My Essential Southeast Asian Cookbooks, Part III: New Indochina


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.

Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu is a gorgeous and insightful exploration of the major Southeast Asian foodie city through the experience of a true and proud Bangkokian. Perhaps continuing the journey that the Chicago-based author started in her 2014 cookbook Simple Thai Food to stay connected to her Thai roots, this is an invitation to delve deeper into the tastes and sights of her hometown, a city, she writes, that "cannot be considered representative of any other place but itself."

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. 

Quick and Easy Thai Recipes by Jean-Pierre Gabriel collects 100 recipes selected and adapted from the encyclopedic Thailand: The Cookbook (above right) that came out in 2014. In the fuss-free style of its publisher Phaidon's Quick and Easy series (the others are Italian and Spanish), this cookbook aims to deliver the gist of Thai cooking with simple recipes that can be done in under 30 minutes, all laid out in clear instructions and large photos.

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!

In Made In Vietnam, Australian chef Tracey Lister and her husband Andreas Pohl pay personal homage to their adopted home and share the recipes they have loved and collected over the many years they have been living and traveling in Vietnam. The prolific husband-and-wife team behind the Hanoi Cooking Centre has previously given us KOTO: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, Vietnamese Street Food, and Real Vietnamese Cooking.

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. 

The Pho Cookbook comes from the author who gave us Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, said to be the first comprehensive full-color cookbook devoted to Vietnamese food in the English language when it came out in 2006. Andrea Nguyen has over the years written several single-subject cookbooks, namely Asian Tofu, Asian Dumplings, and The Banh Mi Handbook.

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. 

Burma Superstar by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy offers an insight into a cuisine unknown to many through the backstory of a successful restaurant chain of the same name in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through the book, we learn not only of the influences the bordering countries of Thailand, China, India, and Laos have on Burmese food but also of the culture and stories of the Burmese people and its diaspora. The recipes are accompanied by delightful anecdotes on food origins and tips for necessary Western adaptations. 
Despite having traveled briefly through Myanmar during the early days after the opening of its tourism gate, language barrier and a lack of knowledge prevented me from truly getting to know the food. It took making Burmese friends after I had moved to the US and cooking from books like this one and Naomi Duguid's Burma: Rivers of Flavor for me to begin to understand this unique piece of the Southeast Asian culinary canvas that was so near yet so far from my home country of Malaysia.
Adventures in Starry Kitchen by Nguyen Tran is a bit of an oddball of a cookbook. Within its colorful pages is the bizarre and inspiring story of how a pop-up kitchen overcomes all odds to become America's most famous underground restaurant. It is told by Tran's amusing voice and chronicled through the creative Asian fusion recipes concocted with his wife.

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!

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

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


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