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Review: In the Kitchen With ‘Asian Grandmothers’

Author Patricia Tanumihardja and "The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook."

It used to be that Asian foods served in American restaurants had to be Anglicized into submission, leading to such hybrid creations as fried chicken coated in lollipop-sweet lemon sauce or California rolls stuffed with avocado, crab and mayo. But nowadays sophisticated diners enjoy the real stuff with a passion, tweeting news of the best Uyghur barbecue or the freshest pho in town.

Even fervent fans of Asian food rarely get to know the comfort food made in the homes of Asians whose families have been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. Other than in ethnically diverse places such as  Hawaii, this subject has been strangely overlooked — until this book came along.

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” is a compilation of recipes by home cooks whose bloodlines lead back to Korea, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and India. What they cook in the U.S. has often morphed into something new and exciting, dishes that take advantage of American ingredients and kitchens while satisfying the palates of their children and grandchildren. First released as a hardback in October 2009, “Asian Grandmothers” was recently issued in paperback just as the hardback edition was about to sell out.

Author Patricia Tanumihardja was born to Indonesian parents and grew up in multicultural Singapore before settling in the States. She has worked as a food journalist and created an iPhone app glossary, “Asian Ingredients 101.” The book, her first, had its origins in a blog, where she recorded interviews with and recipes from grandmothers as well as aunts, mothers, fathers and “anyone who had a family recipe to share,” she explained in a note. “Several recipes were also from my mom and her mom, and a few were mine.” In addition, she found a few of the recipes in old cookbooks.

And so, with this book, Tanumihardja has cracked open the door to some of those mysterious kitchens, allowing non-Asians to finally enjoy all sorts of dishes that rarely appear in restaurants and which — at least up until now — could only be tasted when a friend’s popo or lola or ba ngoai would carry something insanely aromatic to a table surrounded by family and the occasional hungry friend.

That has happened to me over the years. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then attended the University of Hawaii. An invite home for dinner or a party meant that I soon would be happily munching on chewy fried chicken coated in rice powder, siphoning down slithery japchae noodles, or weeping tears of joy and pain over the insanely hot sausages my Lao friends brought to college parties. (Recipes for all those delights are included in this cookbook, although as might be expected with food designed to feed one’s offspring, this book’s Lao grandma considerably toned down the heat of her sausages.) For someone who was raised on tuna fish casserole and meatloaf, these were revelations of a whole new sensory spectrum.

The author makes the reader feel as if these Asian grandmothers were in the kitchen too, happy to offer the little asides, like “don’t worry if the custard falls a little” or “cilantro changes its flavor when it comes into contact with steel, so pick the leaves off the stems,” that make you feel part of an extended family. And it perhaps is this intimacy that makes me feel as if I finally have a permanent seat at those old friends’ family tables.

The recipes are a smorgasbord of some familiar and not-so-familiar foods, with some wonderful takes on old classics. For example, there’s the perfect recipe for chicken adobo, one that tasted rich and tart as it should, but also mellow and tropical thanks to the suggested addition of coconut milk. We devoured it along with bowls of the garlic fried rice that — as promised — were the perfect accompaniment.

“Asian Grandmothers” is a book to treasure, and all the recipes I tried worked perfectly. On a warm spring evening, following that chicken adobo dinner, I treated some friends to tall glasses of the Vietnamese classic parfait called che ba mau, which layers sweet beans with tapioca, crushed ice and fragrant homemade pandan syrup. We dug down into the colorful layers as we watched the sun set, sucking up the sweet liquid through thick straws. Hot Pakistani chai (the best spiced tea I’ve ever had, by the way) followed, and it would be difficult for anyone not to feel absolute contentment — and for some of us, nostalgia — after a meal like that.

Top photo composite:

“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.” Courtesy of Sasquatch Books

Author Patricia Tanumihardja. Credit: Mars Tanumihardja

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.