Monday, February 11, 2008

Tasty travels

A journey through flavour, memories recalled through shared meals.. Hot Sour Salty Sweet has to be one of my all time favourite books.

Photo: Cover of Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Alford/Duguid)

Alford and Duguid have compiled a few volumes now, each every bit a cookbook, memoir, travelogue, and insight on the tradition and culinary heritage along the road less travelled as the one before. Their recipes have an authenticity cherished by cookbook aficionadoes the world over.

The chapters are sectioned into main ingredients of vegetables, meats and fish, along with street food, noodles, soups and desserts. There is also a great reference at the back of the volume to assist with defining and sourcing (or substituting) some of the more exotic ingredients.

Although the spicy warming soups are a great first course as part of wintery type meal, I primarily like the inspiration within the covers of Hot Sour Salty Sweet during the warmer months. There is nothing like the cooling effect of eating food that originated in warmer climes and the fullness of flavour to provide satiety when it is (eek) almost too hot to think about food.

Speaking of hot, I bought Hot Sour Salty Sweet after returning from Darwin, Australia and a side trip through Indonesia. Australia was gaining a reputation in culinary fusion as chefs and home cooks alike were marrying Thai, Lao and Vietnamese influences on their fabulous fresh local/tropical produce. When you combine amazing Australian ingredients and the Southeast Asian regional cooking from where they have gained their fame, you have the perfect fare for Darwin-eque temperatures and the style of the local beer for which Aussie is equally well-known.

I recall sweltering evenings even in the dry season where a dinner of appetisers and a few numbingly cold beers were the order of the day. We grazed on various salads, salat luang prabang over rice, lettuce or pickled cabbage wrapped miang lao, and rice paper wrapped goi cuon. When we could actually be bothered to cook a 'proper' meal, chicken thighs or fresh local seafood were slathered in flavoursome pastes of pepper and cilantro root and grilled. Accompanying sauces of nam jeem, nuoc cham and nuoc leo were applied to various dishes and curries for noodles or rice were fashioned out of the many varieties of chiles and vegetables readily available at local markets. And when we didn't cook, either due to the late hours or the soaring temperatures (sometimes the prospect of just standing in front of a barbeque made us melt), these same markets provided lots of spicy dinner options and the ever present pureed frozen mango puree for dessert.

When faced with these temperatures and little time to acclimatise, this street food style dish does the trick. I set out the toppings: a pile of fresh cilantro (coriander), lettuce, finely sliced lemongrass and slivers of green onion. We pass the succulent pork tenderloin, fried with garlic, shallots and dry roasted peanuts, sauced with tamarind juice, palm sugar, ginger, and the gloriously salty, savoury fish sauce. This is eaten, by the teaspoon wrapped in a lettuce leaf, with a sprinkle of the toppings, in two bites.

To accompany these lettuce wraps, an abundance of cucumber has resulted in a simple salad whereby a rice vinegar dressing is made with a bit of palm sugar and vinegar, and the oil is given a quick fry with some sichuan peppercorns, as many dried red Thai chiles as you like (2-5) and a jalepeno. This infused oil is poured over the vinegar dressing and mixed, so twice dressed, if you like.

And everything, as usual, can be subjected to a squeeze of lime..




Very Highly Recommended.

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