Learning from Cookbooks Written for the Non-locals

The next time you go to Europe or the Americas for holidays, perhaps look out for old Singaporean or Asian cookbooks in secondhand bookstores. If these books were distributed in those continents, where the dominant populations were unfamiliar with the cuisines, even better. This is because the authors would make an extra effort to explain the methods, ingredients, and utensils—things that other authors writing for the local cooks would leave out because they assumed their readers already knew. But those of you who are only staring to learn cooking will know this assumption cannot be more wrong. People who are born into the culture but do not practice it are as much a stranger to its traditions and wisdoms as those who didn’t belong by birth. Cookbooks written for the non-natives might be the answer to your own cultural cuisine. I bought a few in the US and they had become my treasure troves. Here are some things I learned:

old asian cookbooks

Book: The Food of Singapore
Distributed in: United States
Year: 1995
Author: Lee Geok Boi (Singaporean Straits Chinese)
Editor: Wendy Hutton
Recipes by: Djoko Wibisono and David Wong, both chefs at The Beaufort Sentosa (now known as The Singapore Resort and Spa Sentosa)

Short chapters on Singapore’s immigrant history, the nation’s kopitiam culture, and the characteristics of each ethnic food precede the recipes. Even though the author breaks down the cuisine into Indian, Chinese, and Malay, she makes sure to highlight the interactions of their techniques and ingredients in dishes such as Indian rojak and satay bee hoon. Insightful observation: the main difference between Malay and Indian curry is that the former tends to include galangal and lemongrass, while the mainstays of the latter are coriander, cumin, and fennel powder. The author also points out that Indian restaurants, even those own by Hindus, do not serve pork. This is because, she explains, the Muslim Mughal Empire once extended to a large part of the Indian continent. Therefore, Indian restaurants all over the world tend not to serve pork even though only beef is forbidden by Hinduism.

Book: Southeast Asian Cooking
Distributed in: United States
Year: 1987
Author: Jay Harlow for the California Culinary Academy cookbook series

Like many cookbooks dated this far or further back, it features extensive instructions on techniques, including how to bruise a ginger. Sounds like ABC to a seasoned cook but it is downright strange to those who are not. I don’t remember knowing that it means whacking the food until a cookbook I came across was decent enough to explain. Anyway, this author also teaches one how to create kecap manis with soy sauce and molasses—very useful if you are living in the states where the sweet and dark soy sauce is hard to come by. Most recipes also do not explain how to produce coconut milk, least to say the proportion of coconut shavings to water. This book suggests 1:1, a good place to start until one finds the perfect ratio for the desired thickness. If you prefer to use canned coconut milk, which is typically thicker than the freshly squeezed one, the author also suggests ways to thin it or to extract the cream from it. Again, this book reflects the author’s personal preferences; it is not a bible. Not especially when the author says satay “is probably derived from the English word ‘steak’.” Unsupported claims and untested recipes irritate like nails on chalkboard, but they are not uncommon, so it’s always wise to compare with other sources when you’re not sure.

Book: The Pleasure of Chinese Cooking
Distributed: United States
Year: 1969 (first published in 1962)
Author: Grace Zia Chu (Shanghai-born culinary instructor and author)

Grace Zia Chu is one of the authors credited for introducing Chinese cooking to America. The first quarter of this book, which Craig Claiborne wrote a foreword for, explains how one should hold the chopsticks, use a Chinese cleaver and wok, and where to buy Chinese produce in the major cities. (Check out the promotional video for her book.) Her explanations on why Chinese cut the meats and vegetables into small pieces before cooking are insightful. She says Chinese cooks had to collect fuels such as wood, charcoal, twigs, and leaves for cooking. The smaller the food, the faster they cooked, thus, the lesser fuel it took. Another reason because Chinese eat with chopsticks, and we all know it’s easier to pick up strips of meat than, say, a steak with two sticks.

The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking

The author also enlightens us on oblique cutting, which creates many exposed surfaces on the vegetables to help them absorb the flavourings and also to cut off the stringy fibres. This is achieved by making a slant cut, and then rolling the vegetable until the cut is facing up before making another slant cut.

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