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Have cookbook, will travel

(article, Christina Eng)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] When I tire of the foods I make — when I get too familiar with flavors and ingredients, items from the market I can rattle off the top of my head — I reach for cookbooks. Between the covers, I hope to find culinary inspiration. Flipping through text, I vow to learn new recipes and techniques, to impress my taste buds again.

In Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, I encounter herbs and condiments I’ve not worked with. A cooking teacher in Santa Cruz, California, Nguyen kicks off with a section on such essential Vietnamese elements as Thai basil and fish sauce. 

Thai basil is commonly served fresh with bowls of pho, Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup, alongside mung bean sprouts, mint, and lime. Fish sauce, made from fermented fish and salt, is frequently “sprinkled straight onto hot rice, mixed with other ingredients for dipping sauces, and used in cooking to add depth of flavor,” Nguyen writes.

Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 1975, weeks before the fall of Saigon, writes also of colonial influences on traditional dishes. The Chinese, neighbors to the north, controlled Vietnam as early as the second century BC. They introduced into the local diet items such as rice noodles, ginger, and star anise. The French, who occupied the country during the tail end of the 1800s, brought with them an affinity for pâté, beef and baguettes. 

I am intrigued by Nguyen’s instructions for Turmeric Catfish with Rice Noodles, Scallions, and Dill, a recipe her family perfected over the years. I want to try my hand at banh mi — baguette sandwiches filled with garlicky meats, marinated daikon and carrot, chiles, cucumber, and cilantro. I create a grocery list for Beef Stewed with Tomato, Star Anise, and Lemongrass. 

James Oseland focuses on dishes from parts of Southeast Asia as well. His book, Cradle of Flavor, provides remarkable insight on local ingredients and regional specialties. 

The editor-in-chief at Saveur magazine, Oseland visited the islands on a number of occasions over the past two decades. He lost himself in the culture, meeting people, eating and cooking with them, and collecting recipes. In Cradle of Flavor, he showcases more than 100 dishes, including a variety of sambals (puréed or finely chopped chile-based pastes used for additional heat) and satays (skewers of marinated meat or seafood cooked over a hot grill).

He offers detailed directions for authentic Javanese Fried Rice and a slightly different take on coconut rice called Yellow Rice. There’s also Garlic-Marinated Tempeh, Black Pepper Crab, Potato Rendang (a “sweet-fiery dish of slow-braised new potatoes”), and Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (“spiked with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, galangal, and vinegar”). He makes them all sound so good. 

In The Soul of a New Cuisine, New York City chef Marcus Samuelsson delivers his own tempting version of Yellow Rice. Dutch traders brought the dish, he writes, to South Africa from Indonesia: “In its most traditional form, it is white rice cooked with raisins and turmeric, which gives it a bright golden hue.” He jazzes his up with corn, mango, and yellow bell peppers.

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Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden by adoptive parents, Samuelsson traveled across Africa over the years to learn more of his personal history and cultural heritage. As he went from one end of the continent to the other, sampling foods and absorbing techniques, he realized the importance of simple preparations. 

“Most of the cooking,” he writes, “is what we think of as ‘poor man’s food’: simple stews, grilled meats and fish, steamed vegetables, filling side dishes, and a range of breads. Yet these simple foods are anything but dull.”

From Libya and Morocco in the north to Cape Town in the south, from Mali and Senegal in the west to his native Ethiopia, Samuelsson watched and worked. In time, he devised recipes for Mango Couscous, influenced by the flavors of North Africa, and Chicken-Peanut Stew, eaten throughout West Africa. He developed recipes for Plantain-Coconut Stew, a nice vegetarian option, and Bobotie, a one-dish casserole popular in South Africa. 

He gives me the impetus I need to step out of my comfort zone, to experiment with different flavors in the kitchen. Like Nguyen and Oseland, he reminds me of the foods I have yet to try. With their help, I line up dinner ideas for the next several weeks. My taste buds won’t know what hit them.

p(bio). [christina_eng@hotmail.com "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.


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