My Essential Southeast Asian Cookbooks, Part I: Travel

Cookbooks on Malaysian food are rare in America but that is about to change when three cookbooks solely dedicated to Malaysian cooking hit the market in the next few months. Yes, three, and I am beyond thrilled! This shows a growing interest in Malaysian cuisine, the food I grew up eating, the food I learned to cook from my parents, and the food that soothes a homesick heart in my American kitchen.

Before we get to the new books (covers shown above), I'd like to tell you about the cookbooks that have helped me cook Malaysian food at home since I moved here. With suggestions from friends in the food business, bookstores, and publishers, I've assembled a collection of cookbooks with Malaysian recipes that I think is worthy of the attention of anyone interested in Malaysian cooking at home. These are books that I cook with and I'd like to share them with you through a series of posts starting with this one. 

Today's line-up is a mixture of old and new Southeast Asian cookbooks inspired by travel. All three have a prominent Malaysia presence. When we eat, we travel. And when we travel, we eat local food as part of the experience. I believe that food is the fastest and easiest introduction to a culture. And these books provide tasty insights into a region with a fascinating and unique food identity. 

Malaysian spicy noodle soup laksa, Indonesian vegetable salad pecel, Vietnamese savory rice pancakes banh khoai... The list of recipes in EAST: Culinary Adventures in Southeast Asia by Leanne Kitchen and Antony Suvalko reads like a menu of items typically found in Southeast Asian restaurants during my travels there. The EAST in this cookbook covers Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam and it's an ode to what the authors think of "when we're not east and wish we were there." It was born from a need to "cook ourselves back there, when the holiday was over and withdrawal symptoms set in."

I can definitely relate and have felt that way many times when I was living in Malaysia and traveling frequently in the region. Those urges have recently escalated to dire levels of homesickness, and this book has served me really well. It features travel and food photos that will transport you to exotic places, and within the pages you'll find a neat selection of simple recipes, plus the courage, to create the taste of Southeast Asia at home. 

The book starts with basic recipes like sauces, sambals, and curry pastes that are building blocks for the delightful street snacks, noodle soups, salads, curries, and rice dishes it shows you how to cook and prepare in a most approachable manner. We certainly like cookbooks that demystify cuisines new to us, but when it also takes you on a delicious journey right there in your own home kitchen, we know it's a keeper. 

Savoring Southeast Asia by Joyce Jue is the first cookbook I acquired as a way to introduce foods from the region to my family and friends here in America. Of all the Southeast Asian cookbooks I own, this is the one I've cooked the most from. The Malaysian rendang recipe in the book was the springboard for my vegetarian beetroot rendang, which was later adapted to pumpkin rendang for the autumn issue of the food journal Comestible (which you can order here). 

This is a big book filled with photos of not just the food but also the people and places in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Part cookbook, part travelogue, author Joyce Jue writes like a fervent traveler enamored of the sights, sounds, and smells of the culinary cultures of these countries. 

Over 100 recipes are featured, categorized by courses from 'Small Plates and Soups' to 'Sweets' that are each adequately prefaced with Jue's insightful description. In the 'Rice, Noodles, and Breads' section, no doubt an important part of the Southeast Asian cuisine, Jue writes: "Rice is taken so seriously in these countries that even the crust on the bottom of the pot is never thrown out." As a big fan of crunchy pot crust, I couldn't agree more. 

The new Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen has an important purpose within its beautiful pages of full-sized photographs of hawker stalls and food markets: what and where the locals eat in the Southeast Asian cities of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Saigon, and Jakarta. "Discovering local street food is the best way I know to understand a place and instantly feel connected to it," writes Nguyen. 

For the uninitiated, Nguyen is a chef and restaurant owner in Australia who has cookbooks and television series about food in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. This book is a companion to the TV show of the same name. One of the episodes on Kuala Lumpur shows Nguyen having a breakfast of nasi lemak, kaya toast, and half-boiled eggs in a busy market with a good friend of mine. Check it out here! Nothing like having a local to give you insider sources of deliciousness. 

I've been to all the cities featured in this book and what's really exciting for me is seeing the places I've visited and having the recipes to make some of the foods I love. The street food scene in Kuala Lumpur is round-the-clock and lively, featuring foods from a hodgepodge of cultures. As Malaysians, we're proud of our food so all you have to do is ask a local and the best (and sometimes theatrical) will be revealed, like the flying wan tan noodles in Seapark Market, Petaling Jaya. 

The real charm lies in the humble, traditional dishes, like the pan mee noodle stall in Chow Kit that has been there since 1975 and is run by a lady in her seventies who makes her own noodles by rolling them out with a beer bottle. With this book, you'll know where to find these local gems and have access to some usually tightly-guarded family recipes. 

Leave me a comment below and tell me about your favorite Southeast Asian cookbooks. 

You may also be interested to read My Essential Southeast Asian Cookbooks, Part II: The Classics.