2017 has been an exciting year for Southeast Asian cookbooks. I've compiled a list of newly released cookbooks that highlight the cuisines of mainland Southeast Asia, historically known as Indochina and includes Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
I've had the privilege to visit all these countries and enjoy the amazing food, and I really value the opportunity presented in these cookbooks to recreate some of the recipes in my own kitchen, all the way here in California. Thailand and Vietnam dominate the list, a testament to the popularity of their food in the West, while the release of a cookbook by a successful Burmese restaurant chain signals a growing interest in the food of Myanmar. I would love to see more attention given to the food of Laos and Cambodia as I think their contribution to the identity of the Southeast Asian flavor profile should be acknowledged.
I'm saving the Malaysian cookbooks for another list so come back here for the next installment in this series. To see the previous lists on this cookbook series, click here for the classics and here for travel-themed cookbooks.
Through Leela's personal stories, you are at once thrown into the uniqueness of a fascinating culture and carefully guided through its culinary colloquialisms, nuances, and evolution. For example, a tom yam recipe made with dried ramen noodles and evaporated milk comes after a tribute to the ubiquitous Thai instant noodle brand, Mama. Though admittedly "inauthentic", this is the kind of stuff served in a famous Bangkok shop where "people regularly line up in the middle of the night for a table."
The irony is not lost on Leela and nowhere is the nostalgia stronger than in classic recipes like the old-school noodle dish called Mi Ka-Thi (angel hair rice noodles with coconut sauce) that's "becoming harder and harder to find in the city" and Khanom Jin Nam Phrik (rice vermicelli with lentil-peanut sauce), a resolutely Central Thai dish that "gets me to fall in love with Thai food over and over again."
This cookbook is very much a love letter to Bangkok, a magnificent city I adored and visited at least once a year when I was living in Kuala Lumpur. It is a heartfelt ode that can be a delicious salve for homesickness for someone like me or an eye-opener for adventurous home cooks anywhere in the world.
It's pretty standard fare within the pages. Restaurant favorites like green papaya salad, spicy soups, and pineapple fried rice are in there, should they be the motivation and familiarity you need to start cooking Thai food at home. I've found myself on several occasions whipping up a Thai salad from this book to curb a sudden craving!
Their new cookbook covers the three main culinary regions of Vietnam and introduces many lesser-known recipes and ingredients like banana flower salad, boiled jackfruit seeds, and choko tendrils (what we may know better here as chayote).
Vietnam is undoubtedly a foodie destination. I have personally visited the different parts of the country with the intention to enjoy its cuisine but it's clear that I've only managed to scratch the surface. As we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to some of the most authentic Vietnamese eateries in the US, it's easy for me to take Vietnamese food for granted, but the recipes in this book are encouraging me to venture outside of my comfort zone of spring rolls, pho, and bun, and try something out of the ordinary in my kitchen.
This time, she turns her focus to the iconic Vietnamese noodle dish pho (pronounced "fuh") and insists that "if you can boil water, you can make pho." Start by reading the Pho Manual in the book and you're really on your way. After breaking down the ingredients, equipment, and techniques needed, the book goes on to give us recipes that range from foundational to adventurous, including vegetarian and vegan versions and the offbeat pho fried rice. Finally, homemade pho is a reality for me.
The recipes can be seen as windows to the Asian American food experience, where a single dish can bear multiple cultural identities and ingredients can come from different places to create something completely familiar yet utterly strange.
Early in the book, we are introduced to the couple's Vietnamese and Cantonese culture through their signature crispy tofu balls. Later, we are told about the Malaysian Coco Chicken "invented out of thin air with Malaysian flavors, random ingredients, and my 'stupid' request for my wife to cook something other than Vietnamese and Chinese food." This apparently is how Starry Kitchen started.
Words like "deconstructed" and "reimagined" appear often to describe the recipes. If you're up for an adventure in your own kitchen, you're in for a treat with this book. If you want to throw a party and impress people, "balls out" versions of the recipes are included to make up to 80 servings. Don't forget, these recipes have been crowd-tested and approved!