IT'S not entirely clear to me if it's because of the San Francisco Bay Area's great cultural diversity - or in spite of it - but there's no denying that more than a few of us (and not just self-professed foodies) suffer from Jaded Palate Syndrome. The most obvious symptom: A pronounced grumpiness and malaise around lunchtime. We've become so accustomed to finding everything from East Indian to Ethiopian cuisines, all as close as the nearest suburban mini-mall, that the region's signature pairing of whine and food should be: "OK, amuse me. Show me something really new."
And into the breach steps the intrepid James Oseland, with a masterful introduction to a rich, intensely vibrant cuisine that has yet to find more than a token presence in the United States. With "Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore," Oseland, the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, lays out a vast map of hitherto uncharted culinary territory. The book is not an addition to an existing canon of literature. Rather, for any non-Indonesian chef it will more than suffice as both the first and last word on the subject.
How could an area as vast and populous as the Malay Archipelago escape notice for so long? As one Indonesian acquaintance told Oseland on his first trip to the region more than two decades ago, "We're the best-kept secret in Asia. Too few of us are living abroad to share our cuisine." If you've tasted any food from the region at all, it was most likely cosmopolitan, Chinese-influenced fare from the city-state of Singapore and not the home-style cooking typically found in the far provinces of Indonesia.
"Cradle of Flavor" is more than the sum of its parts. It is a compendium of exotic recipes, but it is also a short course on how the many cultural streams at play here - Chinese, Thai, Dutch and Indian among them - came to intersect in the kitchens and alley food-stalls of Indonesia. And the book works as what -- for lack of a better term - we'll call anecdotal ethnography. Food is culture. It's impossible to read a chapter without coming away with some understanding of the rhythm of everyday life in Indonesia.
While the instructional passages are authoritative and straightforward, they're interwoven with a cultural portrait that's intensely personal. It begins with Oseland's first journey to Indonesia at age 19. His extended stay with an aristocratic Jakarta family would include, among other things, a bout with dengue fever and a portentous meeting with a screen-star-turned-fortune-teller who informs him that he is fated to keep returning to Indonesia for the rest of his life. You've got to love a cookbook author who would begin a chapter titled "Fish and Shellfish" with an eyewitness account of the great exodus of Muslim fundamentalists streaming through the port of Ambon after the Bali bombings of 2002.
Oseland is the sensible, streetwise friend any American visitor would want as a guide through the open-air markets of the region. Indonesian cooking techniques are neither exotic nor particularly demanding (except, in my case, reducing coconut milk, something I am about as likely to master as Tuvan throat-singing). But the ingredients are another story. The greatest challenge facing the novice cook is procurement, not processing. "Cradle of Flavor" includes an encyclopedic and obsessively detailed section on ingredients - how to evaluate them, where to buy them, how to handle them, how to store them. For those of us who don't know our lemon basil from our lemongrass, this should save untold expense and frustration on forays through the local Asian supermarket.
The focus here is on classic home dishes. The 100 recipes - from condiments to cocktails - have been carefully selected with the success of the American non-professional chef in mind. In other words, you will not need to acquire specialty kitchen gadgets or send halfway around the globe for ingredients in order to master an Indonesian feast that's both authentic and delicious.
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