BOOK AND AUTHOR: "Essentials of Asian Cuisine: Fundamentals and Favorite Recipes" by Corinne Trang (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Anyone approaching a new cuisine does so with some trepidation and a lot of questions. What are these new ingredients? What should this combination of flavors taste like? What is the purpose of these precise directions, these specialized techniques?
But Asian cuisine has just become less daunting. What Julia Child once did for French cuisine, Corinne Trang has tried to do for Asian cuisine.
Trang's first book was the minimalist "Authentic Vietnamese Cooking: Food From a Family Table" (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Her second book goes beyond that, sweeping across Southeast Asia to encompass the culinary history, cultural context and recipes of several countries.
The sheer size of the 600-page book may intimidate those whom it is intended to serve. Yet those who crack the cover will not be disappointed. Encyclopedic in both breadth and depth of coverage, the book is nevertheless a remarkably concise and passionate work that demystifies much of Asian cookery without being mired down by a surfeit of tedious information.
Throughout the text, Trang comes across as a practical cook with lots of common sense and little use for overwrought fusion, extraneous ingredients or unnecessary fuss. Whether readers are seeking a brief history of Asian noodles, the difference in cooking long-grain jasmine or sticky rice or the distinction between the basic components of a Thai vs. a Vietnamese dipping sauce, they'll find it here.
FORMAT: The book is a two-part compendium: textbook and cookbook. The introductory chapters could be a basic course of study in Asian cooking, covering Essential Ingredients, Equipment and Techniques, and Fundamentals.
Those in search of recipes could flip past these introductory pages and proceed directly to the recipe chapters, categorized by Condiments; Stocks, Palate Cleansers and Starter Soups; Rice Noodles, Dumplings and Breads; Vegetables and Herbs; Fish and Seafood; Meat and Poultry; and Sweets and Drinks. Explanatory notes on the same page as the recipe are reader friendly; they simultaneously define the dish, give it cultural context, explain related traditions, note similar dishes based in another Asian cuisine and suggest simple, sometimes Americanized, variations.
RECIPES: Contained within these pages are the essential techniques, basic philosophy and fundamental recipes that constitute much, if not most, of Asian cuisine. Congee or jook, Pad Thai or Chap Chae, the recipes are a testament to tradition and for the most part lack Americanization. Among the handful of recipes that require such ingredients as tripe and winter nuts, however, are many more surprisingly simple concepts, such as five-spice-fried chicken.
The recipes likely exist in subtle variations in kitchens across Asia. So for the cook experienced in Asian cuisine, the resulting dish may not be an exact replica of what one once encountered, whether in another book or during travels. But it is close enough to either satisfy or serve as a basis for adjusting -- a practice heartily encouraged by Trang.
WHO WOULD READ THIS BOOK: Anyone interested in trying a new cuisine; anyone who enjoys Asian cuisine and wants to learn more.
-- Renee Schettler