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Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia Hardcover – August 17, 2006
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I was born and raised in West Sumatera, Padang to be exact (this city is mentioned a lot in the book). I got shipped out of Indonesia to the U.S. in my early teenage years. I wasn't interested in food or want to learn to cook then. I took it for granted that I wouldn't miss anything and get used to the American food. It was not until I arrived in the U.S., got homesick, and craved for sambal and rice on a regular basis, that I realized how hard it was to create or get a taste of home. Most Indonesian restaurants here were either Javanese (which is different from spicy West Sumatra's food) or "Americanized". When my mom died, all hopes of learning to cook food I grew up with was gone. Whenever I felt homesick, I'd cook Indonesian food based on recipes found on the web, blogs, and little bits of knowledge that I picked up on my annual visit home. But nothing seemed to taste the way I remembered. That was until I tried recipes from this book. Everything smells and tastes almost exactly as they are supposed to be. The book goes into a lot of details explaining how to handle the ingredients and the step-by-step cooking process, which definitely makes the difference in my cooking. I use this book all the time now, and follow the instructions to the T. The only thing I don't do is adding sugar when cooking main courses. I see a couple of reviews complaining that there aren't many pictures in the book. While that's true, it's not exactly a deal breaker. To get an idea of what the dishes look like, google for images, that should help.
And into the breach steps the intrepid James Oseland, with a masterful introduction to a rich, intensely vibrant cuisine that has yet to find more than a token presence in the United States. With "Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore," Oseland, the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, lays out a vast map of hitherto uncharted culinary territory. The book is not an addition to an existing canon of literature. Rather, for any non-Indonesian chef it will more than suffice as both the first and last word on the subject.
How could an area as vast and populous as the Malay Archipelago escape notice for so long? As one Indonesian acquaintance told Oseland on his first trip to the region more than two decades ago, "We're the best-kept secret in Asia. Too few of us are living abroad to share our cuisine." If you've tasted any food from the region at all, it was most likely cosmopolitan, Chinese-influenced fare from the city-state of Singapore and not the home-style cooking typically found in the far provinces of Indonesia.
"Cradle of Flavor" is more than the sum of its parts. It is a compendium of exotic recipes, but it is also a short course on how the many cultural streams at play here - Chinese, Thai, Dutch and Indian among them - came to intersect in the kitchens and alley food-stalls of Indonesia. And the book works as what -- for lack of a better term - we'll call anecdotal ethnography. Food is culture. It's impossible to read a chapter without coming away with some understanding of the rhythm of everyday life in Indonesia.
While the instructional passages are authoritative and straightforward, they're interwoven with a cultural portrait that's intensely personal. It begins with Oseland's first journey to Indonesia at age 19. His extended stay with an aristocratic Jakarta family would include, among other things, a bout with dengue fever and a portentous meeting with a screen-star-turned-fortune-teller who informs him that he is fated to keep returning to Indonesia for the rest of his life. You've got to love a cookbook author who would begin a chapter titled "Fish and Shellfish" with an eyewitness account of the great exodus of Muslim fundamentalists streaming through the port of Ambon after the Bali bombings of 2002.
Oseland is the sensible, streetwise friend any American visitor would want as a guide through the open-air markets of the region. Indonesian cooking techniques are neither exotic nor particularly demanding (except, in my case, reducing coconut milk, something I am about as likely to master as Tuvan throat-singing). But the ingredients are another story. The greatest challenge facing the novice cook is procurement, not processing. "Cradle of Flavor" includes an encyclopedic and obsessively detailed section on ingredients - how to evaluate them, where to buy them, how to handle them, how to store them. For those of us who don't know our lemon basil from our lemongrass, this should save untold expense and frustration on forays through the local Asian supermarket.
The focus here is on classic home dishes. The 100 recipes - from condiments to cocktails - have been carefully selected with the success of the American non-professional chef in mind. In other words, you will not need to acquire specialty kitchen gadgets or send halfway around the globe for ingredients in order to master an Indonesian feast that's both authentic and delicious.
sushimonster - at - emeraldlake.com
So imagine my surprise when I tried a couple of these recipes and they were actually easy to cook! I'm sure not all the recipes in the book are simple, but even I had success with "Fragrant Fish Stew with Lime and Lemon Basil."
Oseland learned these recipes by working alongside the people he met and befriended in his travels in Indonesia. The are real family cooking, and - especially if you brek them in easy with delicious dishes like Celebration Yellow Rice, your family will love them too! It's also a fun adventure to take the kids to your local Indonesian (or other Asian) market, if you have one. Oseland gives instructions on how to find these ingredients in most areas, and also some suggestions for substitutions for harder to find items.