along with information on appearance and advice on selection and cooking. The book discusses about 70 vegetables, ranging from familiar types like lettuce and eggplant to more exotic species like “slippery vegetable” and “dracontomellum,” a little olive-like thing whose name is translated approximately as “man-in-the-moon fruit.” While the primary focus of this book is on identifying and selecting Chinese vegetables, it does include a few recipes with some of the descriptions. Two particularly interesting examples are those given in the “lotus root” entry: the one for “octo-pork soup" calls for “one small dried octopus, ½ pound of pork bones, and 6 to 10 inches of lotus root, well scrubbed.” The other recipe is for “braised pork and lotus,” and it calls for fermented red bean curd (naam yue), noting that if you don’t have any naam yue a possible substitute is equal parts dark and light soy sauce, “but the taste will be completely different.”

So far, I haven’t found the same advice in any of the other three cookbooks, highly as I reccomend them: that’s why you need a small collection.

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