I have a distant but naggingly persistent memory of eating a most unusual fruit while traveling through Asia some two decades ago. The outer skin "sticks" in my mind most—this is an intentional pun, for as the illustration shows, the skin of this small, oval fruit is covered with soft spikes. I remember touching these spikes and delighting at their surprisingly flexible texture, then being treated to the white, sweet flesh inside. Regretfully, I never caught the name of this fruit, or if I did, I never retained it. And my frustration of not knowing the fruit's name and never tasting it since—despite wide and futile searches through Little Asia neighborhoods—has fueled my vigilant quest for food reference books of all types, not just Asian ones.
What makes a food reference book "good" can be a subject of debate. Some books focus on history, like James Trager's excellent The Food Chronology. Others seek to define foods and food terms more practically, as in Sharon Tyler Herbst's outstanding Food Lover's Companion, which I never let out of my reach when writing or researching. Both of these volumes stand out just for their scope: Herbst's contains over 900 listings in the Second Edition, and Trager's covers events from 1 million BC to 1995, with a phenomenal index that's 60 pages long in itself. But as comprehensive as these books are, I still seek other food reference books that focus on different subjects or themes.
My collection of food reference books is fairly extensive, though it will never be complete. As wars, trade and economics import both emigrants and their foods into this country, guides to shopping for, eating and cooking with so-called ethnic foods begin to crop up. In particular, books that define and illustrate those elusive, unusual and literally foreign foods and ingredients of Asian lands and cultures always seem to have a solid audience. Just as travel guidebooks often include pictograms with definitions, the same type of language barrier dictates a need for food reference books that fully detail those odd products and produce one encounters in ethnic markets. Without the aid of a live foreign language translator, especially one knowledgeable in the ways of food, these reference books are essential to dedicated and adventuresome foodies like me. I've found that Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food is almost like having a tour guide and translator right by my side.
Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food is far too big and fat to comfortably pack in your purse as a shopping guide (that would be like cramming a Sumo wrestler into a coach airline seat). But what a book it is! Ingredients aren't just listed and described, they're discussed with attention to region, techniques, explanations of how to use them, names in various languages, and in the cases of fruits and vegetables, many include illustrations (though I would love to see even more).
But knowing the description of a food you've never eaten before doesn't help much when trying to prepare it, and over 500 recipes in the book are catalogued right next to the ingredient entry. For instance, the listing for Water Spinach includes an illustration of leaves and stem (both are edible), a description of each, where it's found (throughout Asia), and its name in nine Asian nations ranging from China (ong choy) to Vietnam (rau muong). The author describes how to prepare it—and then offers five recipes, two from Thailand, and one each from Sri Lanka, Malaysia and China. At this point, I feel very comfortable walking out of an Asian market with a plump bag of water spinach and a plan for its use.
Words for typical dishes you might encounter are also included, such as Laksa, a type of spicy soup that comes in many varieties (two of these recipes accompany the listing). Countries even get their own entry, as in Japan and Burma, in which the author encapsulates the predominant traits and common dishes of each. Which brings to mind the scope of this book in terms of countries. "Asia" in this compendium embraces the world from Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent through North Asia, South East Asia, Indochina, and even to the Pacific Islands.
Not all good food reference books make for good reads as well, but this one does. I leave it around the house and always find something interesting to peruse and then discuss over drinks or dinner. Did you know that the mango, so common to Mexican and Latin American meals, is native to India and Malaysia? and of the many varieties that exist, one in particular is known as the turpentine mango "because that is exactly what they smell and taste like... if you find a tree laden with fruit that nobody seems to want, there is usually good reason."
And by the way, I finally found that prickly little fruit I've been so long searching for. Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food identifies it as a rambutan, ripe in July and August, and it's best eaten fresh, not cooked. So now that I know what I'm looking for, finding it in a local Asian market should be a piece of cake, right? of course, it will! Well, at least knowing what's called has given me some satisfaction. In fact, I saw some cans of rambutans the other day and almost bought one. But having tasted it fresh, I'm on a quest for the real thing, one with those ticklish little spikes I once so enjoyed. And thanks to Charlaine Solomon's book, perhaps this summer my quest will be fulfilled. At least, now having read her entry on rambutan, I'll at least know to cut, serve and eat this luscious fruit whenever I do find it!
Encyclopedia of Asian Food
The complete cookbook with
ingredients, techniques and over 500 recipes
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created July 1999
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