Find our top 8 picks for the best Asian cookbooks of the past 25 years.
February 21, 2012
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Top 8 Asian Cookbooks
Sushi restaurants in every mall, noodle houses on every block, and Asian condiments like sambal, gochujang, and curry paste on supermarket shelves: The prominence of Asian cooking in the American appetite is astounding. It began, more than a century ago, with the appearance of chop suey cafés in Western towns, tracing the immigration patterns of new arrivals. Then, as American cooking came into its own, chefs went on a fusion-cuisine bender—and fusion usually meant the introduction of Asian flavors. Hard to believe, but Wolfgang Puck's brilliant Chinois on Main opened in Santa Monica almost 30 years ago—in 1983. Today, there's increasing interest in authenticity, and for home cooks that means turning to cookbooks, which dive far deeper, and with more authority, into their subjects than ever. Our recipe-testing of Asian cookbooks was an eye-opening pleasure.
Szechuan pork has been my go-to Chinese takeout order for years, so imagine my delight when a dish of Pork Sichuan with Chili Sauce from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's big, dazzling 2009 cookbook turned out to be the best version of this dish—and I made it! (With 42 ingredients, including two subrecipes, it was more involved than takeout!) Buoyed by that success, I moved on to White Congee. The result: supple rice with traditional salted eggs and crunchy peanuts as accompaniments. In a word: perfection.
Beautifully photographed and boldly designed, Lo's tome is a collection of 23 lessons in three sections. In her hands, the usual cookbook pantry list becomes "Lesson 1: Creating a Chinese Pantry," concerning things like bean-curd juice, boxthorn seeds, and mung bean starch. One section looks at "The Market Particular," by which Lo means even rarer pantry ingredients, like bird's nest and hairy melon, along with a review of more basics and then a sampling of tea.
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Continued: Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking
Her encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cooking is why this book made our list. Occasionally, detail is not her forte. Some recipe yields seem improbable. But considering this is not the book for beginner cooks, we presume, most will overcome this minor flaw.
Usual cookbook structure is abandoned in favor of this slightly quirky lesson structure, bobbing and weaving through regions, ingredients, themes. But it works. First, because you don't have to start at lesson one, you can easily jump right into, say, "Vegetables as the Way," a short chapter on the tradition of vegetarian dishes cooked as if they were meat. Second, Lo brings serious, convincing method to one of the world's greatest and most complex cuisines. You'll feel the firm hand of a serious teacher committed to tradition.
GIVE THIS TO: The accomplished cook who takes "mastering" seriously and has a good Chinese market nearby. —Robin Bashinsky
The best reference cookbooks aimed at home cooks hit a balance between thoroughness, approachability, fundamentals, and adventure. Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen is in league with the best. It's not flashy (no photos of this gorgeous cuisine), but it rewards with its content: tips, ingredients, tools, illustrations, and recipes, spiced with charming personal notes. This book is aimed at the American cook: Basil can stand in for shiso. But serious explorers can learn how to handle a mountain yam and ramen basics.
Traditional Japanese dishes such as miso soup, yakitori, and sushi are broken down to their foundations. And the pages contain many healthy recipes.
GIVE THIS TO: Lovers of the pure flavor and beauty of Japanese food. —R.B.
While writing together, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid were the world's greatest explainers and explorers of regional cuisines. They produced marvelous books, scholarly and gorgeous at once; this, probably their best, is saturated with the history, geography, faces, and food of an amazingly diverse region.
They are most interested in the culinary threads that run across national borders. As they traveled, their "culinary map of Southeast Asia slowly changed, no longer grouping Thailand together with Malaysia and Indonesia, as is traditionally done, but seeing it as a close cousin to parts of southwest China (Yunnan) and to the Shan State in Burma, as well as to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam."
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Continued: Hot Sour Salty Sweet
Chiles, lemongrass, fish sauce, coriander, and lime: Every recipe has layers of vivid flavors and aromas. Each country—and regions within countries—has its own combination of herbs, spices, and techniques, its own melodies within this musical structure.
Setting sodium concerns aside, the foods within these pages are fairly healthy, with chapters devoted to fish and seafood and vegetarian dishes. Meat, as it is in Southeast Asia, is often used sparingly. When it's grilled, portions are reasonable. If stir-fried, it's often stretched with a healthy dose of vegetables.
This book delights the senses and the mind.
GIVE THIS TO: Anyone who values a beautiful, resonant, meaningful book. —Deb Wise
It's hard to overstate the centrality of the wok to many Asian recipes. Watching chefs turn out stir-fried dishes in a busy Hong Kong restaurant, agog at the huge whooshes of flame from roaring burners, makes you long for even a bit of that skill. This is self-evident: Parboiling crowded food in a lukewarm nonstick pan doesn't cut it.
Grace Young opens with a recollection of her parents teaching her to respect "wok hay, the prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok."
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Continued: The Breath of a Wok
As an adult, Young set off to learn from wok masters in America, Hong Kong, and China. This book documents her journey and learnings and brings home techniques, stories, lore, recipes, and chef-at-wok photos. She began with a search for "a virtuous wok," or saang teet, made of cast iron. Unlike American cast-iron skillets, these are light and thin. "If smacked against a counter, they shatter," says Young.
Recipes range from Julie Tay's sweet-spicy-salty Singapore-Style Squid to Stir-Fried Pork with Scallions, a simple recipe that transcends the sum of its parts.
The Breath of a Wok is one of those rare, eye-opening cookbooks that take the reader into a thrilling world of tradition and mastery.
GIVE THIS TO: A cook who loves techniques and tools. —Adam Hickman
We loved this book for its focus on one of life's simplest pleasures: the little dough package. Asian cuisines are particularly dumpling-centric, and Nguyen (who has two books in this list) runs the gamut with almost 90 recipes from India to China—boiling, steaming, baking, and frying along the way. Chapter titles show the range: Filled Pastas, Thin Skins, Stuffed Buns, Rich Pastries, and more. Line drawings help with "master shapes" like the Pleated Crescent, Half Moon, and Football (origami meets pastry). Complex recipes, like doughy pork-stuffed buns, samosas, and potstickers, are broken into easy-to-follow steps. And because dumplings are often dunking foods, there's a nice little chapter at the end on dipping sauces, chili oil, and chutneys, plus recipes for the stocks in which to boil the dumplings. Not every dumpling is photographed, but many are, beautifully.
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Continued: Asian Dumplings
Nguyen recalls shaping dumplings at her mother's apron strings as a 10-year-old girl. A wonderful image, but also a reassuring thought for the neophyte: If a child can do this, you can, too. And so can your kids.
Many dumplings fit into healthy cooking: They're small, balanced, and tend to satisfy. In a word, yum.
GIVE THIS TO: Any cook who loves to have fun in the kitchen. —Phoebe Wu
"We heard the plane coming in low and I was scared." In that first spare sentence about her family's last days in Vietnam in 1975, Andrea Nguyen grabs the reader and maintains her hold throughout this lovely book. You will feel her warm presence in every anecdote, and in every recipe.
That approach is welcome in a book of more than 175 recipes designed to introduce a cuisine likely unfamiliar to many cooks. The journey starts with ingredients, of course, and in Vietnam the ingredient list starts with pungent fish sauce. Nguyen reminds us that many important ingredients are, initially, strange when not from our culture: "If fish sauce seems alien to you, take a whiff of dried porcini mushrooms and then sniff the condiment. The aromas are remarkably similar, and, like good aged cheese, fish sauce smells stronger than it actually tastes."
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Continued: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
There are no how-to photos or illustrations, but Nguyen's descriptions of method are precise, even charming. Caramel Sauce—bitter, very dark, and very different from Western caramel—involves the sugar going from "Champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea," then brownish red like "a big, bold red wine" until finally reaching "the color of black coffee or molasses." That Caramel Sauce, by the way, flavors two incredibly delicious dishes we tried: Catfish Simmered in Caramel Sauce—rich, unctuous, savory-sweet—and Grilled Pork with Rice Noodles and Herbs—shellacked chargrilled meat over a fresh noodle-herb salad. Many recipes are healthy, packed with fresh herbs and vegetables, but be mindful of all that sodium-heavy fish sauce.
GIVE THIS TO: Adventurous cooks who will benefit from Nguyen's detailed coaching. —Ann Taylor Pittman
This is a veteran Indian cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey's bid to take a user-friendly approach for cooks who love the flavors of Indian cooking but don't have the time or patience for full mortar-and-pestle deployment. Jaffrey confesses to being time-pressed herself and sets out to deliver characteristic flavors in less time. This might strike a traditionalist as heretical. For example, traditional curry requires separate browning of wet seasonings (onion, ginger, garlic), toasting of dry spices, and browning of meats. In some cases Jaffrey simply puts all of the ingredients together, allows the meat to marinate, and then cooks. Baked Beef Curry proved both quick and deeply flavorful. There's nothing careless about this approach.
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Continued: At Home with Madhur Jaffrey
In the case of Punjabi Lamb Kebabs, also delicious, Jaffrey's recipe calls for store-bought garam masala and chaat masala (a sweet/sour spice mixture with mango powder, roasted spices, and more). However, she says, "It [chaat masala] adds spicy sourness but is not essential. Just sprinkle a dash of cayenne, and some roasted cumin seeds, if available, over the top and add some squirts of lime juice."
The book's greatest virtue is Jaffrey's familiarity with the entire subcontinent, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka.
Jaffrey makes no health claims, but Indian food is vegetable-centric, grain-oriented, and varied, with meat used sparingly.
GIVE THIS TO: A busy cook looking for inspiring weeknight meals. —Sidney Fry
We’d been looking forward to this book since running one of its recipes in 2011. Duguid is part anthropologist, part brilliant cook, and her recipes simply work in American kitchens. Many dishes in Burma will seem entirely fresh to palates already familiar with Thai or Vietnamese food. The subtle complexity of Simmered Cabbage, Shan Style; Traveler’s Eggplant Curry; and Minced Chicken with Galangal and Tomato was a revelation. Plus, each of these recipes achieves such richness with 10 ingredients or fewer. Duguid has mastered the arc of flavor development. She writes with deep, local, friendly authority, warning not to taste the eggplant dish halfway through, lest the dried anchovies drive you away. As promised, the flavor was lovely in the end, the anchovies lending a predominantly savory, not fishy, quality.
GIVE THIS TO: Serious cooks in search of seriously authentic flavors. —Scott Mowbray