Some people collect art. I collect cookbooks. From no more than a dozen between the two of us a decade ago, my husband and I now own in excess of a thousand volumes, including a substantial collection of Southeast Asian cookbooks.
Whence I had taken the foods and flavours I grew up with for granted in the past, my gastronomic jaunts have made me realise that the same aromas and tastes of my childhood dishes are deeply ingrained in other (particularly regional) cultures and traditions as well, prompting me to discover flavours both new and old.
While I was editing Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchen (2007), I tasted biko (a glutinous rice cake flavoured with coconut milk and brown sugar) for the first time. Like Proust’s petit madeleine, it reminded me of kheer or payasam (a sweet South Asian rice pudding) and sago gula melaka (a pudding made of sago pearls drenched in coconut cream and palm sugar), both treasured indulgences of my youth. I proceeded to bombard a friend with so many questions about Filipino cuisine that she actually sent me a copy of Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine (Fenix, 2008) to shut me up once and for all. My current fixation from the book is guinomis, a sweet, layered dessert drink of sago, agar agar cubes and pounded young rice grains topped with shaved ice, drenched in a pandan and molasses syrup and coconut cream.
Likewise, I am besotted with Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for nui xiao Maggi (garlicky noodles with Maggi seasoning and butter) in her Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (2006). The addition of Maggi seasoning transforms it into instant comfort food – and a perfect complement for slices of pork neck or salmon confit marinated in Asian herbs and spices at nouveaux Southeast Asian dinner parties.
Another much consulted encyclopaedic tome in our collection is Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food (2008). Using short rib cubes instead of the traditional stewing beef, her rendang daging (a beef stew cooked in coconut milk and spices) is transformed into a contemporary and ultra indulgent dish. We served it repeatedly at our dinner parties for months, pairing it with gudangan (mixed vegetables with coconut dressing) and aromatic nasi ulam (savoury rice with herbs).
Other classics we often pore through include Traditional Malaysian Cuisine (Samad/Hassim, 1983) and Sylvia Tan’s Singapore Heritage Food (2004). And after watching the dynamic Wendy Hutton in action at a cooking class two years ago, we rediscovered her Food of Love: Four Centuries of East-West Cuisine (2007), an outstanding collection of Eurasian recipes from across Asia. We particularly adore her recipe for roti john, which is simply a hunk of baguette coated with a mixture of minced beef and eggs and then fried. It is the perfect hors d’oeuvre pairing for a sparkling apéritif.
My current guilty pleasure is pastry chef Pichet Ong’s The Sweet Spot (Ong/Ko, 2007), a collection of Asian-inspired desserts. His aromatic coconut soufflés are irresistible, as are his chocolate puddings spiked with cardamom pods and star anise, crowned with caramelised Rice Krispies.
While it is unlikely that we will ever cook our way through all those books in this lifetime, I am convinced that these manuals and wonderful sources of inspiration will continue to offer precious glimpses into other places and other times for years and years to come.
Tan Su-Lyn makes up the other half of popular food blog chubbyhubby.net.
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