Articles in International
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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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
Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, is the author of the new release “The End of Cheap China,” which addresses, among other things, food safety and food supply issues in China.
Rein’s research shows that China is having an increasing impact on global food supply and that the Chinese taste for imported Western food is growing as is demand for a reliable and safe food system in that country.
Based in Shanghai, he writes for Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek. I spoke recently to Rein about his book chapter dedicated to food safety issues in China.
How is the consumer power of the average Chinese changing?
The book is meant to dispel a lot of myths about China’s economy. The first is that Chinese consumers are price-sensitive and cheap. I have a chapter on food safety, where I explain that they’re willing to spend money on healthy and safe food, so if you’re a producer, it’s worth selling into China. For example, Yum! Brands makes over 40 percent of its global revenue in China. So the Chinese consumer is a great consumer for Yum!, McDonald’s, Kraft and any company trying to sell finished products into the country.
It’s also a great country for the agricultural sector: sales of pork and soy are going up 300 to 400 percent a year.
How is this affecting the way the Chinese eat? How has that changed in recent years?
Meat consumption was very low. Meat consumption in China is only about 35 percent that of the United States, So, Americans eat a lot more meat, but that is changing. Chinese doubled (their average per person) meat consumption in the last 30 years. As Chinese consumers are getting wealthier, they’re eating more meats, and (the country’s wealthiest consumers) are actually willing to spend more per capita on meat than (their counterparts do) in the United States.
Are they domestically producing different kinds of foods to meet those demands?
Yeah, what you’re seeing now is massive investment on the domestic side when it comes to beef, when it comes to wine … all kinds of things. But the reality is that China’s food system has a problem: There’s not enough arable land, and the water is heavily polluted. So China is actually going to have to rely on food imports, from the United States especially, and they’re becoming a massive importer of pork, chicken feet, soybeans, pistachios, all kinds of products. These consumers trust American-produced food products more than they do stuff from China. So it’s really a boom for all different industries involved in the food sector. On the lower end and higher end.
Arable land is only 7 percent (of that available around the world), so it’s a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse going forward.
What are you noticing in terms of the impact on health in the way Chinese are changing their food consumption behaviors?
Right now, consumers are not worried that much about food when it comes to “is it healthy?” towards their overall diet. They’re eating meat, they’re eating fatty food, and they’re not overly concerned about long-term illnesses, which is why you’re seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketing.
But people are worried about being healthy from a toxicity standpoint. We interviewed 2,000 consumers in eight cities last year, and the majority said they feel that KFC, for instance, is healthy. They know it’s not healthy in the traditional sense, but people are worried about eating cooking swill oil [that is old, used oil which is filtered of solids and then re-used for cooking] on the streets, and dying right away.
What are the food safety concerns Chinese have, beyond swill oil?
We interviewed 5,000 consumers in 15 cities last year, and their biggest concern in life, ahead of being able to pay for their kid’s education or for medical costs for the family, is actually food and product safety. People are really worried. That’s why brands like Mengniu Dairy are winning, because they’re positioned as higher priced over Nestlé, they’re about 20-30 percent more (expensive), and consumers are willing to fork out the money because they think it’s going to be safe. So Dannon and Nestlé had to shut their factories in Shanghai this year, because they were competing on price and consumers didn’t want their cheap stuff anymore. Consumers find a correlation between safety and price, and feel higher price will be safe. Now I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in reality, but that’s how they equate it.
In your opinion, how are China’s consumption trends affecting the world beyond?
[They are affecting the world] in a few areas. First, China’s become the market to sell into, so a lot of brands need to think about how they’re going to sell to Chinese consumers, especially women, because women are the decision-makers when it comes to food purchases, predominantly, in families.
It’s also going to mean that there’s going to be inflation. In the last three decades, China has really been a deflationary force on the global economy. But because everyone’s getting fat, and wanting to eat more, better quality foods, you’re going to see a pricing strain on global commodity markets. So the world needs to be prepared for global inflation. American consumers better get used to higher prices at Shaw’s, or Tesco or Carrefour or Walmart, around the world.
Will the Chinese agricultural and food production systems have to change?
They absolutely will have to change. It’s an absolute mess, it’s a disaster, and an embarrassment for China to have such a poor food supply system. Though it’s being changed by two things.
The first is, the government understands it needs to do a better job of oversight. So what they’ve done is shut 50 percent of the nation’s dairies last year, for example.
The real change is going to take place by people willing to spend money when they feel that they’re safe. So brands are going to fix their supply chain and cater to these consumers and make money. The scope of the problem is enormous.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photo: Author Shaun Rein. Credit: Courtesy of Shaun Rein
Why does British food writing so often seem more interesting, more appealing, more pleasurable to read — and to consult in the kitchen — than American food writing? I’m speaking in broad generalities, of course, but with the best British food writers, whether journalists, chefs or culinary explorers, the attraction is that immediate sense of an authentic voice, the articulate voice of someone who has actually been in the kitchen or the garden or the marketplace, who has touched the food, trimmed it, chopped it, sliced it, sautéed it and coaxed it into a dish that we want to savor right now. You can taste the words.
I think of the very great Elizabeth David, whose first books I read in what are now quite tattered Penguin paperbacks in the early 1960s, or of Jane Grigson whose marvelous Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, published in 1967, should be bedside reading for anyone of the numbers now eagerly taking up whole-animal cooking. And I think more recently of Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, both of whom write, with rare combinations of wit and authority, for the Observer‘s monthly food supplement. (Grigson also wrote for the Observer.)
I would add two more voices to this list, neither of them new to food writing but both of them relatively, and undeservedly, unknown in the U.S.
Elisabeth Luard, author of “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse” (Bloomsbury USA) and a contributor to Zester Daily (would that she offered her thoughts more frequently), is one of the most prolific writers I know, with half a dozen major cookbooks, several minor ones, three volumes of memoirs, and what she calls “a couple of door-stopper novels” to her credit.
Jake Tilson, on the other hand, whose “In at the Deep End: Cooking Fish Venice to Tokyo” (Lyons Press) has just been issued in America, is not in Luard’s league when it comes to productivity, with just one other book to his credit, but he’s still young, and if he keeps on at this rate he may overtake her in the end. Both of these books are available online and in well-supplied cookbook shops. I should add that both authors are friends of mine, which doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for their books. (If I didn’t like the books, I wouldn’t review them.)
Setting down roots in Wales
Let me take them up in order: “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse,” with watercolor illustrations by the author and beautifully evocative photographs by her neighbor Clare Richardson, is a delightful and engaging tribute to Brynmerheryn, a farmhouse in far western Wales that Luard inherited with her late husband Nicholas, where she went to put down deep roots after her husband’s death and a lifetime of wandering.
It’s a month-by-month account, in crisp and sometimes awestruck detail, of what happens on the land, in the community of her friends and neighbors, and in her own kitchen as she cooks with friends and family, including a small horde of grandchildren. Luard, originally trained as a botanical illustrator, is a born naturalist with a vivid eye for frogs and ducklings in farm ponds, buttercups and sheep in the meadows, and all the good things to eat that the farm provides, from grape leaves for stuffing to lovage leaves for a pilaf, to eggs, eggplant and apples, wild mushrooms and other foraged treasure. This is Wales, after all, so you can expect a certain amount of leeks, lamb, nettles and kale from the recipes (come January, try Welsh winter cawl with both lamb and leeks for a satisfying supper).
But you’ll also find a decided Mediterranean touch, the result of the years Luard and her young family spent in far western Spain (New potatoes with almonds and saffron) and the south of France (Slow-roast pheasant with apples and chestnuts). You’ll also find recipes for totally British delights — someday, somehow, I intend to make her Elderflower and lemon layer cake, when I’m next in a place and time with elderflowers in blossom.
This is not a book for novice cooks; rather it’s for those who love food, love gardens, love the countryside, and understand the many ways in which they intertwine to provide bounty for our tables. You might never get to make Elisabeth Luard’s Rowan and rosehip jelly, but like that Elderflower and lemon cake, you can dream about a time and place where you might. And meanwhile, make her sweet-sour-chili-clove-cinnamon-sparked Red pepper and raisin relish. Made in summer, it keeps, she says, till Christmas—something to dream about for next year.
Discovering fish in Venice
“In at the Deep End” is a very different kind of book, though equally personal and personable, and equally focused on family and food. Jake Tilson confesses to a longstanding fish phobia: “For as long as I can remember I have always been afraid of fish,” he writes on page 5. But his attitude began to change after his parents bought a house on a canal in Venice’s Dorsoduro district, a short vaporetto stop from the great Rialto fish market, the Pescheria.
“It’s hard to avoid seafood in Venice,” he says, and so begins a slow journey that ends up taking him, with his wife, the potter Jennifer Lee, and his daughter Hannah, as far afield as Göteborg in Sweden; his wife’s native Aberdeenshire in Scotland; New York; Australia; and finally the astounding vast Tsukiji market in Tokyo, where 50,000 people visit daily to buy some 1,200 species of fish from all over the world. (One in every 10 fish caught, Tilson says, is consumed in Japan, an astonishing figure.) He ends up, perhaps predictably, back home in London, sorting through recipes, souvenirs (sand in the shoes, a bit of crab claw in a jacket pocket) and a head full of fish lore and memories.
The recipes are, on the whole, not complex, though you might have to stretch your mind a bit, especially around some of the Japanese ones. But this is not just a cookbook, not just a collection of recipes, “In at the Deep End” works almost like a guide to some fascinating and little-known corners of the globe, always with fish and seafood uppermost as a concern. You might otherwise miss Macduff on Scotland’s North Sea coast, with its sturdy fleet of trawlers, its fascinating Marine Aquarium full of local fish, and the smoke room at Inshore Fish Supply with its rows of haddock fillets.
Tilson has an artist’s eye for recognizing oddities that work as telling metaphors for a complex and fascinating world. In his travels, he learns to delight in odd and anomalous species and how they can be used in the kitchen, and he gradually overcomes his fear of fish only to have a new fear develop: What in fact are we doing to the oceans? It’s the dark side of fish passion, and Tilson handles it very well, acknowledging that if we continue to fish with reckless abandon, as we now do despite legislation and attempts at regulation, we will soon have no fish left at all. And then his book will stand as an important memory of what we have lost.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Legendary cookbook editor Judith Jones deserves much of the credit for Irene Kuo’s “The Key to Chinese Cooking.”
What was Jones’ best cookbook — that is, hers by proxy — over a long and brilliant career of nursing various authors’ cookbooks through editorial gestation and into production?
You’ll observe that I said “best,” not “best-known.”
No, my choice is not “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Or Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook.” Or even any of Madhur Jaffrey’s wonderful books. For Jones’ finest editorial contribution to the ranks of modern cookbooks, I unhesitatingly nominate “The Key to Chinese Cooking” by Irene Kuo.
Of course, we all have our different ideas of “best.” But I’d like to think that my opinion is based on something more than prejudice or whim. To make the principles of the Chinese culinary art comprehensible to ordinary American cooks is really, objectively many times more difficult than anything to do with France, Italy or probably even India. Maybe one of Jones’ other projects tackled something equally daunting, but certainly not more daunting. In my estimation, Kuo’s “Key” — published in 1977, now sadly out of print — stands out as the achievement of achievements among all the Knopf cookbooks produced on Jones’ watch.
Of course, huge amounts of credit must go to Kuo herself, a former Manhattan restaurateur from whom Jones (with the aid of the highly regarded freelance editor and copy editor Suzy Arensberg) elicited vivid writing, broad but also minutely detailed knowledge of a cuisine, formidable technical insight and a large, eclectic, illuminating selection of recipes. But as one with firsthand experience of the Jones care-and-feeding-of-authors style, I venture to say that none of these virtues would have fully blossomed without Jones’ very personal blend of friendly persuasion and iron will.
In a way, however, that’s just the beginning. With cooking, great teaching via printed book also requires other crucial elements that usually get less recognition. It’s these that I think set “Key” above Jones’ other accomplishments at Knopf, remarkable though they may be.
First and foremost, a design team (undoubtedly working under Jones’ direction) deployed Kuo’s recipes on the page in a format that visibly emphasizes the intrinsic logic of ingredients and preparation steps. It’s a telling contrast to the intimidating sprawl that handicaps many otherwise valiant English-language efforts to do justice to Chinese cooking. A small but elegant visual cue, resembling an elongated square bracket with slightly enlarged Chinese-looking tips like the flick of the brush that ends some calligraphic strokes, is used to set off clusters of ingredients that will be combined in marinades, cooking sauces, or final seasonings. This simple device does wonders to keep a user’s brain focused on some sort of underlying order — and that’s half the battle in helping novice Chinese cooks find their bearings.
The cause of spatial coherence is also furthered by the actual recipe directions and the effortless-looking way that they materialize on the page. Every cookbook has to strike a balance between telling cooks absolutely everything in massive (not to say forbidding) detail and getting the point across succinctly. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” not only carried the first approach to great lengths but employed an unusually space-consuming format. Just a glance through a few recipes shows considerable page acreage devoted to equipment-and-ingredients lists and minutely broken down instructional steps, usually separated from each other by ruled lines and several spaces, as well as painstaking deployment of italic and boldface type in several point sizes to differentiate various recipe-elements.
By contrast, the Chinese book shows Jones and the design team at quite another level of experience and judgment. The recipe-directions are not only more concise but presented in a typographically simpler format that makes a beginner feel things can’t be all that difficult. The material is certainly as demanding as that in “Mastering,” but somehow it looks more user-friendly.
The typeface, the graceful, unobtrusive Palatino, creates a sense of lucidity. But in a real stroke of genius, Jones and colleagues chose to add recipe titles in a well-matched Chinese typeface — equally attractive to the eye — that’s also used to give the Chinese names of ingredients in the shopping-information section. When “Key” first crossed my path, I didn’t know that I would eventually teach myself to read at least some food-related Chinese words. But this book was one of the inspirations that set me trying to learn. Somehow the strange, elegantly printed characters looked as if they ought to make sense to me. And today they do — though even now I’m still struggling to read more than a word or two of the beautiful, stylistically varied calligraphic “seals” designed as chapter headings by C.C. Kuo, the author’s husband.
The final masterstroke here was the selection of illustrator: Carolyn Moy, of whom I’ve never been able to learn anything other than her name on the title page. Unknown quantity though she may be, the magic of the book owes a great deal to Jones’ instinct in choosing her. The understated spot art that appears throughout (a scallion here, a few shrimp there) is delicately evocative of Chinese pen and ink drawings without being hokey. More crucial, the instructional pictures have clarity and force. These images are an object lesson in how much we’ve lost by today’s obsessive emphasis on color photography. They zero in on essential details with serene economy; those showing hands and implements at work convey a kind of kinetic energy that photographs can never duplicate.
For me, the book resulting from the fusion of all the above elements is one that Jones was born to do: a unified aesthetic statement in almost miraculous harmony with its subject matter. I won’t even try to discuss the excellence and range of Kuo’s recipes, which enabled me to make quantum leaps in “cooking Chinese.” Rather, I want to point out that the pleasure of learning what Kuo had to teach was inseparable from the pleasure of handling and poring over the volume brought to fruition by Jones.
I know now that I was almost unconsciously absorbing the rightness of its lovely pages at the same moment I was getting the feel of a cleaver, recognizing the smell of a properly heated wok, acquiring the rapid-fire cooking rhythms that in future would always be associated in my memory with an unlocking of doors through the Kuo-Moy-Jones “Key to Chinese Cooking.” Thank you, Judith.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.
Photos, from top:
Judith Jones Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
“The Key to Chinese Cooking.” Courtesy of Knopf