Thursday, 16 December 2010
Book Review: Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey
Rick Stein describes south-east Asian cuisine as the rock & roll of the food world and I agree with him. All the food in this book is a multi-sensory experience that makes you want to plug-in, fire up and dance around the room.
I purchased this book after watching the television series, in which Rick Stein travels across India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia. Some would consider Rick Stein a bit of a geek. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the word ‘geek’ is usually used to describe someone who has a passion for something, that their peers can’t quite grasp the extent of. Of course, it also describes someone who is socially inept. This cannot be attributed to RS as he knows exactly how to bring entire continents to life, just using words. He explores the world around him and is excited by the prospect of any new information he can get his hands on. Often in the series you can feel him feeding off his present company like a leech, which leaves him fat with knowledge. Thankfully, he wrote all of this down. Not just when he got home and wrote this book but as he stood side by side with the cook, eyes transfixed on the pot. Rick can be seen listing and smelling every ingredient as it goes in. Welcome to truly authentic Asian cuisine.
The book begins with a story, where Rick lures you in by conjuring up images of a hectic street, full of food venders and generally sets the scene for the entire book. He does this well given his use of language, like an M&S advert, but with genuinely decent food to promote. It isn't just the language, but the high definition photographs (that don't make too much of an attempt to be arty) that bring the ingredients to life.
Strangely, the next best place you might find yourself is at the back of the book. Here you will find a huge glossary that talks you through all the weird and wonderful ingredients used throughout. You will also find a few pages dedicated to explaining the basic recipes required to keep a fully stocked larder. These are things such as Asian stocks, spice blends and condiments. The reason these are useful is because they are constantly referred to throughout the book. For example, you can’t have a fragrant Cambodian soup without a good stock behind it. You can’t have good special fried Thai rice without knowing how to make the hoi sin flavoured pork belly that runs throughout the dish. It is these (sometimes hefty) ingredient lists that seem to annoy some reviewers on the website, Amazon.co.uk. My advice to them would be, if you don’t want tasty and authentic regional food, then can I recommend a jar of Sharwood’s sweet and sour sauce that is a complete abomination?
People often cite cost as a reason not to pursue culinary greatness. That may be true in the first instance but if you continue to use and build on your larder, every dish you cook from there begins to decrease in value because you are making the most of your ingredients. This can be further aided by gearing your meals towards ingredients that need to be used or things that you have a lot of. But then, that is nothing new, in any cuisine.
I have to be honest. In order to get the most out of this book, you have to want it. You don’t necessarily have to enjoy wandering around Asian supermarkets on your days off. Touching, smelling, discovering. There is a nice glossary of Asian food websites that will deliver right to your door. However, I urge you to approach this book as an adventure. Throw yourself at it from every angle. When I say that, I don’t mean put the book in the centre of the room and hurl your physical self at the book from different directions. That would be silly…. And I doubt you would learn very much. That said, familiar dishes such as Aloo Gobi, Green Thai Curry and Pad Thai, are worth the entrance fee alone. With regards to the Pad Thai recipe; I recently went to my local Thai restaurant in North Yorkshire, which I previously felt was to a very high standard. When I tasted their Pad Thai, it couldn’t have fallen shorter from the version that Rick Stein had taught me. This was a restaurant whose head chef Kenneth Poon, had worked at Michelin Starred restaurant ‘The Oriental’ at the Dorchester in London.
What I am saying is, is that it is all here. You can produce some of the most exciting food out there, using just this book. It has a very complete feel about it. I personally, have never used any other cook book so frequently. As daunting as it may seem, if you approach this is as a learning exercise, it is rewarding. After watching the series, cooking from this book and hearing Rick talk of the people and their cuisine, I feel I understand their way of life and mentality much more intricately than before. That makes this very large and intriguing world of unknowns, become that bit more familiar. I’m not sure about you, but that is what I live for.
Rating: 5/5 Stars.