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.

Neighbourhood — Hetty McKinnon

There are two sorts of people in the world: those who salad and those who do not salad. I am very much down with those salads, as is Hetty McKinnon, this year’s salad boss.

I gravitate towards generalist cookbooks: I want something that will provide inspiration for as many different moods as possible. I want the security of knowing that a cookbook will give me ideas for breakfast, lunch and yes even dinner.

This is a tension of life: the specialist versus the generalist. Or the jack of all trades (master of none) versus having knowledge a mile (kilometre) deep yet an inch (2.5cm) wide.

Science has more or less convinced me that the way the human brain is wired is to crave novelty (or rather to be aware of new threats which is a focus on what is new versus what is familiar and safe). This focus on novelty means that I, well, get a little bored with cookbooks that focus on only one thing (be it a meal type or a cuisine or particular technique).

Yet I still find some value in books which demonstrate a focus towards the one theme. I’m not talking about those weird seemingly authorless books they sell at bargain bookshops (with titles like 500 ways with broccoli stems). Books that show you a theme and then skilfully and with a great degree of originality and verve expand that theme.

Hetty’s second salad-focussed book (a follow up to 2014’s Community) shows both the joy and delight in salads and also in exploring the one thing. Not every book could (or should) follow this formula, but occasionally there is one that ticks all the boxes.

Structure

Softcover.

239 pages split across the following chapters: Dear America | So Frenchie | Into the Mediterranean | East, Meet West | To Asia, With Love | This is Australia | Just Bring Dessert

I had never considered this book (or Community) because its design sets off some alarm bells for me: softcover (ack), magazine-like format, unknown author and a sort of Kinfolk vibe that generally provokes a mild rash.

However our friend Jemma posted a review of Community and made it sound like rather a nice book indeed. And then I saw a copy of both Neighbourhood and Community in a bookshop just screaming to me I knew I had to investigate further in the name of deliciousness.

I won’t say my initial instincts were entirely wrong: the book does feel like a magazine (or one of the cookbooks produced under the delicious brand). I know this reflects a preoccupation of form rather substance, but how a book feels and looks is important.

The recipe format is simple: Hetty gives headnotes that while occasionally informative do not add much. The recipes themselves are straightforward and well edited. The language is clear and concise.

The photography is inviting: there’s a real depth to the colour and intensity of the photos which is surprising considering that the matte pages feel fairly thin. My only quibble is with the direction of photos: every second shot is of someone holding a plate or dish, or perhaps fingers draped over a eating implement. There’s a visual monotony which is either calming or slightly tired.

Thoughts

Hetty (which is possibly the most delightful name ever) really knows a thing or two (or fifty) about salads. She has a way of combining flavours that is modern and inviting.

The cafe heritage of the book is clear: these are salads you could imagine resting under gorgeous platters (perhaps from Mud?) under a glass display case in an inner city cafe. They are often incredibly hearty, with big bold flavours. To be clear, when some people think of salads they imagine what I call a pub salad: lettuce mix, a solitary cucumber slice and an industrial cherry tomato. These are salads bursting with vitality, salads that are full-on meals rather than mere set dressing.

There’s a real assertive approach to flavour in this book. The recipes encourage you to build together layers of flavour that combine to make a powerful whole. It’s a smart approach and is a world away from cutting up some ingredients and tossing them into a bowl.

Despite not cooking a lot from this book (yet!), there are some clear flavour profiles: Hetty loves a yoghurt based dressing as much as she loves a dressing with raw garlic. You can either view this as a conceptual glue or falling back on the same idea. As a family of garlic obsessives, I am entirely on board with this, and I imagine most people would be too. It is however something that stuck out to me.

I can see returning to this book a lot over the next month: as the weather warms up, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect book. While there’s some repetition in flavour profiles, this would be far less apparent when you’re not cooking every meal in a week from the same book.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Eggplant with haloumi, beetroot tzatziki: the tzatiki is a very smart combination of beetroots, yoghurt, herbs and lemon. The eggplant salad is also quite interesting, with a fun interplay of smooshy eggplant and crunchy/crumbly walnuts. The haloumi adds the pleasingly one-dimensional salty styrofoam note that I love on the first bite, like on the second bite and then start to turn against it by the third and fourth bite. The recipe calls for you to make yoghurt flatbreads, but even we have our limits for weeknight cooking! 
  • Chargrilled brussels sprouts and kale with crushed borlotti beans: it’s an odd combination, and the crushed bean mixture looks sort of brilliant (hot pink in a sea of beige), but it really does work. It’s also one of the simpler salads in the book yet demonstrates the DNA behind Hetty’s approach. 
  • Kinda-niçoise with fried green beans, roasted kale, lentils, steamed eggs and caper mayo: the caper mayo is genius and demonstrates what I was talking about  above (really zingy dressings that occasionally stray into the too-garlicky/assertive path). This salad was very impressive in how it made a salad that could live up to the heavy reputation of la salade niçoise yet do it’s own thing. A french person would probably not be able to handle it, but more for the rest of us, n’est-ce pas?   
  • Seedy soba with Asian herbs: I allow every cookbook a few failures. I’m always of the mind that when a recipe fails it can say as much about the person making the recipe (or eating the dish) as it does about the recipe itself. The dressing, in marked contrasted to everything else in this book, just wasn’t good. The ratio of one tablespoon of acid (here, cider vinegar) to five tablespoons of oil is off. The end product was simply not enjoyable. 
  • Roasted sweet potato with leeks and mustard croutons: Okay, another pet peeve. I do not like when the photograph used to illustrate a particular recipe was clearly cooked in a different way from what the recipe itself provides. In the photo for this dish the sweet potatoes were clearly roasted as one roasts a jacket potato (low to medium heat for a long time) whereas the recipe asks you to dice and bake for 20-25 minutes. It’s misleading. HOWEVER. This recipe, made as the recipe instructs and not as the picture suggests, was REALLY GOOD. The mustard croutons were INCREDIBLE. The mustard dressing (again, garlic and yoghurt to the rescue) was FANTASTIC. The soft sweet leeks were the perfect foil against peppery rocket.

Why this book?

  • You’re salad curious or a full on team salad
  • You don’t mind garlic and yoghurt, often forever together
  • You subscribe to the approach of ‘when in doubt, add an egg’

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?
Kondo ||||| Socks with holes And does it just spark joy?

 

You probably should buy this book.

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes — Peter Meehan

101 Easy Recipes is a fun collection of Asian recipes written in Lucky Peachy’s signature style.

One of the best food magazines out there, Lucky Peach, has since published a few cookbooks. 101 Easy Asian Recipes was the first and is something I’ve cooked from quite a lot since its release in September 2015. As you can tell from the cover (and if you’re familiar with the Lucky Peach schtick), this is not the book that tries to be an exhaustive study of the food of one particular region of, say, Thailand.

It is a delightful bastardisation and amalgamation of recipes from all over the Asian continent: one page will give you a recipe for a rice paper roll, the next miso baked fish and then there’ll be a delightful recipe for kung pao shrimp.

The question of authenticity in food is a complex one: this book so cheerfully side skips this debate and positions itself as being entirely concerned with what is going to be the best and tastiest combination of food you can make. It’s not nuanced food, but it is often creative, delicious and as the title suggests, simple to prepare.

The aesthetic of the book is brilliant: it recalls a style of food photography that is so long gone. Harsh studio lighting; incredibly tacky backgrounds and props out the whazoo. And I couldn’t love it more. As much as we love the modern formula of natural light + ceramics + overhead (or straight on but with ultra shallow depth of field) = food photo, there is something so freeing about going completely in the other direction.

Structure

272 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Cold Dishes, Apps, and Pickly Bits | Breakfast | Pancakes | Soups and Stews | Noodles | Roces | Warm Vegetables | Chicken | Meats | Seafood | Super Sauces | Desserts

The book ends with a conversion table, which would be useful if Siri is down and you need to convert something (I guess).

While I normally find the usual padding at the start of cook books to be fairly unremarkable, 101 Easy Asian Recipes features a helpful Pantry section. Broken into Basic, Intermediate and Champion these allow you to head to the Asian grocery with a little more confidence. (Lucky Peach has very helpfully replicated this on their website: Basic, Intermediate, and Champion)

There’s a degree of variation in how recipes are presented, although most are broken down into a list of ingredients, numbered paragraph method followed by a little description towards the bottom of the page. Most recipes are given generous full-bleed photos.

The instructions are clear and concise and manage to avoid being robotic: there’s a degree of personality. Thankfully, the formatting means following along as you’re cooking is quite simple.

Thoughts

I love this book, but not every recipe has been an unqualified success. Of the list below, the kimchi pancake was a complete failure (in cooking disasters it can be unclear if the fault lies with the cookbook or the cook, but reader beware).

The book bills itself as based around easy recipes, but quite a few recipes are highly technique-based. As a result the beginner (or even intermediate) cook is bound to have a few oopsa-daisies. The end product might still be tasty, but will not quite satisfy.

A sample of what we’ve cooked:

  • Summer rolls
  • Spicy celery salad
  • St Paul Sandwich
  • Kimchi Pancake (third picture below)
  • Economy Noodles
  • Jap chae
  • Pad see ew
  • Spicy mushroom ragu
  • Omurice
  • Mall Chicken (first picture below)
  • Carrot-ginger dressing

Despite these somewhat mixed feelings, I keep coming back to this book (and will be cooking from it tonight). The standard for inclusion in the classics library is whether or not one still uses it when the initial new-cookbook joy falls off. The answer in this case is yes. At its best this book is witty, tasty and does present easy Asian food.

Why this book? 

  • You like the Lucky Peach magazine
  • You don’t require strict authenticity and don’t mind the grab-bag approach to recipe curation
  • You’re willing to put up with a few mistakes here and there
  • You have a secret fondness for food court Chinese food

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Ina Garten Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?
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?
Kondo ||||| An old boot And does it just spark joy?

You should buy this book: just make sure your expectations are calibrated.

Buy a copy via Amazon and add to my cookbook budget!