Articles in International
The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.
Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.
However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.
In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.
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Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.
A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”
Food and sex inspire writers
Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.
The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.
But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:
“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes
Pour forth tears,
I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī
Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”
The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.
Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.
There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.
Every now and then a new cookbook comes along that stands above the rest. Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant’s “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” is such a book. There’s nothing really new about it, and this is its strength. In an age of obsession for novelty, here comes a cookbook without gimmicks, a handbook for amateurs and adepts alike, a holy writ of Italian pasta cookery that I wish could, once and for all, put to rest the deplorable mistreatment of Italian pasta recipes at the hands of American cooks.
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By Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant
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Brought to you by the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” and “Popes, Peasants, and Lore from Rome and Lazio,” this valuable work contains a vast body of culinary knowledge that can only be gained from an intimate attachment to the Italian way of life.
No meddling editor’s hand has constrained the writers to Americanize ingredients, simplify techniques or modernize recipes to suit the foreigner. The legendary editor of this title, Maria Guarnaschelli, has shaped other important cookbooks, famously, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” and Diane Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” and this one is the jewel in her crown.
The best cookbook writers can paint you pictures with their words and draw you into their world of food in a way television celebrities cannot. Cuisine is, after all, not only about recipes, but also about culture, people and where they live, what they eat, and why.
One author is a native Italian with roots in Bologna (coined “the belly of Italy”) who learned pasta-making as a child at the elbows of the sisters in a convent school. The other is an American scholar of classical archaeology who was transplanted to Rome more three decades ago. They take you, forks in hand, through the marvels of a corner of Italy’s cookery that is at once timeless and timely.
A guide to pasta technique
Besides its erudition and charm, this book is a manual for proper cooking technique and the whys and wherefores of matching of pasta shapes to sauces. If the recipes are true to Italian tradition, they are not stale. Most, such as spaghetti with clam sauce, are classics. Some are strictly orthodox, like Bolognese meat sauce, which stipulates no tomatoes and no garlic. The authors tell us that the Bolognese, who are fixated on preserving their glorious cuisine’s authenticity, have gone so far as to register the genuine recipe with a notary.
Others, including chestnut and wild fennel soup, have rarely been tasted outside the Italian kitchen. A few will show you tricks you probably never knew before, like a way of cooking eggplant that reduces oil absorption, learned from the revered, still living, Italian chef, Gualtiero Marchesi.
What makes this holy text fresh is writer-translator Fant’s lively voice and careful research. About the emblematic Sicilian pasta alla norma, she tells us that it was not named for the opera, as every other source will tell you, but after the word for “marvel” in Catanese dialect.
Further, Fant writes, when the original dish was invented by Marietta Martoglio, it was topped with “a snowfall of grated ricotta salata.” With a mere phrase, we are there, gingerly walking across a bridge of nimble words into that early 1900s kitchen, inhaling the aromas of the steaming spaghetti lapped in glittering fried dark-purple eggplant slices and veiled in flakes of cheese.
There are countless other bites of history. We learn that the Pythagoreans, who subscribed to reincarnation, eschewed the primordial staple of Mediterranean peoples, fava beans, because they were thought to nestle human souls.
I have read this captivating book from cover to cover, digesting every phrase, savoring every recipe, relishing all the fine points, ancient wisdom and new visions that make it utterly seductive.
I’ve written five titles about Italian pasta cooking of my own, and for me reading it has been like puttering in the kitchen with two old friends who can all but finish each other’s sentences, yet have so much that is new to tell one another. With its sensitive and rich photography, it makes for a book that is both useful and beautiful, and bound to be treasured, even by the reader with a groaning shelf of other Italian classics.
Amatriciana Guanciale, Tomato and Pecorino Romano
From “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant
The reader ought to go to the recipe in the book for the savory and local history of this popular topping for pasta from Lazio’s northeastern province; it is “one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom,” the authors write. Rarely do recipes for its preparation tell you, as the locals would and which the authors do, that one of the secrets to its success is to toss the piping hot pasta after draining, first with the grated pecorino, then with the sauce; this method gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.
This sauce is used on flour-and-water shapes. This includes spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but also rigatoni, casarecce or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapretti/pici.
For the condimento (sauce):
2½ ounces (70 grams) guanciale [salt-cured pork cheek], cut into thin strips
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion (any kind), chopped (optional but recommended)
1 pound (450 grams) red, ripe sauce tomatoes, broken into pieces, or canned Italian peeled tomatoes, drained
1 small piece dried chile
For the pasta:
1 pound (450 grams) pasta (see suggestions above)
7 rounded tablespoons (70 grams) grated pecorino
1. Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Take a piece to assess how salty it is.
2. When the meat just begins to become crisp, add the chopped onion (if using) and sauté gently until transparent.
3. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the guanciale).
4. Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.
This much can be done earlier in the day, but the sauce is not customarily made in advance or kept, except casually as leftovers for the next day.
5. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8 liter) pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
6. Warm a serving bowl in a low oven. If the oven is not practical, warm the bowl just before use with hot water, even a ladleful of the pasta cooking water.
7. Drain the pasta and put it in the warmed serving bowl. Toss it first with the grated cheese, then with the sauce. Serve immediately.
Top composite photo:
Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book’s editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book’s launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce.
“Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.
It’s rare these days to pick up a cookbook and peek into an entirely different world. A new language; new colors and shapes; sensations with which we aren’t familiar; and, of course, new tastes. “D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” (Phaidon, September 2013) by acclaimed Chef Alex Atala of São Paulo, Brazil, is an exception, an exciting — and, if I may, an exotic — exception.
Atala, chef/owner of D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil, has consistently been rated as one of the world’s best chefs in recent years. He grew up in Brazil, then moved to Europe, where he worked in construction and as a DJ. The next chapter of his story seems almost predictable these days — like so many chefs, he “fell” into cooking. He became deeply interested in the modern experimentation emerging from Spain’s elite restaurants, but also built a skill base in classic French technique. And then, at last, he returned home.
By Alex Atala
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Since beginning his life as a chef back in Brazil, Atala has been tirelessly interested in excavating indigenous Brazilian ingredients and bringing them into view in the world of fine dining. Though he has published a number of gorgeous volumes in Brazil, this is his first book in English and released by a non-Brazilian publisher. In addition to acting as an entry point to the emerging scene of contemporary Brazilian cuisine, the book acts as a political statement, a flag staked in the ground of place and identity that asserts Brazilian cuisine as a distinct entity. The title, “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients,” is a pointed one — these ingredients have been used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, but have long been ignored in the realm of haute cuisine. The book is historical tribute, but devoid of nostalgia; Atala’s cooking is decidedly modern.
Before I go any further, let it be known: “D.O.M.” is not destined to become the workhorse of the adventurous home cook. Indeed, it may not even be a book intended for chefs. Like so many of Phaidon’s books, it is a thing to read and see. Many of the recipes give incomplete instructions for how to prepare recipes or their various components. And, truth be told, having observed Atala in his kitchen on a cookbook research trip last summer, I wouldn’t want to attempt what he and his staff do in my Brooklyn kitchen. For one, I’m not that skilled a cook. Second, and more important, the ingredients that make Atala’s cooking so exceptional simply aren’t available here in the U.S., even in my home city of New York.
Europe, West Africa influences in Brazilian cuisine
Brazilian food today is an amalgam of influences. Portugal and West Africa have played major roles since colonial contact and are still seen prominently. The fluffy white breads and taste for custardy sweets have lasted from the Portuguese, and stews and many ingredients from West Africa — okra, yams and collards, to name a few — have deeply embedded themselves into the Brazilian culinary identity. Spain’s influence is seen both in the spices that traveled along the old Moorish trade routes and the intermingling of Brazil’s own foods with those of other Central and South American countries formerly under the crown’s control. In the 20th century, Italian, Japanese, Arabic and German influences have come to play prominent roles as well. But indigenous ingredients still reign. Brazil’s diversity of fruits — coconut, papaya, jackfruit, guava and a whole host of drippy sweet tropical fruits — have always been abundant. Hearts of palm are a Brazilian specialty — often served fresh, rarely canned. There are fish — both freshwater specimens from the Amazon region and oceanic varieties from Brazil’s vast stretch of coastline — wild game and tree nuts, too. Perhaps most important is manioc (otherwise known as yuca or cassava), a starchy tuber indigenous to the Amazon basin that serves as the basis for all manner of dishes, acting as a thickener in stews, ground into flour for baking, meal for pone and toasted into a sandy condiment called farofa.
A cook’s manual it may not be. But “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” is many things, among them an artist’s statement, and a business card; a beautiful volume, filled with full-page photos from across Brazil — urban and rural, arid and lushly forested — and a love letter to Atala’s native land. It serves an encyclopedia of sorts, introducing American readers to the ingredients for which Atala has become famous — foods indigenous to Brazil known barely, if at all, outside of Brazil.
It is, too, a testament to a cultural moment. With tourism booming, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics fast approaching, and its national economy steadily on the rise, Brazil is, at last, emerging on the world stage on its own terms. Since the first colonial ship docked in Brazil’s ports in the 1500s, cultural sophistication has been code for European. Especially when it comes to food. Until very recently, fine dining in Brazil meant French and Portuguese fare would be on the menu. But Atala’s restaurant — along with those belonging to a handful of other trailblazing Brazilian chefs — is helping to change that. D.O.M., the restaurant, and “D.O.M.,” the book, are meant to help introduce some of the foods unique to Brazil to a wider audience. It is also a book of sensual enticements. I, for one, even after years of traveling to and eating in Brazil, still swoon at the sound of words like coxinha, jambu, tucupi and jabuticaba – all foods that I first encountered in Brazil and which now, to me, taste as distinctly of the place as they sound — rolling off the tongue.
As far as I know, cooking that represents Brazil’s singular gifts has yet to appear in restaurants in New York, or elsewhere outside of Brazil for that matter. We live in an age of seemingly endless culinary curiosity, ready global appetites, and demand for food attached to place. Why Brazil hasn’t yet had its Andy Ricker, its Sean Brock or its Madhur Jaffrey is a mystery to me, but perhaps Brazil’s moment has finally arrived. Until Brazilian food can come to us, Atala’s new book is just the armchair passport we need to dream, to imagine, to learn and — almost — to taste.
Top photo: D.O.M. Chef Alex Atala with fellow Brazilian chef Teresa Corção of O Navegador in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Sara Franklin
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.
By Patricia Tanumihardja
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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
British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop focused tightly on single regions of China in her first two cookbooks, “Land of Plenty” (Sichuan) and “The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” (Hunan). But in her latest endeavor, “Every Grain of Rice,” she expands her scope to easy comfort foods from a wide swath of China.
“Every Grain of Rice” is the perfect introduction to cooking the way Chinese people do at home, with simple, clear instructions opposite lovely full-color photographs of almost every dish. For those who are just beginning to admire Chinese food, this book could nudge them over the edge into hopeless devotion.
By Fuchsia Dunlop
W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 352 pages
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The beautiful photography is enticing, helpful and very welcome, for the lack of ample illustrations was one of the few quibbles I had with Dunlop’s first book, “Land of Plenty.” Drawing on her experience as the first foreign student at the acclaimed Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, her debut became an instant classic, enticing readers to succumb to the spell of central China’s chili-laden foods.
Dunlop is a wonderful guide to the cuisines of China. Rather than shy away from unusual vegetables or distinctly Chinese sauces, she educates her readers while spreading the gospel of good food by introducing exotica that become delicious once you get to know them. Dried shrimp, fava beans, fermented tofu, garlic stems, silk gourd, yellow chives, sesame paste, winter melon … these all get their moment in the sun here.
She gives bean curd, for example, a chance to shake off its tiresome reputation as bland hippie food. Although we in the West “still seem to think of tofu as some sackcloth-and-ashes sustenance for vegans and a sad substitute for meat,” Dunlop notes that in China, bean curd “is one of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs and wonderful when you acquire a taste for it. In its most basic form it may be plain, but then so is ricotta cheese.”
Simple as the dishes are — and with few exceptions they are so basic that even neophyte cooks should be able to attack these recipes with ease — they remain authentic. Most of these are stir-fries; the remainder encompasses meats, vegetables, soups, rice dishes and pastas, and every one of them is a familiar feature on Chinese tables. (She mainly covers recipes from southern China, with a few northern dishes thrown in for good measure.) Clear, reliable recipes are a hallmark of Dunlop’s cookbooks, and this one is no exception. Desserts, beverages and sweets rarely appear in ordinary Chinese family meals, and so they are not covered in this book.
Treasuring distinctions in Chinese food
A few of the recipes were recycled from Dunlop’s previous cookbooks, but that fits with her approach of introducing everyday Chinese dishes to the West. The ones from Sichuan and Hunan that have appeared before benefit from the additional attention paid to them here.
Sichuanese wontons in chili oil sauce, for example — a Chengdu classic — were relegated to a single paragraph in “Land of Plenty”; here they get a full page and a photograph that is sure to cause intense hunger pangs.
To my mind, Dunlop’s attention to the roots of each dish is one of the most refreshing things about this book. She doesn’t speak generically about “Chinese food” — she tells you that a particular beef soup comes from Chongqing in Sichuan. Moreover, you get to experience her delight as she brings you along on a trip through her memories of Chinese dishes past and present, taking the time to explain why she loves them and how you should enjoy them as the Chinese do: with great enthusiasm.
It’s been close to five years since Dunlop’s last cookbook, and I’m happy to report that “Every Grain of Rice” is well worth the wait.
Top photo composite:
Fuchsia Dunlop by Colin Bell. Book cover courtesy of W. W. Norton.
Once in a great while, a little-known cuisine gets itself introduced to the English-speaking world via a well-written cookbook, and life for those who love to eat and cook changes for the better.
This usually has a lot to do with how sublime that cuisine is — a cookbook can crystallize whatever innate qualities make a particular food culture unique and unforgettable.
But what really matters is how much the writer loves that cuisine, how much she understands the people who make it and how much she is willing to submerge herself in this completely foreign approach to food. And no one does this better than Naomi Duguid, whose most recent book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” opens the long-locked doors to Myanmar and allows us to partake of its exciting food.
By Naomi Duguid
Artisan Books, Workman Publishing, 384 pages
Much like the award-winning cookbooks Duguid co-authored with ex-husband Jeffrey Alford, this one moonlights with equal aplomb as a travel guide, a history book, an ethnographic study, a photographic essay and a guide to understanding a culture totally foreign to the West. Short chapters — often not more than a page in length — succinctly describe the intersection of Duguid’s personal experiences with the history and heritage of a remarkable people.
Several of Duguid’s cookbooks with Alford, such as “Seductions of Rice and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet,” also cover Southeast Asia. However, “Burma” is her first solo effort and the first one to concentrate on a single cuisine — to write it, Duguid lived in and traveled extensively through Myanmar — and she has managed to stick the mat here with a 10-point landing. And while the duo’s previous tomes are brilliant, cooking from them is seriously cumbersome because of their bulk. “Burma” is easier to handle and feels much more like a true cookbook, albeit one with beguiling pictures and stories about this secluded land. If Duguid’s photographs are to be believed, the Burmese are some of the most charming and beautiful individuals in the world. Their expressions are open and welcoming, and some are just flat-out endearing, such as the woman balancing a huge pumpkin on her head and a little girl shyly looking up at the camera with pale smears of thanaka paste on her face acting as a sunblock.
What’s stunning about this book is that the reader so easily gets sucked into another world, another time, another way of life. … even with the most cursory reading. And yet, the beautifully written essays and affectionate photos are just the superficial layers of this book, which is a cookbook, after all. Some of the dishes are glorious reinterpretations of what can only be interpreted as transmogrified newcomers to the land, such as an Indian-influenced semolina cake (page 276) and the very Chinese sticky-rice sweet buns with coconut (page 286); while others show startling originality, such as the herbed catfish laap (page 150), seasoned with a rainbow of aromatics and savory touches; or the banana flower salad (page 57) that cooks the mashed main ingredient to magnify its suggestion of artichokes and then balances that with crunchy seeds and nuts. Burma is clearly home to a cuisine so good that “delicious” seems like faint praise. Exquisite? Astonishing? Unforgettable? Words fail.
I write about Chinese food for a living, and I first picked up this book because Duguid and Alford have proved to be such consistently wonderful writers about the foods and culture of Asia. Once I cracked open the covers, though, something quickly struck me: The food of Burma was key to understanding heretofore hidden culinary treasures along China’s border with Southeast Asia. Whereas another one of their books, “Beyond the Great Wall,” looked at what is eaten by ethnic non-Chinese in the country’s landlocked regions, “Burma” takes us into a singular country that nevertheless shares many cultural and dietary roots with the minorities who live along China’s southern edge in the tropical highlands.
I lost count of the many “aha!” moments I had as I read this book with ever-increasing hunger and fascination. As Duguid described the taste and the method for preparing the Burmese fermented soybean discs called tua nao, I started to draw a connection over the long, snaking, mountainous border Burma shares with China’s Yunnan province, where they have similar dousu balls used to make a heavenly bean sauce full of crunch and chilies. I was stunned by the simplicity of this connection — the discs even appear in a photo in “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.”
Whatever their points of origin, the foods in “Burma” are alive with sparkling flavors and pungent aromas, and suggest a subtle web of influences undulating throughout the region. A dish of Burmese rice noodles called khaut swe looks for all the world like a bowl of hefen as served in Guangxi, its touch of five-spice powder sending a sly salute to China, while the curry in a plate of chicken speaks of an Indian chef somewhere upstream who introduced a spectrum of warm aromatics to the local cuisine.
With a complex past interwoven with the tastes and history of its many neighbors, Myanmar has a cuisine worth knowing, and Duguid has written a book about it that is truly worth treasuring.
Top photo composite:
Author Naomi Duguid. Credit: Laura Berman
Cover of “Burma: Rivers of Flavor.” Credit: Courtesy of Artisan Books
Good cookbooks that delve into a single area of China’s vast culinary culture are rarities. Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Land of Plenty,” the chronicle of how the author became the first Westerner to study full time at a cooking school in Sichuan province, comes first to mind; its combination of integrity, comprehensiveness and good writing made it an instant classic. Linda Lau Anusasananan’s “The Hakka Cookbook” easily vaults into this exclusive club.
Like Dunlop, Anusasananan weaves a tale around these foods, drawing us in and helping us not only understand what these foods taste and look like, but more important, why she loves them so.
All of the Hakka classics are here for the first time in an English cookbook, as well as local specialties from the diaspora that flung Hakka descendants to the far corners of the world. It’s a rich tapestry of stories, savory flavors and rich broths.
What is Hakka food? As Anusasananan’s little brother Gene described it, Hakka dishes are nothing less than “honest, earthy and rustic — the simple comforting soul food of the peasant.” Dishes born out of poverty and thriftiness seasoned with ingenuity and an eye to satisfy all of the senses — this is the essence of Hakka food.
These recipes were carried to China’s southern provinces when war and famine drove the ancestors of the Hakka from the central plains, starting almost 1,700 years ago. Left with few choices but to farm where others disdained to plow, these immigrants settled in the mountains of such provinces as Guangdong, Jiangxi and southern Fujian, where their newly-arrived status was enshrined in the name Hakka, or “guest families.”
Much like in-laws who are never quite absorbed into a close-knit family, the Hakka remained outsiders with their own language and cooking styles, marrying among themselves and creating a unique culture where women were expected to be strong and work in the fields, meaning that foot-binding was forbidden. This set them apart from their neighbors, and little ever changed since it was rare for anything new to ever find its way into their world. Thus, when the Hakka left China to make their way in other countries, they brought the ways of their ancestors with them.
‘Hakka Cookbook’ has generational appeal
An ethnic Hakka of an American-born mother and a father who emigrated from China, Anusasananan grew up in a small Northern California town, but as hers was the only non-white family, she did as just about every child in the same situation does and attempted to assimilate herself and erase the obvious differences. Fortunately, her maternal grandmother moved in and brought the old Hakka ways with her, as she had left the old country in 1921 to join her husband in California.
Popo, as she was called, “soon became the matriarch of our family. At 4 feet 10, she was a small woman with a big presence.” She taught her grandchildren about the flavors of her homeland and encouraged them to hold their heads up high. “You should be proud to be Hakka,” she admonished her grandchildren, and with her food she showed them why.
I admit, I am a bit biased. My late father-in-law, the best cook in the family, was Hakka, and we reveled in his New Year dishes: stuffed bean curd, salt-baked chicken, pork belly slices stuffed with preserved mustard greens … this was pure comfort.
And thanks to Popo and her food-loving granddaughter, we can eat these dishes as they were meant to be enjoyed because the recipes are clear. A longtime writer and editor for Sunset magazine, Anusasananan knows her way around a recipe, and her experience shows.
Even more wonderful for me, at least, was the glimpse into the lives of Hakka all over China, from Sichuan in the central regions to Taiwan and even Beijing. I had wondered as I opened this book, how has the food survived the onslaughts of history and the 21st century? With surprise and gratitude, I discovered, very well indeed.
Top photo composite:
Author Linda Lau Anusasananan and the cover of “The Hakka Cookbook.” Author photo credit: Therdphong Anusasananan. Book cover image courtesy of University of California Press.
Food memoirs can be hit or miss. No matter how many times a writer spins a tale of eating in a foreign land or following a grandmother around the kitchen, it’s often an awkward dance between good writing and good food. But Annia Ciezadlo’s “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War” is astonishing in what it achieves.
As a journalist and foodie, Ciezadlo accomplishes the impossible. Not only does it illuminate the wondrous flavors of Middle Eastern home cooking, but also details the conflicts in Beirut and Baghdad from 2003 through 2010. She explains the regional conflicts with detailed historical references (she spent three years researching food and Middle Eastern history) while leaving the reader with the urge to leap in the kitchen and prepare kafta, kibbeh, and fattoush and stock the pantry with pomegranate molasses. While at times the history can be a bit dry, it’s critical to understanding the region’s modern-day politics and current state of affairs.
In addition to posting as a foreign correspondent, Ciezadlo marries Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese journalist who works as the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday. This leaves her navigating her way through a new marriage, a new language and two foreign cities (she honeymoons in Baghdad; enough said).
“Day of Honey” is an extremely thoughtful, personal look at the wars and how food is part of the strife. You practically smell the sizzling kebabs on the grill and taste the hot, strong tea while turning the pages, immediately understanding how food fits in to the lives of people constantly in crisis. As Ciezadlo puts it, “People find ways to reconstruct their daily lives from the shambles of war; like my friend Leena, who once held a dinner party in her Beirut bomb shelter, they work with what they have.” Ciezadlo describes the food she eats but also what she cooks. She turns to cooking for comfort, and her tales of cooking in a tiny hotel kitchen and of rescuing spaghetti during sniper fire are astounding.
Lost in translation
Ciezadlo writes with such detail and accuracy that it feels less like personal narrative than a collective history of Beirut and Baghdad and their people who must carry on with their everyday lives despite these bloody, destructive conflicts. She avoids overt judgment about American foreign policy but discusses the results of some of those policies. And while it’s a serious look at the Middle East, many pages are laugh-out-loud funny. As someone married to a Lebanese man, it gave me true insight into my in-laws — their social norms, customs and habits. Even my husband howled with laughter at how accurate the descriptions were of Ciezadlo’s aging, opinionated Lebanese mother-in-law, who cannot understand why Ciezadlo wants to measure the ingredients for each dish. This is not a quick read; rather, the details require focus and a kitchen nearby should you work up an appetite from reading about the ingredients, methods and dishes of Iraq and Lebanon.
What I appreciated almost as much as the poignant writing were the authentic recipes Ciezadlo included. They are far from an afterthought. These are Lebanese recipes from Ciezadlo’s relatives found in homes throughout the country (and they were given a stamp of approval from my husband, raised in a household of cooks). Most of the dishes are those my husband learned from his father — and delicacies my father-in-law still cooks when he visits. These are not quick, go-to recipes; they are weekend recipes that take time and patience.
For most Americans, the politics, history and conflicts in the Middle East are confusing and often forgotten. But this should be mandatory reading; not only does it break down the complicated web of politics of the regions, it brings the everyday people to life while showing that the cuisine is so much more than pita bread and hummus.
This recipe is what Ciezadlo calls “classic home cooking, the quintessential comfort food — Lebanon’s moral equivalent of macaroni and cheese.”
Batata wa Bayd Mfarakeh (Crumbled Potatoes and Eggs)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 pounds russet or Idaho potatoes (about 4 medium-large), peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1-2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for salting potatoes and to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary and/or thyme
- Saute the onions in the oil in a heavy or nonstick pot over medium heat. Stir frequently and do not let them burn. Once the onions begin to soften, after 2 to 3 minutes, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low. Check the onions and stir every 10 minutes or so to keep them from sticking and burning. Do not let them brown at this point; you want them to caramelize very slowly. When they start expelling a lot of liquid and are turning translucent, turn the heat down as low as possible.
- While the onions are cooking, sprinkle the potato cubes generously with salt, toss, and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Rinse very well under cold water.
- After about 30 minutes, the onions should be starting to turn dark gold. Increase the heat to medium and remove the lid to evaporate as much of the liquid as possible. Add the tablespoon of salt and the potatoes and mix. If you’re using fresh herbs, add them now.
- Turn the heat to very low and cover. Sweat the potatoes until they are soft — usually 10 to 15 minutes — stirring gently and tasting every so often. If you like the potatoes crispy, turn the heat up, add a bit more oil, and let them crisp for a few minutes between stirs. The potatoes are done when they just begin to disintegrate around the edges and you can pierce them easily with a fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Crack the eggs directly into the pot. Stir until they just begin separating into creamy curds. Take the pot off the heat and keep stirring until the eggs are done (they will continue to cook for a minute or two in the pot). Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, or whatever else you like.
Umm Hassane strongly recommends that you serve batata wa bayd with salad. It also goes remarkably well with salted tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.
Recipe courtesy Annia Ciezadlo/Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster
Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, gourmetgrrl.com. Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.
Top photo composite:
Book jacket of “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War” and author Annia Ciezadlo. Credit: Mohamad Bazzi