My Favorite Food Books, Day 17: Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet
Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet was my first real introduction to the cuisine of Southeast Asia. I mean, I'd eaten at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants growing up, but it was only after reading this gorgeous book that I thought Oh, I get it now. It's because the book is far more than a simple recipe book (and also less—more on that in a bit). Rather than focusing on the cuisine of a specific country, instead Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid follow the spread of flavors and culture as they make their way down the Mekong river. They start in Southern China, traveling through Burma, into Laos and Thailand, and finally down to Vietnam. Through gorgeous photography (seriously, this is one of the best-photographed books you'll ever see) and essays, Alford and Duguid place dishes in context and capture a version of Southeast Asia that is at once peaceful, dynamic, and exotic. Never has a book compelled me to want to book a plane ticket so quickly, though this urge was matched by an even stronger urge to jump into the kitchen.
From a culinary perspective, the authors contend that food that come from the cities and villages that line this 3,000 mile-long strip of land pay particular attention to the harmony between four distinct flavors: hot, sour, salty, and sweet.
This, of course, is not exactly accurate and in the 17 years that have passed since this book was released, dozens of fantastic books on regional Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, and Southern Chinese cuisine have been released that prove that the hot/sour/salty/sweet balance is a vast oversimplification. Similarly, through trips to Southeast Asia, I found the region is quite a bit grungier and more hectic than the book makes it out to be. But these are all things I'm glad I discovered for myself. Unlike, say, Fuchsia Dunlop or Rick Bayless who spent enough time studying and living in China and Mexico respectively to write from a true cultural insiders perspective, Alford and Duguid take a knowledgeable, but very outside-in perspective on Southeast Asia and its people and culture. They err on the side of romance and simplicity, and that works just fine for a book like this.
As a general framework to guide home cooks, the four dimensional hot-sour-salty-sweet mapping works fantastically well. As a cook whose training was mostly in the Western European tradition, I was used to tasting and adjusting for salt levels in dishes instinctively. Sourness or acidity was also something in the back of my head, but not something I actively considered with every taste. Sweetness and heat? Forget it. I didn't really consider them in my savory cooking. If something needed to be hotter I'd add some hot sauce or chili flakes on the plate.
This book unlocked those last two dimensions of flavor for me and got me cooking in a whole new way. What I found is that the 1- to 5-chili rating system you're used to from Thai restaurants in the West does a disservice to the cuisine, as heat is intrinsically balanced and linked to other dimensions of flavor. Simply increasing heat is like tossing the largest kid in the class on one end of the see-saw: It hits hard and heavy, but it's a lot more fun if you can balance that heat on the other end.
I really like their flexible approach to meal planning. Rather than work region by region, as you'd expect a travelogue like this to work, instead they group dishes by their role at the table. The "Sauces, Chile Pastes, and Salsas" chapter has recipes for Yunnanese Chile Pepper Paste next to Vietnamese nuoc cham. Lao Str-Fried-Eggs with Cellophane Noodles are paired with Thai-Style Chinese Greens in the "Mostly Vegetables" chapter. Many of these recipes come with photographs that are every bit as stunning as the images of landscapes and people that populate the book.
That said, if there's one big downside to Hot, Sour, Salty, sweet, it's those recipes themselves. First off, there aren't as many as you'd expect for a book this heavy and thick. Secondly, of the ones that are there, the results are hit and miss. Alford and Duguid are world-class travel-writers and photojournalists, but their cooking and recipe-development chops leave something to be desired. Timings don't quite work how they're supposed to and instructions are vague enough that when something goes wrong, you really need to troubleshoot yourself to try and figure out why.
I found it best to use their recipes in the same way that I use their photographs and essays: as aspirational tools. Introductions to new ideas or flavors that inspire me to do more research, whether that research is traveling to Southeast Asia myself to see firsthand, or to dive into other books and internet resources to gather more data on a particular dish I want to master.
You can buy Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet here.