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?

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