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Cook by the Book: Cradle of Flavor

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Anyone who has ever been seduced by the exotic visions of Bali and the Spice Islands or has travelled to a foreign country and returned profoundly changed will appreciate the cookbook Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (W.W.Norton, 2006). Author James Oseland's life was similarly changed during art school, when a summer vacation to Indonesia marked the beginning of more than twenty years exploring the culture, languages and food of the region. Cradle of Flavor is his homage to those countries and a fine introduction to their cuisine. In the book you'll learn the differences in the food of various regions such as West Sumatra, East Java, and Malacca as well as how they are connected.

The cookbook includes 100 authentic recipes from Dutch-influenced buttery spice cake and cookie recipes, to Malaysian satays, stir-frys, creamy coconut curries and crunchy vegetable salads. Because the cuisine is still unfamiliar to most Americans, Oseland introduces readers to unusual ingredients such as palm vinegar, lemon basil and sweet soybean paste with descriptions and photos. He also explains key cooking techniques such as making flavoring pastes, slow-braised rendangs and piquant sambals. The recipes have been adapted to take into account the limitations of American kitchens and Oseland shows how to accomplish dishes from the region at home using common appliances such as a food processor and a typical range of pots and pans from non-stick to dutch ovens. While the focus is on easy to manage recipes, resources are provided for finding exotic ingredients and even substitutions for some of the more hard-to-find ones.

This is not a book for a beginning cook, but someone who perhaps has taken on Chinese or Thai cooking at home and is ready to branch out. The recipe instructions are meticulously detailed to help ensure success, although I would have appreciated a few more illustrations in addition to the photographs. The whole book is thoroughly researched and detailed and sections dedicated to where and how to shop are expanded into what to look for when buying produce and how to best store spices. The book inspired me to seek out ingredients I had never used before such as candlenuts, though I will heed his advice not to eat them raw.

Ultimately Cradle of Flavor is much more than a cookbook, it's a beautifully written and sensual memoir from someone who has embraced the culture of the Spice Islands wholeheartedly. You will be encouraged to use all of your senses in shopping, cooking and eating your way through this book. Be an armchair traveller and join Oseland on shopping excursions, ocean voyages and cooking lessons with his adopted Indonesian family and friends.

Lemongrass and Shallot Sambal
Sambal Serai
(Bali, Indonesia)

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Makes about 1/3 cup
1 thick stalk fresh lemongrass
2 fresh red or green Thai chiles, stemmed and very finely chopped
2 shallots (about 1 1/2 ounces total) finely chopped
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Cut off the hard, brown bottom end and the bristly, greenish top of the lemongrass stalk, which will leave you with a pale white-and-lilac piece about 5 inches long. Discard the 2 or 3 tough outer layers. Slice the lemongrass very thinly crosswise, then chop the slices as finely as you can--it should be the consistency of sand. Using a very sharp knife will help you enormously. Transfer the lemongrass to a bowl. Make sure that the chiles and shallots are chopped just as finely. Add the chiles, shallots, oil, lime juice, and salt to the bowl. Stir well to combine. Taste for salt, and add a pinch more if needed.

2. Transfer the sambal to a small bowl for guests to spoon from directly, or place in small individual bowls. Let rest for 10 minutes before eating to allow the flavors to meld.

Note: A sambal is a condiment to be served with other dishes, Oseland suggests pairing this sambal with dishes that have lemongrass in them, and with dishes such as Green Beans with Coconut Milk, Pan-Seared Tamarind Tuna, various chicken dishes or a tofu and vegetable stew.

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