So, I found this book (on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/kyotygd ) in an apartment I was renting. It got osmosed into my collection (as many cookbooks do) and I forgot about it when I packed to move house later on. A year or four later, I'm unpacking from another move and consider reading through it for a proper review, thinking "'Basic Asian'. How hard can it be for them to screw that up?"
Serves me right. What I sometimes suffer through for my craft. No less than five times did I fling this book across the room in frustrated disgust in the course of reading it.
"Finally, the basics of Asian cooking! Rediscover the world of woks and soy sauce.", the back cover starts to say. "Eternal balance- pure Asia! It all comes down to yin and yang." I'd keep going but the pretentiousness meter made me so angry I nearly saw double. Pithy platitudes and trite truisms on every square inch that's to spare- guaranteed to draw in a very specific stereotype: pretentious, new-agey, aspiring foodie types that shop at Whole Foods for the status of it and Goodwill for the look of it, ride fixed-gear bikes, listen to retro vinyl, and generally drive all manner of serious cooks mad. Talk about isolating your target market!
Visually, it's stunning. Designed to draw the eye with a minimalist cover, and dazzle it with color once you look inside. Very remeniscent of children's books in its bright, garish coloring and pictures, it does its level best to flood you with potential inspiration- but mostly what it does is come across as all flash and no flavor. The pictures might make you hungry, but the rest will sap your will to live.
The beginning text is almost painful to read, full of pseudo-mystical Asian claptrap that frequently me want to throw the book across the room. A couple painful pages in comes some redemption with "Help! All I can find is the strawberry yogurt!", which rather succinctly details why ethnic markets freak out your average american, and what to do about it. But if you've ever been to a market that's not Acme, Whole Foods, or other standard white-bread fare, you know this. You know it and either you don't care, or have found a work-around that suits your needs.
Next, there is a tiered list of ethnic pantry ingredients, ostensibly in order of relative necessity. This resulted in the first physical hurling of the book. When 'palm sugar' is on the basics list, but 'garam masala' and 'five-spice powder' are on the "luxurious, for special occasions" list? AWAY WITH YOU, BOOK OF LIES! *THWAP*, to the floor.
When a list does things like place different colors of curry paste in different tiers of usability, it's a wash. Moving on.
Next, a brightly colored set of 17 ingredients that are useful in preparing all manner of things related to Asian cuisine. This is much simpler and handier than the pages before it, and starts bringing value back. Following that are quick tutorials on rice, noodles, and many basics of Indian and southeast Asian cuisine. A randomly picked handful of ingredients from these pages will likely result in a tasty meal if you take a few minutes to think about how they fit together.
Following that are short synopses of various cooking methods. Ignore them unless you absolutely don't know what you're doing. In that case, go hunt down a technique-oriented cookbook, like Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or Tom Collichio's "Think Like A Chef". Actually, your best bet is to just skip from page 21 to page 40 and dive right into the recipes.
It's first and foremost a cookbook, and for what it's worth, they didn't cheap out on the recipe list. Extensive, it spans the breadth of Asia from India to Japan and everything in between, even the tiny islands most people forget about. (For the record, Indonesia is gorgeous) and there are many potentially delicious items on display. However, most of the recipes are rife with problems. Being a chef, I can translate vagaries, inexact measurements or times, and poorly ordered processes, and still create the dish as it likely ought to look and taste.
The VERY FIRST THREE RECIPES have errors in procedure that have the potential to leave your dinner trashed. While reading the first recipe, I thought "oh dear.". So I tried the next. "oh, crap.". And the next. "Oh, COME ON NOW!"; with a flutter of pages and a resounding thwack, the book once more struck the wall.
Almost every recipe has vaguely Asian tweaks, but the majority have absolutely nothing to do with traditional techniques, flavor combinations, or cooking methods. Recipes that call for chicken use the breast- flavorless, dull meat. Cocktail recipes use tablespoons instead of shots- what cook worth their salt would do that? That's half strength! Heresy! (WHAP, book tossed behind me in disgust, as I rose and mixed myself a proper cocktail).
I'm not even sure the authors realize what they're saying in some of these. For example, on page 84, Curried Noodles with Coconut Milk is captioned "A little sweet, a little spicy, a little yellow". The most casual of racial jibes. Or better yet, page 80 has Gyoza, "similar to potstickers, only boiled". Because of course you couldn't fry them, that's impossible! Patronizing enough to set my teeth on edge.
There are some cute little garde-manger tricks for pretty presentations, but most of them are extremely wasteful. Would you spend 3 grape tomatoes to make one pretty faux-flower? A lot of Westerners (Americans in particular) tend to ignore even edible garnishes, so if you've got six people coming over, that's a lot of potentially wasted tomatoes. Great if you have money to burn and all day to prepare for a dinner party, but for those of you that are pressed for time and aren't quick with a knife, most of these neat garnishes are poorly documented 1-way tickets to band-aid land.
I went hunting for information on the authors, and discovered (to my abject horror) that this book is part of a SERIES. They probably look awesome fanned out on the coffee table. Also, they were apparently originally published in German, so not only do we have insensitive, patronizing language, we have it about Asia, by way of Germany.
Regarding one of the authors, I found this on Amazon: "Kelsey Lane, cookbook editor for Silverback Books, is a journalism graduate who went on to receive her culinary training from the California Culinary Academy. She is also currently a restaurant critic and food writer whose articles appear in publications such as the San Jose Mercury News." The Mercury's archives have no mention of her name, and Silverback books might as well be a blank slate. I have a lot of questions about this, but it's honestly not worth the time.
This book drove me bats. The photography is gorgeous, and it's expertly put together, but the utter banality of most of the text invalidates any quality that might come from the recipes. A serious cook will have a very difficult time approaching this text, and separating the chaff from the wheat. The recipes often need to be looked at twice to make sure step 7 doesn't need doing before step 3 (sure, let's fry the spring rolls, THEN start dicing ginger and peppers for the accompanying sauce). I have to wonder about the translation team as well. Is this text tongue in cheek, or just one big obnoxious raspberry?
You want a coffee table spread, this book and its comrades are for you. If you actually care about food, go find something else.