- Variations On A Spicy Journey
There are two ways to describe a locale.
The more common one is to look at physical details the bricks that make up the buildings, the trees that line the boulevards, the boats bobbing at anchor in the harbor.
That's the route most travel writers take. Novelists take a different tack. They describe a city by focusing on its culture, and the way its people relate to the place and to each other. Rather than drawing us a picture they transport us to the site, and make us part of its populace. Novelist Lawrence Durrell was particularly noted for this, and his descriptions of Alexandria, and Cyprus, and Corfu remain travel masterpieces to this day.
It's one thing for a novelist to move us into the world his characters inhabit. Quite another for a cook to do so. Yet, that's precisely what Andreas Viestad does. Take, for instance, his description of Zanzibar's Stone Town: "And it is all about secrets and semi-secrets, about what is hidden and what lies in the open, about lies that serve noble causes and truths that can hurt. There are rumors and gossip, more so than other placesâ€¦..In the space between truths and lies, between what is public and what is secret, everything happens."
Pretty heady stuff for a cookbook, wouldn't you say? But to call Where Flavor Was Born a cookbook is to call the Mono Lisa a painting of a girl. At base, Viestad's tome is just a cookbook. And the Mona Lisa is just a picture of a girl. But, in both cases, there is so much more going on you'd be both right and wrong to call them what they are.
Let's get past the mundane stuff first. Subtitled "recipes and culinary travels along the Indian Ocean Spice Route," Where Flavor Was Born is a big, beautiful book. Measuring nearly 10 ½ inches square, its 287 pages are lavishly illustrated with photos of both the food and the places and people it comes from. And, while Mette Randem's food porn certainly contributes to the overall impression, it is the non-food photos that are important, as they visually replicate the feel and philosophies so dramatically expressed by Viestad.
Physically there is only one problem with the book. For some reason, the font used starts out legible, then drops down a size or two for most of each page. This is disconcerting, at best. And it makes some of the recipes difficult to read.
The book, an exploration of the spices that make Indian Ocean cuisines possible, resulted from Viestad's epiphany while enjoying a meal in Thailand that "with some small but all-important adjustments, I could have been anywhere along the Indian Ocean."
The Indian Ocean is vast, no question about it, and is bordered by a dozen countries and three continents. "The ocean belongs to so many peoples, so many countries and cultures, that it is easy to think they do not have much in common apart from the body of water that separates them," he notes in his introduction. But what he stresses is that the countries of the Indian Ocean all use the same handful of spices, in ways different enough so that the cuisines are unique even if the base flavors are the same.
"I like to think of the different cooking styles of the Indian Ocean as clearly distinct but comprehensible dialects within one large and complex language," he says.
Organizationally, the book is different than most. Chapters are not arranged by country, for instance, or by main ingredient. Rather, following the path of such great works as Ana Sortun's Spice, chapters are based on a particular flavor: cumin, for instance, and cardamom black pepper and ginger tamarind, and vanilla, and lemongrass, and cloves. Within each chapter are discussions of where the spice comes from, its historic and cultural importance, personal anecdotes about using, eating, or finding the spice, and, let's not forget, recipes. The recipes are identified as to country of origin, thus furthering his contention that the cuisines are different dialects of the same language.
For instance, in the lemongrass chapter we find recipes from Thailand, as you'd expect. But there also are choices from Bali, and even Zanzibar.
Preceding these chapters is an invaluable one that describes the spices of the Indian Ocean. I can't count the number of times I've been asked, "what is coriander (insert any spice of your choice) like?" Now, instead of struggling, I refer them to chapter 1, where the answers, simple and sophisticated, can be found. Do you know, for instance, the difference between ginger and galangal? I do---now.
Where Flavor Was Born is many things. It is a travelogue, and an encyclopedic look at Indian Ocean spices, and a geography, and a history. It's a journal of one man's culinary odyssey that takes us, in an eminently readable form, from the ancient routes of the spice trade to the most haute restaurants in the region. Like a fine wine, it should be savored, curled up on the couch with a beverage, or propped up by your pillows. I've read it, cover to cover, five times now. And each time it's a voyage of discovery.
But, at base, Where Flavor Was Born is a cookbook. As such, if the recipes don't make it, nothing else matters. Fortunately, they do. I've made more than a dozen of them, so far, and each is a winner.
I started with a simple cucumber tomato salad, intrigued by his comments about cumin. "When traveling in the Sinai Peninsulaâ€¦.the way to determine whether a restaurant is good is to ask whether they serve the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad with a sprinkle of cumin or not."
I discovered that sprinkling the veggies with cumin, then salt, then lemon juice, then olive oil results in a totally different (in my opinion, better) taste that mixing those same ingredients into a dressing.
From there I moved on to the Grilled Tuna with Zanzibar Spices. If you like your tuna almost raw, as is the current craze, forget this recipe. But if you want to try it actually cooked through, with a taste that defines the Indian Ocean, this is the way to go.
To be sure, there are recipes that I found needing adjustments. His Turmeric Squid with Tamarind Sauce is a bit skimpy on the sauce, and I found doubling everything except the tamarind worked better. And the Rice Noodles with Squid, Shrimp and Chicken should be served on top of the noodles, rather than with them mixed in to the stew. Minor things, though. Adaptations that any cook is likely to make to a recipe.
All in all, I find nothing of a critical nature wrong with the recipes or with the book itself. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, it is one of the most important cookbooks published in 2007, and I'm surprised that it made none of the lists. I suspect coming out so late in the year (it didn't appear until December) had something to do with that.
If you're smart, though, you'll ignore the lists, and get you a copy of Where Flavor Was Born. It belongs in every cookbook collection.
Recipe from the book: Shrimp Balls with Tamarind Sauce