As we’ve been settling into our new home in Siem Reap, it’s been great to crack open the cookbooks that have been weighing us down – the ones that we didn’t leave back in Australia on our last visit. Having been hankering to get cooking and keen to begin working my way through the books for a while, I’ve wasted no time. In the month that we’ve had a kitchen, I’ve cooked from them on all but a few nights – which is a good thing, because our Year of Asian Cookbooks has begun.
During the first four years of Grantourismo, we endeavored to learn as much as we could about the food of the places we travelled to, by eating widely – everything from street food to contemporary cuisine – by spending time in markets; by interviewing chefs, cooking instructors, food writers, and home cooks; by doing cooking courses and food tours; and by cooking the food itself, as part of my ongoing series The Dish, about the quintessential dishes of places. We decided we wanted to take that a step further and focus more.
Given that one of our goals is to really get under the skin of the places we travel to – and one way we’ve always done that is through food – and given that as travel and food writers, and myself as a photographer, we’re concentrating primarily on Asia these days, we decided we really wanted to dig a whole lot deeper, and to develop a much more in-depth knowledge of Asian cuisines.
I decided I wanted to do that partly by cooking my way through cookbooks, and to force myself to do that regularly A Year of Asian Cookbooks was born.
Given that I’m going to be cooking Asian food almost every day anyway when we’re at home, I thought it would be interesting to learn as much as I could about the dishes I’m cooking, partly through the cookbooks, and to then reflect upon my findings and review the recipes after cooking the dishes – more than once if there’s a kitchen disaster.
I don’t plan on cooking every single recipe in every book and I don’t intend working through any sort of order structured around, say, geography or chronology. The process I’ll use to select dishes will be much more organic and the dishes chosen have some connection to our experiences, to where we are, where we’ve recently been, and where we’re going. I’ll also be using my knowledge of cooking the dishes I choose from other recipes I’ve cooked in the past.
While I come to food firstly through cooking, Lara is passionate about the cultural and historical side of cuisines, and what, why, where, when, and how people eat the food they eat. We’re both eager to explore the dishes I cook in more depth by also looking at their culinary history and culture.
We’ve mentioned here before that for many years we’ve been developing another ongoing and much longer-term project on how food travels, so, as it is we’re already always exploring the origins of dishes and cuisines and how they evolve. As part of our Year of Asian Cookbooks projects, we want to take an aspect of that project a step further and keep the focus firmly on Asia for a while, by looking at culinary, cultural and historical connections, across regions and countries, for the dishes that I cook.
We’re currently sourcing permission to reprint the recipes from the cookbooks I’m using for the first batch of dishes I’ll be cooking. I’m already testing recipes and seeing how they turn out, as well as comparing them to other recipes for the same dish in different cookbooks. I also hope to interview some of the chefs and cookbook authors about the dishes when we feel there are some good questions to ask – and there will be plenty.
Having already researched some of the Asian cookbooks I want to work from, I have a pretty good idea about whether I can source the ingredients I need in Siem Reap. The good news is that I can get almost everything I need right here – in part, thanks to chefs and cooks we befriended over the few years we were visiting Cambodia before we moved here.
Having worked in kitchens, I can cook well enough to hold my own in a commercial kitchen, and I have been cooking Asian food for about 25 years – as an Australian, born in the Asia-Pacific region, from one of the most Asian countries outside Asia, I’ve always eaten Asian cuisines. That means I’m going to be approaching these recipes with a keen eye for detail and following each recipe to the gram.
It’s always been my opinion that the first time you cook from a recipe, you owe it to the people who sweated over the details of each dish to follow it exactly as it’s written, and I’ll be doing that for each recipe. There’ll be no swapping out ingredients or amounts or adjusting cooking methods. I’ll do that the second or third time I cook the dish.
But here’s the thing: I’m not Asian-born and I don’t have any Asian heritage, so there won’t be any “when I used to help grandma make that” to fall back on. I certainly don’t know everything about every dish, or every herb, or spice, or fish, and so on. There will be ingredients I’ve never used before, techniques I’m unfamiliar with, and methods I don’t know.
Given that recipe testing is a time-consuming business, I’ll be covering just two recipes a week: one easy and not too time-consuming weeknight dish – it could be something as simple as a street food snack or a bowl of noodles – and a more complex dish or meal for the weekend, when people have time to stir stocks, make noodles, and watch that pork cook until it falls apart with the touch of a fork.
As always with everything we do here on Grantourismo, we hope you’ll join us for the journey. Initially, we’ll be focusing our culinary explorations on South East Asia, where we’ve mostly been travelling and living for the last few years, and as we venture further afield to different Asian countries, we’ll be exploring the dishes of those cuisines.
If you have Asian dishes, recipes or cookbooks you want to suggest, something you want me to make, or a dish you want us to research, please let us know if the comments below. We always welcome tips and advice, and would love to see your recipes and learn about your own discoveries through Asian cookbooks so please feel free to share.
First up: Making a Thai Red Curry Paste and How to Use a Mortar and Pestle and then Making a Traditional Thai Phanaeng Nua Beef Panang Curry Recipe.