June 14, 2009
By Ong Sor Fern
Some like it hot. So this week, we look at cookbooks that spice up your life with zingy dishes that will wake up your tastebuds.
A Touch Of Tropical Spice
Recipes From Four Seasons Hotels And Resorts
Tuttle Publishing/2009/144 pages/Hardcover/$40.66/Major bookshops
This book is a glossy, classy affair. It has a foreword from no less a culinary celebrity than Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
There is a nice glossary of essential ingredients that demystifies everything from belacan to pandan leaves.
And the array of recipes, which offers everything from a variety of sambals to Clams In Red Sauce With Chinese Sausage, accompanied by mouthwatering photographs, promises to re-create adventurous fusion cooking in the home.
Well, the two recipes I attempted were certainly an adventure. Although the one for Papaya Clove Jam produced an exotically fragrant paste scented by lemongrass and cloves, it was let down by imprecise cooking instructions.
It failed to define how much heat was needed for the initial boiling of the fruit and the instruction to slice lemongrass finely resulted in a jam tainted by the woody stems of the herb.
A much better approach would be to simply bruise the stalks and remove them after cooking.
The Lemongrass Sambal recipe was also very puzzling as it was not so much a paste as a sliced herb salad that would serve better as a topping for steamed and grilled meats rather than a dip, which is what the name sambal implies.
Some recipes are also spectacularly fiddly, worth the attempt only if you are cooking in large enough portions to justify the effort.
The saving grace is that quite a few dishes, such as the recipe for Hokkien noodles, which comes with a recipe for pork stock, ring authentically true.
Which leads me, in a roundabout fashion, to my conclusion. The recipes here are worthwhile and some are wonderfully inventive. But they are to be attempted only if you are already fairly confident in the kitchen and can manage the book's lapses in details.
Fabulous Curries And Chilli Recipes
Periplus/1997/112 pages/ Paperback/$21.40/Major bookshops
After the rather trauma-inducing, cavalier approach of the first book, Periplus' no-nonsense Step-by-Step series is a relief.
The compiled nature of this book is betrayed by the recipes, which swing between detailed options that demand the assembly of rempahs from scratch and cheat versions using curry paste.
But all the recipes are properly notated, measurements and cooking times specified clearly. Even better, there are little icons for each recipe indicating the level of difficulty.
This book is so accessible, it has even cured me of a minor phobia about cooking curries - something I have always thought of as much too fiddly and complicated to assemble.
But the Chicken And Lime Curry (wonderfully fragrant and zingy from the limes) and Indian Prawn Curry were a breeze to whip up even though the spices were assembled from scratch.
While the first half is dominated by Indian recipes, with a few Thai dishes thrown in for token variety, the second half boasts a more international flavour, with Italian, Mexican and Asian options clamouring for space.
For ease of use and clarity of presentation, this cookbook is the clear winner this week.
30 Minutes Or Less: Spicy Food
Parragon/2008/96 pages/ Hardcover/$19.21/Books Kinokuniya
British publisher Parragon should stop reproducing that risible laksa recipe with carrot, no coconut milk and no laksa leaves.
Other than that strange tic, its cookbooks are actually rather practical and friendly.
But be warned that this collection of 40 recipes, easy as they are, have been toned down for British tastebuds.
The three recipes I tried - Spicy Crab Soup, Indonesian Sweetcorn Balls and Pad Thai - completely failed to light my fire as I am accustomed to far spicier offerings.
But all the recipes resulted in tasty treats. The fiddly sweetcorn balls, which had a lovely nutty crunch from the peanuts, are quite more-ish and the pad thai had a tangy zing and was so easy to cook I am adding it to my arsenal of quick meals for weekdays.
The book can also be accused of false advertising. No one, unless you move like the Flash, can assemble the recipes in under 30 minutes if you factor in the prep time needed. The fastest dish I managed was the pad thai, which took at least 40 minutes from start to finish.
Nonetheless, the recipes are fairly user-friendly. You just need to double, if not triple, the amount of spices stated if you want something hot enough to make an impression on Singaporean tastebuds.