Eating Between the Lines

Books for Cooks

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia

by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Artisan, 346 pp, $40

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have produced another culinary tour de force with the release of their newest title, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, but this one is perhaps their best, for it centers on a region they have traveled with gusto for the last 30 years. And their love for the food, culture, and the people of the region oozes off the pages in a style so entertaining and enlightening that the Brain Police will no doubt soon try to outlaw it. It's that good.

Alford and Duguid are the team of travelers-foodies-photographers who have previously produced the award-winning Flatbreads and Flavors and Seductions of Rice. They are a rare breed today: They totally immerse themselves in the regions they write about, living in small villages where traditional life and food are an open book, and the building blocks and foundations of the cuisine are the most accessible.

Hot, Sour opens a window on what has been a relatively unknown culinary region, by following the foods of the floodplain of the Mekong River as it flows from the Yunnan Province in southern China, past Burma and Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, until it finally empties into the sea off the coast of Vietnam. And the authors take what has been an opaque window and wipe it crystal clear, revealing all the intricacies of the culture, the land, the people, and especially the food in sharp focus.

The Mekong is as much road as it is river, for it is the main highway for trade and travel in the entire region. And Alford and Duguid reveal the tribal nature of the inhabitants. They are the Tai, Khmer, Lao, Shan, Hmong, Karen, and Vietnamese ethnocultural groups that populate the region, with little regard for national borders and boundaries.

As culinary cousins, their cuisines differ slightly from region to region, but share common ingredients. And the authors adeptly explain the intricate difference in proportion and ingredient order that create the subtle variations. The basic food palate is hot, sour, salty, sweet, and occasionally bitter. Think of them as colors that are blended and layered in different ways to create incredibly complex flavors from simple components. Southeast Asian alchemy revealed!

The cookbook contains 175 recipes written in a free-flowing, evocative, expressive style that thoroughly educates the reader about that particular dish, while providing a rock-solid recipe for reproducing the food in the simplest and most authentic manner. The extensive prefatories to each of the recipes often contain anecdotal information about the particular region involved, and the people that were the source of the dish. Often, details of the ingredients are provided as well, such as buying and storage tips, or substitutions if the necessary ingredient is unavailable.

The reader will discover the second love of the authors accompanying the recipes -- the 150-plus photographs that illustrate the book. Alford and Duguid are both photographers of the highest order, with an uncanny knack for expressing exactly the idea or thought they're after. It should come as no surprise that their other business is owning and operating Asia Access, a prominent stock photo company specializing in images of food, agriculture, and traditional cultures found across Asia.

I had the opportunity to taste food prepared by the pair at the recent Foods of the World Conference at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Every single dish, whether prepared by the authors or by myself while following their recipes, was superlative, authentic, and perfectly balanced. One taste of any dish in this book will convince the reader that Alford and Duguid have made a supreme effort to accurately reveal the dishes of the region, and have produced a true labor of love.

Cookbooks this beautiful and detailed would be just as comfortable sitting on a coffee table, but the true home of this book should be in the kitchen, where it can be frequently utilized to produce the incredible foods from the watershed of the Mekong River. Alford and Duguid have done it again. Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is a masterpiece.

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Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia, Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid

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