Cookbooks are more than recipes. They hold standards for posterity. They preserve memories of dishes made, savored, and loved. They are testimonies of cooks who have lived through eating, dining, and feasting. They are ultimately stories containing recipes.
The four cookbooks in this collection play a dual role—repositories of stories and manual of cooking instructions. The dishes within them, originating primarily in Southeast Asia, can be found in other books about cuisine from this region. Their authors, however, take on this subject matter with a personal twist.
- “Secrets of the Red Lantern – Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2008). By Pauline Nguyen.
Pauline Nguyen’s “Secrets of the Red Lantern” is half biography, half cookbook, and all glamour. Its gorgeous cover, binding, photos, and quality speak to the best the publishing world offers. The dishes—set in exquisite ceramics and earthenware—are handsomely styled in photos that would tempt any novice to cook the items presented. Yet, the most alluring aspect of this book is its author’s voice. She writes of being born into a family with deep roots in the food business in her native country, Vietnam, and in her current home, Australia. Growing up with a tyrannical father, a former South Vietnamese army officer, who played out his post-traumatic stress disorder in the disciplining of his children and on the relentless pursuit of running his own restaurant, she ran away from home at a young age and found herself returning again to the restaurant business as an adult. She manages the restaurant Red Lantern in Cabramatta, Australia, now with a husband and a brother who are both chefs. This book is her coming to terms with her origins. She tells of a time she had to cancel an invitation to a feast at the last minute knowing that her father had prepared her favorite meal, Bun Bo Hue, and hearing the disappointment in his voice. In her experience, food can be a basis of so many things—a vehicle for business and a way to communicate emotion and love. And depending on the hands that prepare the meal, it can be nourishing or punishing, painful or pleasurable.
- “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook – Home Cooking from Asian Americans Kitchens” ( Sasquatch Books, 2009). By Patricia Tanumihardja.If Pauline Nguyen’s book is biographical, then Patricia Tanumihardja’s “Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” is encyclopedic. Ms. Tanumihardja, a food writer who has written for Saveur, Sunset, and Seattle Metropolitan, has enlisted the help of grandmothers from Seattle and beyond. Hers is the only book in the collection with the distinction of ‘cookbook’ in its title. She culls recipes from grandmothers from Japan, Taiwan, Myanmar, Korea, and India, among other places, and writes about their culinary influences. From this concept, one would expect the book to be colorful. It is not. Ms. Tanumihardja skims the superficialities of each life she profiles. Her premise that grandmothers play a special role in imparting love of food and love of cooking in families is only half-true. The truth, found in the very stories of the grandmothers, is that necessity breeds innovation. Some of the grandmothers taught themselves or took cooking lessons. This is true even of the great chefs of our times. Her best work lies in the excellent research behind a chapter on the must-haves of an Asian pantry. She instructs that Thai basil is not Italian basil, explains the differences in chilies, differentiates between cilantro and culantro, distinguishes between varieties of rice and noodles, tells why Asians wash their rice and finally, discloses what goes into the making of those pungent shrimp pastes.
- “Cooking from the Heart – The Hmong Kitchen in America” (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). By Sami Scripter, Sheng Yang.
“Cooking from the Heart–The Hmong Kitchen in America” is also encyclopedic in its effort. This time the story is of Hmong cooking. Published by University of Minnesota press, the book is part history lesson and part anthropology of the ‘why’s and ways of Hmong food. The author, Sami Scripter, was an educator in the school system and it shows. She and co-author Sheng Yang are both at pains to be accurate, explaining that “no comprehensive written record of Hmong cooking seemed to exist” and that cooking is passed on through oral traditions and through memory. The book would be better perhaps with fewer lessons and more recipes.Ms. Scripter and Ms. Yang differentiate between the dishes and ingredients found among the Hmong in Asia—the Hmong are dispersed throughout Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—and dishes and ingredients found in America. Their book concedes to the fact that food differs in the hands of those who make it and by the seasonality and availability of food where it is made. What is noteworthy about this book is the cultural information embedded—poems written by the Hmong people, explanations of food used in weddings and funerals, and types of items used for healing. What is lacking is some sort of angle or lure to entice a reader to make the very food contained in this exhaustively researched book.
- “Wild, Wild East — Recipes and Stories from Vietnam” (Barron’s, 2008). By Bobby Chinn.
The lure of “Wild, Wild East” is Bobby Chinn himself. Mr. Chinn is both chef and restauranter. His business, Restaurant Bobby Chinn, in Hanoi, is a crossroads of points international, and from there he makes both Vietnamese dishes and hybrid dishes mixing culinary traditions from his childhood and travels. (He is Chinese and Egyptian and has worked in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Saigon, and Hanoi.) His cookbook may be the only one dedicated to Vietnamese dishes that is written from Vietnam itself. The book begs comparison with Pauline Nguyen’s “Secret of the Red Lantern”. Both contain personal stories and recipes. But where Ms. Nguyen weaves meaningful recipes into the narrative of her life, Mr. Chinn tells his story and the story of today’s Vietnam straight. And his story is one of failures and successes in doing business in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and the consequences of playing nice and not-so-nicely with the Vietnamese. The dishes he writes about are those made using local ingredients and those borne of experience gained through travel and work. Having been a TV presenter on the Discovery Channel and the UK’s BBC2, Mr. Chinn puts the force of his personality into his dishes and cookbook. The dishes are audacious and fearless and his recounting of misadventures and fortunes in Vietnam somehow impregnate the dishes with urgency and immediacy as if one is tasting and seeing the food as it looks in Vietnam today. It helps that the pictures appear to come from National Geographic. From this book, I would venture to make Canh Chua Cá Lóc and Ceviche with Mangosteen Vinaigrette.In all their different ways, the books here prove one point. Cooking is about those who cook and those who come to the table. If differs in the hands that prepare it and in the experience of those who savor it. A daughter recollects it. A food writer assembles food from different places to demonstrate this truth. A teacher impresses the importance of its social functions. And a chef bends tradition to incorporate modernity. Cooking, then, is a way of living. And cookbooks tell us how to live it.
To contact Vinh Do, e-mail [email protected].