James Beard Finale: Southeast Asian Flavors


So, the James Beard Foundation doled out its cookbook awards earlier in the week and all we can say is three outta thirty-four ain’t bad. Maybe we were a touch overly ambitious to think we could try them all in the span of three weeks. For the record, Mr. Beard, it’s been quite a ride — we just had no idea that we could only purchase Alinea’s cookbook with gold bouillon or that the source of galangal and fish mint would constantly elude us.

But, we don’t want to dwell on the negative. This week, we learned a lot about a subject on which we knew very little. Well, maybe “very little” is the wrong way to put it. From a certain perspective, we had a cozy relationship with Southeast Asian food. We went through a phase where we ate Pad Thai at least once a week. But, the steaming takeout bag and congealed leftovers were the extent of our intimacy. We never really considered it in terms of history or specifics. Southeast Asian chefs, please forgive us — we were just thinking of the noodles.

Chef Robert Danhi’s Southeast Asian Flavors changed all of this. The book catalogs the nuances of the region’s cuisine in such meticulous detail that it often reads more like a (very interesting) text book than a cookbook. The “how and why” sections he includes with every recipe are endlessly fascinating and applicable to dishes that do not call for shaved banana blossoms.

Among that things we learned that will enhance our enjoyment of Southeast Asian Food:

Vietnamese people prefer their avocados sweet and are noted for making them into milkshakes.

Southeast Asian oranges stay green because of the hot climate.

The Jackfruit is the heaviest tree fruit in the world, often growing up to twenty pounds. It also tastes like juicy fruit gum (?).

While it may be politically incorrect, MSG is an inexpensive way to increase the umami (recently confirmed “fifth” taste) in a dish.

Rinse red onions to reduce their bite.

Among the things we learned that prevented us from trying the recipes:

They do not carry shrimp paste at the grocery store.

Due to the inefficiency of the US Postal Service, we didn’t get our hands on this book until late in the game, but we’re glad we did. Chef Danhi shows the type of wonderment that one can only have as foreigner looking in on a culture that is not his own. According to the introduction, his wife’s Malaysian family whet his palate for the cuisine (sorry) on his first visit to her native country and it spiraled into a lifelong obsession. While we didn’t have enough time to try any of the recipes before posting this, we look forward to attempts in the future. If only we could find the shrimp paste…

Practicality: 6

For a cookbook that calls for such obscure ingredients, its actually got a lot of useful info.

Deliciousness: ?

We don’t know firsthand. But if Robert Danhi has devoted his entire life to this food, we’re gonna assume it’s not bad.

Layout: 7

Stimulating, if a little busy.

Tone: 9

Adoring and totally engaged

Overall: 9

We’ll never see spring rolls in the same light again.