Pacific Grove author’s new book simmers in Asian culinary wisdom.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The ingredients list for gingered oxtail stew includes broad bean sauce, Shoaxing rice wine and three pounds of oxtail. The grilled beef kebabs – Filipino style – call for kalamansi fruit, lemon-lime soda or beer, and Thai chili. Dessert? Black glutinous sticky rice, pandan leaves, and Indonesian palm sugar for rice porridge.
Hundreds of exotic ingredients star in the 130-plus recipes in Patricia Tanumihardja’s The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian America’s Kitchens released Oct. 1. Tanumihardja gathered the food formulas from mothers, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers for the dishes that hail from Japan to India. Through a little investigative work and careful testing, Tanumihardja keeps the instruction simple. The result: a litany of innovative family meals and pieces of history that would make grandma, whatever her ethnic background, proud.
Tanumihardja – a Weekly contributor and Pacific Grove resident – has unpacked her wok in Singapore (where she grew up), England, Boston and Seattle. She unearthed some recipes from old community cookbooks and churches, but gathered the bulk of them from Seattle-based Asian women she connected with through networking in the foodie community. In one case, she waited outside a church after Sunday Mass for a cook the deacon recommended.
Tanumihardja chose 10 featured grandmothers representing a cross-section of Asian cultures. Soon, these women became family.
“I never really knew my grandmothers, and growing up I envied friends who had a grandma close by,” she writes. “Because of this book, I now have multiple surrogate grandmothers!”
Like her cookbook, Tanumihardja’s culinary prowess and developed taste buds emerged from the family kitchen.
“It all happened through observation, copycatting and osmosis,” she says.
Thumbing through sections that range from “Tidbits, Purses, and Parcels” to “Comfort Food and One-Wok Meals,” it’s easy to sense the rich heritage of over a dozen Asian cultures permeating the soul of the home chef. These Korean kimchis, Shanghai soups and Cambodian custards warrant scavenger hunts through local Asian markets (Tanumihardja tells how to get there), infinite soy sauce uses, and endless dicing and grating but, thankfully, little previous cooking experience. For instance, the pumpkin custard from Cambodia suggests just a couple more steps beyond carving squash: mixing coconut milk, sugar and eggs, pouring the mixture into a gourd, and leaving it to steam.
“It is so simple, and I love the contrast of the smooth and creamy custard with the firmer pumpkin flesh,” the author says. “Plus, the presentation in the pumpkins is lovely.”
TELLING GRANDMA’S STORY
And there I was, a camera slung around my neck, notebook and pen in front of me, the timer going off to my left and measuring cups and spoons strewn about the kitchen counter to my right.
On this particular day, grandma Nellie was bustling about the kitchen making yu gun (egg crepes stuffed with fish and pork). As Nellie started pouring soy sauce into a bowl, I deftly intercepted the flow with my measuring cup. Eek – she just threw the ground pork packaging into the trash can before I could take note of the weight. Who’d have thought fishing trash out of the bin would be part of my job description? Wait, how many inches did she just chop off the gingerroot?
Such was a typical day “on the set” working on The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, a culmination of two years of researching, compiling, cooking and recipe testing.
And I would not have done it any differently.
The project was definitely a labor of love. Many people have asked whether any of my grandmothers are featured in the book. Sadly, no. I never really knew either of them. Paradoxically, this is one of the main motivations for the book, a desire to seek and find that consummate grandmother-granddaughter bond. Find it I did, thanks to all the generous people who opened up their kitchens and their hearts to me. I have been privy to private lessons taught by women who have imbued their cooking with love for generations and I picked up decades of kitchen wisdom.
These women are the real stars of my cookbook. It has been an honor and privilege to shine the spotlight on them.
Tanumihardja captures previously unrecorded recipes by following the grandmothers into their kitchens and diving in front of clay pots and steamers to scribble down exact measurements.
“When grandma merely motioned to chop cilantro or add soy sauce, I’d stick my cup or spoon in front of her and take measurements before she could do anything else,” she says.
The effort appears in her exact descriptions, and extra tidbits. For the Burmese pork curry – one of her favorites for its more mild Indian flavors – she adds a “grandma says” tagline: “You don’t need to add water to the curry as the pork will release its own juices.”
Let the pork simmer in its bath of tangerine turmeric, mushy ginger, and ruffled onions, keep it steaming in the skillet just as long as she says, and a meal thick enough to pleasantly coat the palate will anchor the dinner table – served family style, of course.
TANUMIHARDJA hosts a cooking demo-book signing at the P.G. Farmers Market, Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove, 384-6961.
BURMESE PORK CURRY
Burmese curries, the mildest, mellowest of curries, don’t call for the myriad of spices that Indian curries normally do. Paprika is added more for color than heat, so if you’d like to turn up the heat, substitute ground chilies for up to half of the paprika. Instead of pork, try the recipe with your choice of protein – beef, chicken, or even shrimp. For a one-wok meal, throw in bit sized vegetable pieces such as squash (an optional ingredient below), cauliflower or potatoes.
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes (20 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
4 cloves garlic, chopped (1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 ½ tablespoons)
2 pounds boneless pork should or loin, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions chopped (2 cups)
1 tablespoon ground paprika
1 pound winter squash (such as kabocha or hubbard) cut into 1-inch cubes (2 to 3 cups) (optional)
Cilantro leaves for garnish
In a large bowl, combine the garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, turmeric, and ginger. Add pork and mix well to coat
Preheat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat for about one minute. Swirl in the oil and heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onions and stir and cook until translucent and ruffled with brown edges, three to four minutes. Add paprika and mix until the onions are evenly coated.
Add pork and raise the heat to medium-high. Stir and cook to brown the pork for about one minute. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for about 40 minutes. Add the squash and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until meat and squash are tender. Adjust the heat if necessary, you don’t want the meat to burn.
Taste and add salt if desired. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve with freshly teamed rice and a vegetable side dish.