Flavour — Ruby Tandoh

Flavour joins the chorus of books that seeks to refute the trend towards ‘clean eating.’ Such voices seek to make food fun again, rather than a source of anxiety and fear.

Cookbooks have a lot to teach us. No, aside from the obvious mechanics of how and when to apply heat to various combinations of protein, carbohydrate and lipid.

Cookbooks are guides for different ways of living. Do we buy into a world of 15 minute meals, where food is a necessary but joyless pitstop in our otherwise busy days? Or do we invest in a world where everyone makes their own jam and knows the village vicar?

Cookbooks are inspiration for how to live, as much as they are how to eat.

In some cases this inspiration is explicit: as in Balance and Harmony, Asian cookbooks often suggest a certain way of eating: something that is highly communal and features a few dishes. This reflects a certain lifestyle and culture.

In some cases the inspiration is tacit: the many cookbooks of Bill Granger do not exactly tell you to eat the food outside with a group of friends all wearing white jeans and linen shirts, yet you begin to feel the pull of this as you read and cook from one of his books.

Yet what happens if this guidance is confused? When one recipe pulls you in one direction–of say a no fuss 15-minute meal–and the other recipe pulls you into the direction of intricate and involved baking?

The central problem of Flavour is that it simply is not sure of what it wants to be—or how it wants to guide you. After having cooked from this book for a few weeks, I now see much clearer warning signs in this paragraph from the book’s introduction:

This book is for everyone who likes to eat, whether you’re a new cook or a devoted foodie, a fast food queen or a restaurant critic, old or young.

In creating a book that she hopes is for everyone, Tandoh has created a book that will appeal to no one.

Even the central message–that we should stop demonising and elevating certain (arbitrary) food types is lost in a cookbook that consists of a confusing mishmash of cuisines, techniques and approaches.

Structure

Hardback.

368 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Vegetable and Herbs
  3. Fruit
  4. Eggs and Dairy
  5. Meat and Fish
  6. Storecupboard

Within each of these chapters are a variety of smaller sections. For instance, the Fruit chapter has sections for Apples, Pears and Rhubarb, Tropical Fruit, Citrus, Stone fruits and cherries, and Berries and Currants.

I cannot say whether or not this structure was Tandoh’s decision or her publisher’s. I can say with certainty it is a terrible system of organisation. Not being able to quickly look at similar recipes is painful. If you want to make something with chicken, you might have to look at 10 different sections under a few different chapters.

It is a hard book to browse: I have had to rely on the index to an unprecedented extent. Once you do find your way, things improve slightly. The recipe format is workable: a generous headnote (occasionally, far too generous, such that the recipe does not start until the last paragraphs on the page). The ingredients are given a column on the side, and the method is given in paragraph long chunks.

Tandoh’s writing is much stronger in the headnote than in the recipe method. This, I think, reflects the problem I have with the book: it does not know what it wants to be, so the writing is really inconsistent. It can be really chatty and go into far too much detail, yet at times glides over steps and omits helpful advice.

The photography is not bad, yet tends toward an out of focus, instragram-filter aesthetic. It is serviceable, yet you get the sense that food is rarely the hero. You can see what I am talking about on the blog for the book.

Thoughts

No cookbook is going to be perfect. Every book I have reviewed here has suffered from flaws (which I hope I have managed to convey in my reviews.)

I would be more willing to overlook some of the things that I have discussed if the food from the book was good. Instead, it ranges from fine (at best) to boring and uninspiring (at worst).

Despite the unclear focus and audience of this book, it does not seriously position itself as being something for those who are new to cooking. Yet the recipes for one dimensional, simple food often seem like they would be more suitable for a kitchen novice.

The first hints of concern started when I was flicking through the book. Normally I get quite excited by a new cookbook. It is a whole world of possibility. Within every cookbook there is the potential for a recipe that will change your life or become the one recipe. So I am often almost giddy when I flicking through a new book for the first time. And yet, I remember flicking through this one and just thinking ‘hmm’ after each page.

This, by itself, is not alarming. In fact, the opposite. The best cookbooks can turn an unlikely or underwhelming series of ingredients into something incredible.

So I persevered. We cooked from this. We gave it our best shot.

And, well, I am just glad this week is over, so I can stop cooking from this book. I have given it my all, and can conclude, sadly, it is not a good cookbook.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Quick Broccoli satay stir fry (totally fine; something you would make, eat and never think of again.)
  • Zesty Chilli Prawn Noodles (the curious addition of orange zest does nothing for a dish that tends towards bland, stodgy, and goopy) 
  • Berbere roasted sweet potato (the spice mix is tasty and certainly enlivened the dish. While perhaps not life changing, this at least was slightly exciting to eat)
  • Korean inspired rice bowls (the recipe as it stands would have resulted in a very dull dish; I had to make substantial modifications. So the end result was actually quite nice, but that was more of a result of tricks I had learnt from Bowl then the advice from this recipe)
  • Roast garlic and goats cheese frittata (again, as the recipe stands it would have been unimpressive. For a book called Flavour, Tandoh seems so keen to avoid any accusation of that!)
  • Ghanaian groundnut chicken stew (one dimensional: if you like peanut butter and chicken I guess you will like this. If you require slightly more complex flavour profiles, you will not.)
  • Lemon Courgette Risotto with Summer Herbs (if you ignore her instruction to use arborio rice—the garbage rice—it turns out to be a fine risotto. The pine nuts do not add much.)
  • Warm Spiced Chickpea and Carrot Salad (see above: mediocre food)
  • Summer Pineapple Camomile cake (this was nice. the timing instructions were off (but given how variable ovens are, this can be expected. The pineapple curd was a treat.)

Why not this book?

  • Because it s confused – its tone, purpose and content is just all over the place
  • Because the photography is often lacklustre and sure to feel dated by year’s end
  • There are simply many other better books out there (in each of the categories that the book has a hand in)

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and easy?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Tax returns And does it just spark joy?

 

Notwithstanding the above, if you would still like to buy it, you can do so via Amazon.

Balance and Harmony — Neil Perry

Australia has no specific cuisine: the food Australians eat is as diverse as our population. Aside from a strong European background, the food we eat is heavily influence by the varied cuisines of Asia. Balance and Harmony falls into this grand pan-Asian tradition.

I have to confess I do not like Neil Perry. I like to imagine I could be friends with many cookbook authors, but I just don’t see Neil and me getting on. So while we’re not going to be best buds, I have a begrudging respect for the man.

His restaurants are first-rate. Although, as of late 2016, they are no longer technically his restaurants. In particular Spice Temple does exciting food inspired by the bold flavours of Sichaun. Rockpool Bar and Grill is a fine place for steak in an I-wish-I-had-an-expense-account setting.

So for the longest time I had resisted buying any of his books (despite happily eating at his restaurants). I broke a few months ago and bought most of the back catalogue.

The books, which range from just-fine to exceptional, did not make me fall in love with Australia’s most famous ponytail. Yet they do provide another reason to respect Perry’s contribution to food in Australia.

While the bulk of recipes in the book are Chinese (a mixture of Cantonese and Sichuan), Perry doesn’t restrict himself: the book also draws inspiration from Thai and Vietnamese food. I confess it’s a style of cookbook I find more useful than pure country-specific works. It reflects a focus on taste and flavours rather than something more didactic.

Structure

Hardcover.

399 pages split across three main parts:

  1. Finding Balance and Harmony in the Kitchen (Equipment and Ingredients)
  2. Basic Techniques and Recipes (Sauces, Dressings, and Pickles; Stocks and Soups; Salads; Braising and Boiling; Steaming; Stir Frying; Deep Frying; Tea-Smoking; Curry and Spice Pates; The Shared Table)
  3. Advanced Recipes and Banquet Menus (Tofu and Eggs; Pork; Beef and Lamb; Poultry; Seafood; Vegetables; Noodles and Rice; Fruit and Sweet Things)

Gosh this book is impressive. Luxuriously hardcover with abundant full colour photographs. A gorgeous ribbon and these almost washi-esque chapter dividers make it a real joy to behold.

The book has the design of a high end restaurant cookbook. However unlike those more ponderous tomes, this is so clearly a cookbook designed to be heavily used. There’s almost a tension between the preciousness of the design versus the everyday recipes. Despite this, I cannot help but cradle it fondly whenever I take it off the shelf.

This book was (and remains) expensive. My copy was bought second hand from, if I can read the stamp correctly, a public library somewhere in Massachusetts. This delights me: I like to imagine everyone else who may have held it in their hands and what they may have cooked. I have mixed feelings generally about second hand books, but this one feels as if it’s been handled reverently throughout its life.

The recipe format is simple: a headnote (these are more skipable than not) and then the ingredients followed by a somewhat visually dense method. The layout and writing is not something that sparks the imagination, or pulls you into another world, but it does go back to my point that despite the shiny coat, this is a book that’s intended to be used again and again.

I have to credit Perry’s recipe writing: he has a clear and simple voice. You never get lost in what to do and when, you just get the right guidance at the right time. You can imagine Perry teaching apprentice chefs with the same language (albeit with a few more colourful words thrown in).

The photography is just perfect. From one of Australia’s (if not one of the world’s) best food photographers, Earl Carter, it both highlights the food but also makes it feel accessible and approachable. The lighting on some of the shots is just incredible.

Thoughts

The food from this book has been, without exception, enjoyable and easy to prepare. This is the single biggest surprise I had about this book: I had expected that the food would be complicated, time consuming and just unapproachable.

Instead, the recipes turn out fantastically well. I think some of the best ‘Asian’ food I’ve ever cooked has come from this book, which I never would have expected. I can’t speak to the extent to which these recipes are ‘Westernised’, and I’m not overly concerned by that question at any rate.

I can speak to the flavours and the results that Perry’s recipes produce. And the new techniques I’ve learnt as a result of cooking from this book. Other than the obvious requirement of learning new recipes, I don’t necessarily ask that cookbooks teach me how to be a better cook. Yet this book has, almost by stealth, encouraged me to grow and develop my skills.

But I keep coming back to how good the food is—and how easy and well thought out the recipes are. The ingredients lists (sometimes a source of great panic in Asian cookery) are restrained to only the essential. The techniques never feel like you’ll need a battery of sous chefs to pull off.

The central conceit of the book is that it is concerned with balance and harmony in food. Each meal should be balanced and include flavours that work together and support each other. The simplest example that proves this approach is the pleasures of plain steamed rice with a salty stir fry.

While it is nice to have that balance in a single dish, it is difficult to do. Perry’s solution, and a key part of the book, is to provide suggested menus where he has balanced salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami across a few dishes.

I love this concept. But. From the prospective of weeknight cooking, even I don’t have the time or the interest to cook three or four different dishes (as much as I agree with and respect the approach). Perhaps on a weekend, this approach is more feasible?

Yet I am happy to report that the dishes stand fantastically on their own merit. And while I don’t have time to make a few other dishes, a salad or some sort of quick vegetable dish are easier to achieve and do help provide more of a sense of balance to the meal.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Pork Wontons (juicy and plumptious and I could eat one thousand)
  • Wonton soup with noodles (we used the dumplings above in a noodle soup and it was essentially perfect)
  • Stir Fried Cabbage with Chinking Vinegar (this goes to demonstrating how Perry makes magic from a few ingredients: and it’s very similar to a dish I love at Spice Temple)
  • Sweet Black Vinegar Pork Belly (there are too many bad pork belly recipes out there: this one is an example of how to do very well: rich, luxurious and with enough pop from the vinegar so as not to be cloying)
  • Sichuan-style steamed beef (an example of the book teaching new techniques: the steamed beef becomes so soft, tasty, juicy and perfect. The rice coating traps the juices and adds another textural element).
  • Stir-fried cos lettuce (you either hate cooked lettuce or you are down with it: I don’t think this recipe will convert the haters, but it will be a delight for the rest of us)
  • Mapo tofu (maybe not the best mapo but a really good one. Anyway, mapo tofu recipes are like bolognese recipes: there is no perfect recipe)
  • Prawn Toasts (I think prawn toasts were my gateway into liking actual prawns—I know—and these are some of the more soigné PTs you will try)
  • Spicy Tofu Salad (alive with textures and bound together with a punchy dressing)
  • Fried Eggs with Spicy Tamarind Dressing (despite the fun and extensive mess of deep frying eggs, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten. Although a fun tip from me is try adding some ground roast rice to the dressing.)
  • Chicken with Snow Peas and Sichuan Pepper (10 minutes of preparing, 10 minutes of cooking for a result that is incredible—you’d be delighted by this if you received it at any Chinese restaurant)
  • Stir fried prawns with Chinese chives and chilli (see above)
  • Sesame Noodles (not to end on a low point, but this dish was an exception to my belief that dishes in this book stand well by themselves: this definitely needed to be served with something else)

Why this book?

  • You love Asian food and want to learn some new recipes and techniques
  • You want deliciousness above strictly authentic recipes
  • You can overlook the Ponytail

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Monday morning And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book! How about from Amazon?

Hello, 2017!

Happy New Year!

After a spectacular time in Japan and a few (more) solid weeks of Christmas eating, I’m happy to be back on the Cook These Books beat.

This first review of 2017 will come out on Sunday. Until then, here’s a clue: it’s a book by Australia’s most famous pony tail.

This year I will experiment with a few different review formats and approaches until I find one that strikes the right balance on all axes. Quality rather than quantity.

Thanks for all your support so far!