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South East Asian Food

A new cook book landed on my doorstep this week, and as I was thinking about new posts for this site I thought it was time to review another cook book, actually when I say another, I just mean a cook book other than a Jamie book.

South East Asian Food by Rosemary Brissenden has been re-released this month and updated for 2011.  The book was first released in 1970. The original book covered recipes from Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia, but Rosemary has updated this version to include Laos and Vietnam, which were inaccessible to tourists in the 1960’s.

The first thing you see when you look at this book, apart from the gorgeous mat olive green cover is the original review from Elizabeth David “A book that every serious cook should possess.” I’m a serious home cook, but what did I make of the book…I wanted to get cooking Asian cuisine the minute I got the book, but I underestimated what a ‘book for a serious cook’ would look like.  I was overwhelmed by the number of recipes and didn’t know where to start.  I like the way the book is organised, by country and then by cooking style, so if you are unsure what to cook, I would suggest you first decide which country you would like to cook from and then how you’d like to cook: will it be curry? Or stir fry? Or maybe something grilled or roasted?

I have been craving Indian curry recently. Not a country covered by this book, however, the section dedicated to Malaysia and Singapore is further divided into the cuisines that define these countries: Malay, Chinese, Nyonya, Eurasian and Indian. So there I had it, the first dish I tried was an Indian Keema curry.  Not something I have made at home before, but the recipe seemed fairly straightforward.  This was one of the better curry recipes I read, as it actually gave fairly specific cooking times. Some of the other recipes I looked at and discounted had instructions that read “simmer until meat is tender”. This is fine if you are an experienced cook, and have a few hours to spare,  but I fear someone who hasn’t cooked a curry before would fall at the first hurdle with these recipes and either end up with tough, inedible curry or find themselves eating dinner three hours after they intended to.

The next dish I tried was a Thai dish.  I have to say, as I was looking for dishes to cook, I was looking for dishes I was familiar with, but the Thai section does not contain a recipe for Pad Thai, nor does it contain a recipe for Massaman curry (the dish my Australian Thai friend raves about) so I settled for the Tom Yam Kung – a hot and spicy (unless Nic Cooks makes it) prawn soup. I have to confess I love the flavours of Asian cooking but I’m not very good with chilli, despite my best efforts to train myself to eat it.  This means when we go out for an Asian meal I am confined to the realms of Korma and Pad Thai, but if I cook Asian dishes at home I can cook whatever I like and moderate the chilli to suit my taste. This is exactly what I did when I made the Tom Yam Kung and it was truly sensational. It had the classic sweet and sour taste but just enough ‘hot’ that I could taste but still eat.  I added additional chilli into Graham’s dish to suit his more usual palate.

So I’m often drawn to recipes that are quite specific. I like to know exactly how a recipe should be the first time I cook it; then I can work out how to alter it to my taste the next time.  The recipes in South East Asian Food were not exact enough for me on the first reading, but as I started to cook, I realised for an experienced cook it was actually quite liberating.  I wasn’t bound to anything, and I could make the dish my own from the get go, and still end up with something that felt pretty authentic.

Bring on the next dishes.  I was feeling a little more confident now, having tried familiar dishes, with some idea of how they should turn out, I decided to jump head first into the deep end.  I have never eaten, let alone cooked a Cambodian dish, so why not give it a try?  Again, this book is for the serious cook, it has no photographs, but the descriptions paint a pretty good picture and the Nheam Sakh Ko Salat, or beef and lettuce salad painted a very real picture in my head.  Although this is a Cambodian salad it painted a very real image of a 1970’s salad in my head. I was not old enough to be eating salad in the 1970’s but my parents were not the trend setters I like to think they were, and they were still serving that classic 1970’s salad well into the 80’s, so I have clear memories of this at family gatherings.  As the recipe outlines, I carefully lined my serving bowl with cos lettuce and having arranged the stir fried beef in the centre of the dish, I carefully arranged the tomatoes, hard boiled egg and sliced onion around the edge. On first sighting, there is absolutely nothing typically Asian about this dish, it has walked straight out of the 1970’s, but the sweet and sour dressing saved the day. If I did this again I would re-vamp the presentation for today and it would probably  be as popular as a Thai beef salad, only easier and just as tasty.

The other dish I have tried from this book is the Nasi Kebuli or the Indonesian ‘Indian Rice’.  I went for this dish as it is a dish I would never normally dream of cooking.  Rice is an accompaniment so I usually spend all my time on the curry, or the stir fry then simply boil the rice and serve. But just this once, as I had a new, shiny cookbook, I decided to try something I wouldn’t normally bother with.  This involved poaching some chicken, then cooking the rice in the poaching liquor, then steaming the rice and serving with the fried chicken.  A little more effort than I would normally go to for rice, especially as I have a love hate relationship with the small, white grain.  Rice was the focus of the first real argument for me and my now husband, (but then fresh faced boyfriend.) We were traveling around South East Asia in 1998, on a very tight budget, so pretty much every meal contained rice.  After 8 weeks I was over it.   I hadn’t traveled further than the North of France prior to this. So one night, just before dinner, I stamped my feet and declared I wanted “bangers and mash like my dad makes.” This wasn’t possible in the Cameron Highlands, so I had to settle for roti and rice. Needles to say, when we made it to Western shores, I didn’t eat rice for many, many years.

Back to the book.  What is the verdict?  It most definitely is a book for the serious cook, you have to know what you are aiming for, as the cooking instructions are not specific enough for a novice. The lack of photos also means you have to be pretty confident with where you are going, but having said that, for a book with no photos the illustrations are quite pleasing.

Has the book been updated for the modern cook? I’m not convinced. I was a little concerned by the inconsistency of measurements. Some parts of the recipes have been updated into grams and other parts are still cups.  The recipes have apparently been added to, particularly to include ingredients that were not readily available in the 1970’s, however, I cannot confirm this as I do not have the original.  Personally if I were updating the recipe I would also have removed the shark fin recipes. Shark fin may have been acceptable in the 1970’s but in 2011, this is not an ingredient the responsible, sustainable cook would be working with.

Would I buy this book? Not if I had seen it on the shelf a few months ago.  Twelve months ago, I would never had admitted it, but I think I was highly swayed by pictures when it came to recipes; but doing the Jamie challenge has forced me to cook the recipes without pictures, which has actually lead to some amazing discoveries and this book definitely has a few gems if you take the time time to read it.  It is also a book that you can, and should read.  There is information at the beginning of each chapter about each region and a lengthy introduction about the updates.  So now I have started, I can’t wait to cook more and extend my Asian cooking repertoire.

So the moral to this tale? Even if a book doesn’t have enticing photos of the recipes, give it a go. And for this book, I agree with Elizabeth David, you probably do have to be a serious cook to execute these recipes, well, certainly one with  little Asian experience. But don’t let that put you off, practice makes perfect (and I of all people should know that…)


Comment from louise brown
Time July 24, 2011 at 6:26 am

Fab photos, fab dishes, fab review

Comment from Sam
Time July 25, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Awesome review Nic! The book sounds great, although if it lacks step by step photos then it’s not for me. The photos you took were amazing. Maybe you and Rosemary could make a third edition… where you do the step by step pictures?

Comment from Jaie
Time July 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Loved the review! The hot and spicy soup sounds fabulous. Something I have never tried but you may have inspired me to… Next time I go to a Thai restaurant that is!

Comment from Clance
Time July 26, 2011 at 10:03 am

Hi Nic, looks great!
You’ve spurred me into action as I too received the book in the post from HG.

Looking forward to road-testing a few recipes – not sure if I can top your fabulous photos though!

Nice work.

Comment from nic
Time July 26, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thanks Clance, it’s well worth a go, there are many more recipes I will be trying in the next few weeks!

Comment from Linda
Time July 31, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Great review of an interesting sounding book. Despite us all having just eaten, weve looked at the photos and now all want something as tasty as that!
Not having pictures in a cook book doesnt bother me, but with pictures like youve taken, I’d be even more inclined to buy it! Thanks for the heads up though on the inconsistancies in the measuring….that make a big difference to a cook!

Comment from Erin
Time August 2, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Those dishes look amazing and very very tasty! I’m putting my hand up for taste testing duties (it’d be a trial but i’d do it for scientific purposes, haha). As a very novice chef i’d be a little scared to attempt these recipes but im happy to live vicariously through u:)

Comment from Martyna @ WholesomeCook
Time August 9, 2011 at 11:25 am

Great review – I love South East Asian food and have recently been discovering the spread of Cambodian and Loas(ian?) cuisine… so fresh and vibrant. And thanks for the ensouragement on cooking from books with no pictures – one is stiing on my desk, staring at me…
PS I share your views on travel through Asia though – the rice abundance in particular, and longing for a good ol’ steak or bangers and mash.

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