I feel distinctly embarrassed that as a lifelong dweller of this neck of the woods, southeast Asia, it would take an American to show me the hidden treasures lying beneath the surface of the fool's paradise I inhabit. Fool's paradise as in I am the fool who realises not that I live in one of earth's lushest and most bountiful corners.
How often is it that we look upon that which is nearest to us with jaundiced eyes and hanker after the far away and "exotic"? As a food blogger, I have had the good fortune to virtually cross paths with many like-minded, talented people possessing a wealth of knowledge about the foods of their particular culture, and a heart open and generous in sharing everything they know with anyone curious enough. I have found myself lusting after rhubarb crumble featured on a Brit blog, while American foodie friends have fussed over a bowl of Laksa I posted recently. And so it goes that what is mundane to me is intriguing to another, on the other side of the fence, and vice versa. I had thought that the cuisine of Asia in general and specifically the southeastern region of it, held no more surprises for me. I had become jaded with Asia's simmering cauldron.
Lo and behold, enter James Oseland with his 20-something years of living collectively in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, and his book, Cradle of Flavor, to shake up my culinary world and compel me to look at my own backyard through new and, once again, curious eyes! This is no mean feat that Mr Oseland has achieved as I have been practically raised in the kitchen and have food and cooking in my DNA — and in my very soul.
Whenever I see a cookbook on Asian cuisine, written by a Westerner, it's as if blinds come down in my mind. Instant shut out! Thoughts run along the lines of, "This can't be good…what would a white guy know about Asian food, for goodness sake!?" That's as much disclosure as you'll get out of me, today. This book, though, had me literally eating my words!
I was surprised to find that the recipes almost mirrored how I would cook in my own kitchen. There is no "dumbing down" of recipes, no exclusion or substitution of ingredients to suit Western palates, and for this alone, Mr Oseland has my utmost respect. He presents the cuisines of these countries as they have been prepared for generations and centuries and leaves it to the reader to embrace and fall in love, as he has done, or, to reject. No compromises, no sacrificing authenticity, for acceptance.
If you're wondering, I did test out two of the recipes – the simplest I could find, as often the simpler a recipe and the scantier the ingredients list, the harder it is to get right. The Nyonya Sambal (Sambal Belacan) did not disappoint. This recipe alone is honestly worth the price of this book as I have had dismal versions, right here in Asia. The Bean Sprout and Potato Fritters, called Bakwan in Indonesian, were a treat! I could not wait to devour them as they lay unmoving, unknowing, wafting maddening aromas from the bowl, while being photographed.
I was thrilled that quite a few of the recipes here are new to me, for example, Sambal Serai (Lemongrass and Shallot Sambal) and Nasi Kemuli (Spiced Nyonya Rice).
This is so much more than a book of recipes; we are given glimpses of each country's history, culture, and people, we are gifted with a lovingly painted portrait of the Alwis, whom he calls his Indonesian family, and of all who have contributed to his impressive knowledge of Southeast Asian cuisine. His sincere love for the region’s cuisine and his deep affection for the Alwi family, who took him under their wing when he first set his very green and tender foot on Indonesian soil, come through so clearly in his writing!
There are very helpful cook’s notes and menu suggestions interspersed throughout, invaluable not only to the novice but for the less familiar, more provincial recipes, useful even for someone who may be as familiar with Asian cooking, as I am. The glossary is one of the most comprehensive I have seen, in any cookbook. These are the gems that make this a standout cookbook, in my opinion, and one completely deserving of the endorsement of the James Beard Foundation.
As a Singaporean, I can’t help but notice that of the three countries, the most scant attention has been given to the food of Singapore, with the emphasis being on Indonesia, and herein lies one of my few grouses about this mostly magnificent book. Perhaps he is understandably more enamoured of Indonesia or perhaps, as I myself often feel, Singapore's cuisine is very derivative and perhaps too heavily influenced by so many other cuisines as to be less distinctive than the cuisines of both Indonesia and Malaysia. To some this might make Singapore's cuisine exciting, or vibrant; for others, it probably makes our food seem rootless and shallow. It might also be that Singapore, being tiny as it is, has practically no provincial cooking to speak of, and for true blue “foodies”, lesser known provincial fare is where true culinary gold lies.
My other grouse is the precious few pictures of recipes featured. While the pictures of ingredients are tasteful and beautifully photographed, I find them tiresome after two pages of the same. I would have much preferred pictures of finished recipes and can appreciate how helpful they would have been to someone curious about, but unfamiliar with, Asian cooking. Such a person would probably very much want to know how the dish is supposed to look.
I did not buy this book. I have a habit of seeking out cookbooks at my local library before I decide whether or not I want to fork out money for them. The question that remains then is, having perused the pages of this book at leisure, would I now be willing to buy it, given the measly mention given to the foods of Singapore and the paucity of recipe photos? Fortunately this book stands very firmly on the power of Mr Oseland’s writing and his store of faultless recipes, to evoke, to enthrall, to educate, to tantalise, and ultimately, to satisfy. I know of maybe three other food writers who can pen cookbooks able to sell and make it to best seller lists without a single picture. James Oseland is one of them, and that amounts to a resounding, "Yes!"