What does 1970s food make you think of? Retro dinner party classics like prawn cocktail and beef wellington, perhaps. The sweet nostalgia of blancmange, peach melba, knickerbocker glory and trifle (always trifle). Pot luck dinners and so-uncool-it-never-goes-out-of-style fondue. Leaving for work or school only after a Proper Cooked Breakfast. More pre-packaging – TV dinners and fish fingers anybody? (didn’t think so...).
Lots of those things have a rather stodgy waft of comfortable familiarity. Some are rib-sticking and hearty and even dishes that once seemed the height of sophistication (devils on horseback and duck a l’orange?) are something to be tucked into and enjoyed, rather than a delicate morsel artfully arranged on a plate. They can evoke feelings of childhood and a sense of innocent – even naive? – pleasure in food, even in people who didn’t grow up in the 70s. But not all the recipes from back conjure up images of Kath & Kim crossed with Enid Blyton.
The idea of what was exotic was very different to now. Unless they were part of your native culture, things as simple as espresso, pumpernickel, souvlaki and felafel were curiosities that didn’t lurk on every corner (although 20 odd years later, I used to get funny looks eating pate sandwiches for lunch at school…). Chinese food was likely to begin with spring rolls and end with sweet and sour pork. But some people had a broader frame of reference…
Rosemary Brissenden first visited South East Asia in 1957 when she was a student at Melbourne University. South East Asian cuisine was largely unknown beyond those who’d experienced it first-hand and Australian food at that time was yet to stake out its territory as a global pick-n-mix held together with something of its own. Brissenden set to and wrote South East Asian Food, which was first published in 1969 and was the definitive guide to food from that region.
Over forty years later, a substantial new edition of the book has been released. In the cluttered and growing cookbook market full of next big things and toqued experts, South East Asian Food has become an enduring classic while staying relevant and up to date. It can be described as a seminal work without a trace of hyperbole – an assertion supported by Elizabeth David providing a ringing endorsement on the book’s warm chartreuse cover.
I first approached South East Asian Food with a degree of caution; its initial impression is of a Book That Means Business. Its heft reminded me of Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion which, I learned to my surprise, was only published in 1996.
South East Asian Food isn’t like the majority of modern recipe books. It isn’t a glossy coffee table book designed for show (or showing off) as much as for cooking. Nor is it a magazine-style format to flick lazily through on a weekend afternoon before, with a rumbling tummy, pottering into the kitchen to try out whatever caught your eye. It has more in common with a textbook – investing some time reading carefully and planning your approach will reward you by unlocking flavours that – for me, at least – I’d not imagined being able to recreate at home.
The book’s authoritativeness and detail could make it initially a bit intimidating for readers who are new to recipes from the region, or who favour cookbooks full of glossy pictures showing the finished product. However, Brissenden is a patient teacher. Her style is instructive and no-nonsense, a little like being taught by a slightly stern but very wise and generous aunty. The instructions are direct and clear, and explain why things are done a certain way (satisfying both my curiosity and my ignorance). A touch of lightness is provided by Daniella Germain’s illustrations (now taking centre stage of their own accord in My Abuela’s Table).
South East Asian Food traverses a culinary journey from Indonesia to Vietnam, passing through Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia along the way. The recipes are arranged by country and then into categories – grills and barbecues, braises, fried dishes, curries of almost every sort and persuasion. Brissenden gives an insight into each country’s culinary history and traditions, important ingredients and how meals are served. This follows a meaty introduction to ingredients and techniques, which instructs on everything from ‘making prawns crunchy’ to the uses of fresh coconut and making your own Javanese soya sauce.
If the 1970s are, at first glance, all about comfort food, South East Asian Food took me far outside of my comfort zone. I can safely confess to being a complete novice in relation to cooking Asian food of any variety and most of my experiments tend firmly towards sweet rather than spicy. The first recipe I tried was a lamb and spinach curry from Malaysia, and involved making my own curry powder. The finished dish had a depth of flavour that grew on the Other Penguin and me with each mouthful. It was quite mild, but had a subtle intensity – the freshly made curry powder made a noticeable and refreshing difference. As it turns out, this recipe was comfort food - just perhaps not the kind I'd first think of...
Being in such new territory, I tried to minimise my tinkering with the recipe. There were a few items where I used some pre-ground spices because they were what I had to hand, but I was keen to stay true to the instructions to get a good sense of the intended flavours.
The recipe, with my extra notes and comments, is as follows:
Meat Curry Powder
What you need
What to do
What you need
1 tbsp grapeseed oil (the recipe uses ghee or other vegetable oil)
1 large brown onion, cut in half across and then sliced finely
1 cardamom pod, broken open
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped finely
1 tbsp meat curry powder, from the recipe above
500 g very lean lamb, cut into 2 cm cubes (I used two lamb backstraps, which felt a little extravagant, but gave a tender and juicy result)
2 tomatoes, skinned and chopped or 2 tbsp yogurt (I used half a tin of peeled plum tomatoes, roughly chopped, and opted to not include yogurt)
Salt to taste
1 packet (which is a mysteriously unspecified quantity) of frozen spinach, or 500 g fresh spinach (I used 150 g of fresh baby spinach – a bit more would’ve been good, but my local shop was running out in a big way… terrible excuse, I know!)
A little chopped mint (optional, and I can’t stand it, so I left this out)
Pinch of ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala, or to taste (I also left this out as, having been positive there was some in the cupboard, I discovered I was mistaken – gah!)
What to do
Served with jasmine rice, the recipe serves two for dinner, with enough leftovers for two (or one very hungry Other Penguin) for lunch.
There are lots of other recipes I’m keen to try out in South East Asian Food after such a successful first experience. Some of these are…
- Ayam Semur Jawa (chicken in soya sauce)