My Essential Southeast Asian Cookbooks, Part II: The Classics

I only started using cookbooks after I moved to the US and had to learn how to cook Malaysian food while away from home. It was equal parts desperation and curiosity that led me to the kitchen and the creation of this blog to document my culinary adventures. I am a much better cook these days but I didn't achieve that all by myself. I had my parents on the phone for guidance, friends showing me recipes to save my life, and cookbooks providing the proper foundation for lifelong kitchen skills. Yes, an urgent craving for rojak is a matter of life and death!

So this is why I've started writing this cookbook series. Maybe you're homesick like me and need to soothe it with food from home. Maybe you've been to Malaysia or other parts of Southeast Asia, tried the food, and your life is forever changed. Maybe you're curious about Southeast Asian food and want to try cooking it. 

This list is made up of classic Southeast Asian cookbooks with recipes that are as reliable as time. My focus here is on Malaysian food, but you will soon realise that some of the recipes from the neighboring countries are closely related. 

To see the travel-themed books in the first part of this cookbook series, click here. To start cooking, click here for a list of recipes on my blog.

There are many Asian cookbooks out there but if you're new to Asian cooking and want to get your hands wet (pun intended), The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon is what I'd start with. Solomon, who was born in Sri Lanka and lives in Australia, is a credible authority on Asian cooking with more than 30 cookbooks under her belt. First published in 1976, The Complete Asian Cookbook has reportedly sold more than one million copies and has been translated to German, French, and Dutch.

The book has over 800 recipes from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, The Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan... yes, all in one place! The recipes are simple and cover the basics of the most eaten food in each country, making this voluminous cookbook a sturdy springboard for dabbling in Asian cooking at home.  

The gorgeous 40th anniversary edition was recently released but I've been using a 1995 edition (cover on the left in the photo below) acquired from a used bookstore sometime back. The book has been given a significant makeover in the latest edition, with a new layout and photos that reflect the changes both the food and publishing industries have gone through in the past several decades.

Asian food is more pronounced in the Western world today and ingredients for Asian home cooking have become easier to find thus the new recipes added plus an updated glossary in the new edition makes perfect sense. A page-by-page comparison also shows some minor changes in the wording of some of the instructions but I'm happy to report that all my favorite recipes are still in there!

While I think it's a worthy investment, I'm not blind to the fact that it's a big and expensive book. If a "complete" Asian cookbook is not a necessity for you right now, the book is also available in a series of six geographical regions. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore make up one book (top right cover in the photo above). I'll let you know that it's also important to look at the food from Indonesia and Singapore to cook Malaysian food. And to some extent, India and China too. Solomon herself wrote in the preface: "Many dishes in Malaysia and Indonesia are the same, or bear striking similarities, so I have tried to represent the best of both countries."

The food of Malaysia is rich in diversity, drawing from a multi-ethnic population of Malay, Chinese, and Indian, and influenced by neighboring countries like Singapore and Indonesia. Communities like the Nyonya and the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia on the island of Borneo further add to the delicious complexities of the cuisine. I appreciate the challenges that this may present to cookbook authors and find that most Malaysian cookbooks that I've come across tend to lean one way or another. 

In Solomon's book, the recipes in the Malaysia chapter are mostly Malay, and the recipes for the Chinese food we eat in Malaysia are to be found in the Singapore chapter. (Although I must say I have mixed feelings about seeing Nasi Lemak in the Singapore chapter!) Some of the recipes in the Indonesia chapter are also commonly eaten in Malaysia, like rendang. So yes, the Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore series is by itself a good introduction if you're interested in Malaysian cooking. 

The James Beard award-winning Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore by James Oseland has the right idea in covering the foods of these three countries in the same book. The histories of these countries are so intertwined that the connection shows up in the cuisines, and can be traced back to the ancient spice trade and route in the region.

I love this book for the journalistic writing of the author, a renowned food writer and magazine editor, most notably as the former Editor-in-Chief of SAVEUR magazine. Through Oseland's vivid descriptions of his travels, informative introduction to ingredients, and clear-cut cooking instructions, I am taken on a culinary journey and there's always something to learn from the recipes. 

A sizeable one-third of the book, which was published in 2006, is dedicated to situating you in the cultures and geography of the cuisines and helping you get comfortable with the ingredients, techniques, and equipment. The recipes, gleaned from Oseland's extensive travels in the region and experiences eating and cooking with the locals, are sectioned by type instead of country and include a chapter on street foods and another on foods of celebration. 

If you're serious about immersing yourself in the food cultures of Malaysia and its influential neighbors, this is as good a book to read as it is to cook from. 

A true classic, the South East Asian Food by Rosemary Brissenden, was first published in the late 1960s and has been reprinted numerous times since. The late great English food writer Elizabeth David highly endorsed it, calling it "a book that every serious cook should posses."

I have to admit that I didn't know about this book until a contact from Hardie Grant, the publisher of its 2012 edition, shared it with me. All I know about the surprisingly low-profile author is that she lives in Australia, and wrote this book after visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand in 1965. She went back to Southeast Asia in 1993 for a major update of the book, which also included recipes from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, countries that have opened up since her last visit. 

"When it was published," she wrote in the introduction, "South East Asian food was relatively unknown and exotic, sought after only by people who had lived and worked in the area during colonial times or by rare food adventurers who were prepared either to hunt for the uncommon ingredients required or to find substitutes for them." 

All that has changed today but the recipes remain as relevant as ever and are in fact, along with her research and observations, great insights into the study of the origins, history, and evolution of the recipes from the region. The book does however show its age in certain areas, like the names and spelling of dishes that seem oldish to me and the inclusion of recipes for sharkfin, a food now shunned for its detrimental environmental cost. 

I enjoy the fact that Malaysia and Singapore get the most pages in the book and the recipes are divided into the cooking styles of Malay, Chinese, Nyonya, Indian, and Eurasian. That to me displays Brissenden's thoughtful consideration of the complex nuances in Malaysian cuisine. 

"I believe cooks feel most comfortable when they know something of both the culinary and cultural contexts of the food they are preparing," she continued in the introduction. "Many find pretty pictures of prepared food daunting unless they are aware of its 'surrounding logic'."

That may explain the photo-free presentation of the book. Even though it was written long before I was born, the food descriptions are still relatable and Brissenden's voice is that of a dedicated teacher. Indeed a book to have for every student of Southeast Asian cooking. 

You know it's an old cookbook (alright, a classic) when the word "exotic" appears on the title. Several old Southeast Asian cookbooks came to my attention when I searched for Malaysian cookbooks from my local library network but The Exotic Kitchens of Malaysia by Copeland Marks stood out for a few reasons so this is a noteworthy mention.

Firstly, it has a funny title. Okay, just kidding! This book came out in 1997 following the author's travels around Malaysia to "research on the regional cooking styles in all of the major cities on the eastern and western sides of the peninsula." Cooking styles do vary significantly from one state to another in Malaysia and the same can even be said of a singular dish, like the spicy noodle soup Laksa, so I appreciate seeing some of those distinctions in the book. 

More impressively, Marks also "went to Borneo to study the indigenous people in the two states of Sabah and Sarawak" and captured the cooking styles of communities in East Malaysia that are not often documented in cookbooks. The recipes in the book may not adequately cover the entire spectrum of state-by-state cooking in Malaysia but they do give you an idea of how dishes are prepared traditionally with recipes handed down over the generations. 

This list reflects the classic Southeast Asian cookbooks, with a focus on Malaysian recipes, that have come to my attention and those that I constantly cook from. It is by no means intended to be a complete and final list. It is my hope that we will continue to learn and discover Asian cooking at home for the lesson in cooking is a journey to be savored.

So, please leave me a comment and tell me what else you'd add to this list!

You may also be interested to read My Essential Southeast Asian Cookbooks, Part I: Travel.


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