The Zen Kitchen — Adam Liaw

Cookbooks have always struck me as being very personal things to write. With any one recipe there is a whole web of decisions and preferences and value judgements.

For instance, if you’re writing a recipe with chicken will you mention that the chicken should be free range? Or organic? Or hand reared on a diet of the finest whatever-it-is chickens eat? Will you even feature chicken, knowing that the bulk of poultry is raised in conditions of abject horror and market research suggests people prefer the affordable over the ethical?

Alright, so let’s write a vegetarian recipe instead. Much safer. How about a quinoa burger with a zingy yoghurt sauce? Of course there was that sensationalist article claiming that due to the popularity of quinoa, Peruvians, for whom the grain is an essential staple, could no longer afford to eat it. And that thick, rich greek yoghurt we all crave? Well, its manufacture produces immense amounts of acidic whey. And it has become like the new nuclear waste: no one knows quite what to do with it.

Aside from the ethics, will people find your aggressive seasonings to reflect a course and unsatisfied palette? Or will people find your approach boring and lacking any life?

And broader, are your recipes guilty of cultural appropriation? Do you take from other cuisines without understanding or respect? How do you feel about the undeniable privilege about chiding your readers to buy and use the very best olive oil.

I could probably never write a cookbook, given my neurotic tendency of overthinking things. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think about the person behind the cookbook, and the choices that went into making a particular cookbook.

One such person I occasionally wonder about is Adam Liaw, an omnipresent Australian food celebrity. He has written a small handful of cookbooks. They are consistently solid and reliable cookbooks which usually play around with that broad category of pan-Asian food.

The Zen Kitchen, his latest, takes a slightly different track and focuses exclusively on one cuisine: Japanese. And more so than other books, it delves into the broader philosophy of Japanese food. Liaw writes authoritatively and with real love on the subject. In fact, he has been recognised as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.

It is a topic of real passion for Liaw. The best choices for cookbook are from authors with the most passion in a particular topic. And yet sometimes passion without proper and thoughtful application can come across as unrefined.

Structure and Design

Hardback.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Pickles stocks and seasonings
  2. Japanese breakfasts
  3. Rice and noodles
  4. Soup and nabemono
  5. Japanese salads
  6. Fish
  7. Meat
  8. Mainly vegetables
  9. Semi Sweets

Firstly, I have to talk about that title: The Zen Kitchen. It suggests either a certain outdated orientalism (you could almost imagine it typeset in Wonton font) or reference and adherence to the principles of zen buddhism. The book, thankfully in the case of the former and perhaps sadly in the case of the latter, does not live up to either of these images. It is a particularly bad title for a book that is modern in approach and execution.

There’s a certain by-the-numbers, commercial approach to the design of the book. It looks likes the publisher allocated exactly a certain budget for the design and that was it. This is not to say the book is poorly designed, but rather it has a disappointing feel of being just good enough. It’s the Mazda of book designs when Liaw is clearly more of a Volkswagen man.

One of the main examples of this is the chapter introduction pages. Featuring text superimposed over a full bleed photograph, it comes off as busy, hard to read and inelegant. The chapter numbers are mixed in with the chapter titles in a way that is hard to parse. One example reads, at first glance, chapter japanese / two breakfasts.

There are also these mini-essays scattered throughout the book that do a fine job of showing Liaw’s approach and appreciation for Japanese food. And yet these are again text set on a visually distracting photo background. The text in both these mini-essays and the chapter introductions is fully justified which I cannot help but find unpleasant to read in anything other than a newspaper.

While Liaw is not Japanese, he has an abiding respect for the Japanese legendary sense of attention to detail. This makes some of the decisions around the design of the book to be puzzling.

Things improve when you consider the recipe format itself. He has gone for something that is simple and usable. But for one minor quibble, it is my favourite recipe format in a while: a title, followed by minimal but useful headnote, and then a two column approach: a neat, orderly list of ingredients on the left and a numbered paragraph method on the right. Finally, a little note at the bottom of the method gives a serving suggestion or provides another useful titbit of information.

The quible mentioned above? The vast majority of recipes have exactly two steps in their method. There seems to be little logic behind the delineation of what is a step one step and what gets pushed over into step two (although the approach seems to be step one is ‘cook the dish’ and step two is ‘serve the dish’). It is puzzling.

The photography is monotonous in approach. While it does justice, by and large, to both the food and Liaw’s stunning collection of ceramics, the constant 45 degree angle induces an existential weariness. The weathered wooden board that makes a frequent appearance as a backdrop is straight out of food styling from a few years ago.

Really, it’s not a book that you’ll love because of the design. At best, the design fades in the background and allows you to focus on the strengths of this book: Liaw’s knowledge and passion for Japanese food. At worst, though, it goes against the love of Japanese food  that is otherwise on display.

Thoughts

Japan, and Japanese food, is amongst the chief pleasures that this life has to offer. Despite this, I struggle to find good Japanese cookbooks. The books I try are either too technical and strive for unachievable authenticity or they are dumbed down and produce boring food. Japanese food can—and should—often be subtle but never boring.

This book is one of the more successful in the genre of approachable Japanese food. The food is deeply enjoyable. It is very smart to position the recipes inside the context of the average Australian kitchen (although, doubtlessly the book would work as well in US, UK or kitchens elsewhere.)

There are a few moments where the indicated timings did not quite work. A poached chicken breast at the suggested ten minute mark was still dangerously raw. The miso-cured pork belly was still flabby and no where near as burnished after following the recipe.

Similarly, the recipe for onigirazu does not really give you instructions on the technique for folding these addictive rice and nori sandwiches. A video on Liaw’s youtube channel helps slightly, but if you have to go to youtube to get advice that should be in a book then you have already lost the war.

The inevitable judgement from this is that this book is not intended for either kitchen or Japanese-food beginners. Perhaps this was the result of an effort to condense recipes down to two step levels.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Summer Ramen (despite the inaccurate chicken cooking instructions, the finished product is a perfect meal: a lot of textural variation, the intrinsic delight of a noodle dish and a punchy dressing. For poached chicken, please avail yourself of the instructions from Serious Eats)
  • Sushi Sandwiches (while the craze around these may not have reached Australia, they are delicious and fun. The method, as noted, is inadequate for someone who likely has not heard of or seen these before.) 
  • Japanese Garden Salad (I think one of the best recipes from the book. A picture perfect combination of simple ingredients dressed up with a powerful and assertive vinaigrette. However the recipe tells you to blanch the broccoli before the corn, something that would result in corn speckled with broccoli flecks)
  • Onion and Garlic Vinaigrette (While potentially divisive in how assertive and pungent the combination of raw garlic and onion is, I could have sipped this like whisky. Would be great on steamed rice.) 
  • Sukiyaki of beef and Asian greens (again, a very nice dish that is let down by a recipe that lacks clarity and precision. The shirataki noodles, which I had never tried, were incredibly satisfying to eat and soaked up the flavourful sauce.)
  • Miso cured pork (I enjoyed the accompanying shaved cabbage more than I enjoyed this. It needed to be cooked for much longer than the recipe suggests. And even though I cooked it for another 10-15 minutes, it was still rather unsatisfying. I would be inclined to try again with fish.) 
  • Chicken and Tofu Meatballs (ding ding we have a winner! These little balls were perfect. This was one of the last recipes I cooked from the book so by this time I had learnt to assume the recipe was a starting point rather than something to be reliably followed. I would encourage anyone who makes this—and everyone should—to whizz the tofu in a food processor and then drain and to bake the balls instead. Life is too short for somethings.) 
  • Beans in black sesame (a simple vegetable dish that while unmemorable was at least pretty on the plate.)
  • Agedashi tofu (there is a perfect contrast between a crispy thin exterior and a soft, wobbly creamy interior. It’s not the easiest dish to make, but the end product is as delicious as you could hope for.)
  • Tantan chicken nabe (I liked this because it gave me licence for a bit of shopping: I bought both a wee little gas stove and a Muji donabe. It was also a decent recipe that resulted in a fun and interactive meal. The broth was sophisticated and quite impressive.) 
  • Barbarian fish (the recipie specifies salmon but I am a big baby so we subtituted in some firm white fish. Opinons were split as to the delicousness of the dish. It’s sort of like a cold sweet and sour fish. It’s very Japanese to deep fry something and then bath it in a delicious sauce. It is worth trying, if nothing else.) 

Why this book?

  • You like Japanese food and are confident in the kitchen
  • You are a fan of the irrepressible Mr Liaw
  • You love Japan and a cookbook is a little cheaper than a flight

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rain on your wedding day And does it just spark joy?

 

You should probably buy this book.

World of Cookbooks: Piglet 2017

I largely enjoy Food52’s Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. It’s one of the few large scale cookbook awards.

Via twitter the editors have just announced the 2016 challengers:

  1. Simple — Diana Henry
  2. Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour (Cook These Books review here!)
  3. My Two Souths — Asha Gomez
  4. Golden — Itamar Srulovich & Sarit Packer
  5.  A Recipe for Cooking — Cal Peternell
  6. Land of Fish and Rice — Fuchsia Dunlop
  7. Deep Run Roots — Vivian Howard
  8. Samarkand — Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford
  9. Taste of Persia — Naomi Duguid
  10. Tasting Rome — Katie Parla & Kristinia Gill
  11. Fat Rice — Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo & Hugh Amano
  12.  Dorie’s Cookies — Dorie Greenspan
  13. Victuals — Ronni Lundy
  14. Taste & Technique — Naomi Pomeroy

In the lead up to this year’s competition the team at Food52 explained they were going with less obvious picks this year (hence no household name, A-list authors).

This is a worthy approach. Cookbooks from superstars sell themselves just fine, one assumes. It’s right to shine a light on authors who while less familiar are still producing wonderful cookbooks.

And yet, and yet.

Aside from one or two titles, this collection feels a little dull. The collective impression is of a group of books that simply will not pass the test of time or become beloved classics. It is trendy ephemera.

This is a major weakness of the Piglet: the books it recommends are quickly forgotten about (barring one or two from each year.) The niche titles do not seem to spark enough joy.

The other major weakness, of course, is system of putting widely divergent books head to head and then trying to determine a winner using a subjective and unreliable metric.

Rather than trying to find the best cookbooks, the real goal of the Food52’s Piglet is to find cookbooks that are most like Food52 itself. More so than ever the books featured seem to solely feature Food52’s aesthetic and approach to food (with one or two token exceptions).  Given the diversity of cookbook publishing in 2017, the result is so skewed as to be not representative of what is actually happening in the world of cookbooks.

In the past I have allocated a large amount of my yearly cookbook budget on picking up the featured titles. This has resulted in a lot of unused, flash-in-the-pan books. While there are a few titles on the list above (Diana Henry’s Simple looks fantastic!), I will not be picking up many of these titles.

I will, this year, be a less active follower of the tournament and hope for a better selection next time.

Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour

If Sirocco was a cage fighter it would be a bombastic, no-holds barred affair wearing the brightest neon leotard ever. Luckily, it is not a cage fighter and instead an exciting and flavour-driven cookbook.

Given the state of the world in early 2017, everyone should be in therapy: a mid-century couch to sit on, someone with a smart cardigan to listen, and a view over a river or lake to cover quiet moments.

Of course I imagine therapy is expensive. Cooking is however much cheaper. And, in its own way, therapeutic.

Cooking requires a certain degree of focus and concentration. A wandering mind will result in something burning, or at least an assertive char. The best food comes when you are in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively.

The more you are thinking about everything else in your life, the less likely you are to create something pleasing. The more you are focussed on the sounds and smells of the task before you, the more likely you are to both enjoy the time spent cooking and produce something good.

Of course, the therapeutic benefits of cooking are not solely from this meditative aspect. There is something special about simply creating something. For those of us with office/knowledge based jobs where we deal with abstract concepts and intangible things, it is a relief to touch and experience something real. It is a direct and simple pleasure, one that comes from turning one thing into something else through the application of creativity and care.

And then there is the obvious joy of nurturing and caring for people. Even if you are cooking for yourself (especially so, in fact!), it is an act of love to make food. It affirms our existence and acknowledges that no matter the superficial differences between two people, we share an inescapable common biology: we all need to eat. Or, more succinctly, everyone poops.

Cooking from Sirroco has been therapeutic and a treat. The resulting food has been a balm for frayed souls and a celebration of life.

Structure

Hardcover. Two jaunty ribbons to mark your place. A welcome extravagance.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. My Kitchen Pantry
  3. Brilliant breakfasts & brunches
  4. Light bites & savoury snacks
  5. Spectacular Salads & sides
  6. Mouthwatering main dishes
  7. Superb bakes & sweet treats
  8. Index
  9. Acknowledgement

There’s a certain exuberance to the design of this book. Scroll up and take a second look at the cover: it’s this eye-catching whirl of colour and light.

This spirit continues within the book proper. Colourful pages and graphic elements, vibrant photography combine to suggest a sense of culinary play and fun. This is not a ponderous or sombre book, but rather a book that wants to be celebrated.

It does date the book however: even though it was produced last year, it feels much older. In an age of more minimalist approaches, the design sticks out and perhaps not in the best way. The cover for the US edition is much stronger. It conveys the book’s exuberance without being quite so overdone.

Ghayour’s writing has a certain charm and excitement to it. It does not quite match the level of exuberance suggested by the design and the photography, but that is arguably a point to be thankful for.

Occasionally, the method for individual recipes is not as clear as it needs to be. Given the informality of the food in this book this is mostly no big deal: however there are a few recipes where this lack of thought becomes a frustrating oversight.

The recipe format is workable: the usual headnote, a two column list of ingredients (sorted in use order and with accompanying preparations) and then relatively dense paragraph by paragraph methods. It does not set the world on fire, but it works well enough. A more generous line-spacing could have helped readability.

The photography speaks louder than the writing. It is enticing. There’s an immediacy to the shots that is compelling. The photography very much builds on the theme of vibrant, intense food.

Thoughts

If I am drawn to a cookbook it is because of an uncompromising appreciation for flavour. I do not want delicate hints of this or suggestions of that. I want big fat wallops of flavour. I want bright, direct flavours. I am comfortable if you take away from this I have a simple palette. I am shameless in this.

This book adopts a flavour focussed approach. While the book is heavily influenced by the flavours of the middle east, there is some fun combinations and experiments going on, rather than an attempt for strict recreations of regional fare.

If you were expecting a book with a strong and authentic coverage of say Iranian food, you might be disappointed. If you were expecting ideas for delicious and tasty food, then you will be delighted.

This is what we have made so far:

  • Bread Boats (this is one of the examples were the method is not up to scratch: there’s no advice other than make them ‘boat shaped.’ It was also difficult to stop the egg cascading down the sides and over the baking pan)
  • Bacon Pitas (the breakfast of champions. The spicy mango chutney based condiment is the thing of dreams and would make a lovely addition to any dish needing a real flavour kick)
  • Spiced beetroot yogurt (good but not great – it felt ever so slightly flat and in need of just a bit more oomph) 
  • Courgette, Saffron & Potato Kuku (again, good but not great. That said, I have a bit of a bias against kukus so, it could just be me)
  • Za’atar & Goats’ Cheese Puffs (the perfect companion to an icy cold drink. Flaky pastry, beguiling za’atar and tangy, rich goat’s cheese. Morish but tending towards a little salty, although this is obviously dependent on which goats cheese/za’atar you use) 
  • Mouthful spiced lamb kebabs (recreating the flavour profile of say a lamb schwarma in a dish that takes even a slowpoke like me half an hour is a real achievement. The accompanying harissa oil was *thumbs up emoji*. Although the recipe does not suggest this, you would be silly not to serve this with sumac marinated onions)
  • Lamb buns (this remains the best use for leftover lamb I have found. The sticky, savoury, sweet lamb goes fantastically with a cucumber and pomegranate relish)
  • Spicy Turkey Lettuce Wraps (like the lamb kebabs, this is a clever, quick and tasty idea for a midweek DIY meal)
  • Apple, sumac, red onion salad (the combination of sumac and onions is perfect. The apple adds a sweetness that brings out the natural sweetness of red onions. And the lemon in the dressing stops the whole thing from becoming one dimensional.) 
  • Prawn, broccolini, feta and almond salad (while I have mixed feelings about using ‘designer’ trademarked (and heavily litigated) vegetables, there’s no denying this salad is heavy on flavour and shows a certain textural sophistication)
  • Turmeric & spice-marinated cauliflower (the tomato sauce the recipe directs you to make with this dish elevates it from fine to very good) 
  • Crushed new potatoes with garlic, dill, grilled scallions & peas (if I have a weakness, and this is not a confession, more friendly banter, it would be for potato salad. This version skips the mayo and is the better for it. Spritely and memorable)
  • Stir-fried Tangy Prawns (it is hard to imagine I have lived a rich life without ever trying cooked cucumber. This dish is spicy and vibrant and one of the best recipies in the book)

Why This Book

  • You want a book that appreciates and chases flavour
  • You are happy to overlook a few recipes that are not quite as developed as they should be
  • You love the flavours of the Middle East

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ A forgotten wallet And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book. Why not buy a copy on Amazon?