Two books, one old and one new, zero in on seafood and soups
Seafood of South-east Asia
by Alan Davidson
Ten Speed Press, 368 pp., $24.95 (paper)
The late Alan Davidson, former British ambassador to Laos, and author of The Oxford Companion to Food (among many other titles), was considered one of the world's leading authorities on culinary fish species and seafood cookery. His attention to biological and culinary detail was legendary, as was his dry wit. Ten Speed Press has re-released, with revisions, his fantastic 1976 volume, and some 29 years later there is still no other title like it available.
Davidson first presents a catalog of the primary fish and shellfish, some 200 varieties in all, that one is likely to find in a Southeast Asian restaurant or market. They are broken down by family, each shown with detailed line drawings. The common English name is given, as well as the names in all of the primary languages of the regions in which they are found. He addresses distribution and the relative culinary merits of each.
To anyone who has ever strolled through a fresh market in Asia, this book is invaluable as a shopping tool. But after the fish descriptions, he provides a concise guide to seaweed families, as well as common regional vegetables and herbs. This serves as glossary info for the 150 superlative recipes included: Mohinga (a Burmese coconut and dhal fish stew), Nam Prik Num (Thai green chile and fish dip), Bangkang Cuhuc (Cambodian fish soup with green mango), Cá Kho Tra (fish cooked in Viet lotus tea), a Filipino fish and guava salad, Indonesian prawn saté, and more. The drool keeps welling up the more you read.
We can't recommend this book enough. It's unique in scope, startling in detail, complete in its precise attack on the subject matter, and crammed full of mouthwatering recipes. Davidson was a genius, and we are only glad that his legacy left us with books such as this.
An Exaltation of Soups
by Patricia Solley
Three Rivers Press, 367 pp., $16 (paper)
Pat Solley, chief of FBI Research Communications and PR by day, empress of all things soup by night, has released the most engaging soup book to date. It developed from her wildly popular soup Web site, www.soupsong.com, which, like the book, is crammed with esoteric tidbits (historical, poetic, cultural, biological, musical, etc.) relating to soup. What impresses us most about Exaltation is that literally every page has the capacity to lead you off in another completely different direction, and where you end up will always offer rock-solid recipes.
Solley presents a unique take on the arrangement, dividing the chapters by soup's uses: weddings, mourning, hangovers, religion, festivals, wooing a lover, etc. For each purpose or topic, there will be several recipes given, each with exhaustively researched headnotes and sidebars, and perhaps a poem, fable, riddle, or song pertaining to the subject matter. Example: under "To Stimulate the Appetite," there is an excellent recipe for Creamy Crab & Cognac Soup. It is surrounded by a section of crab literature from Norman Douglas, Abraham Howard, T.S. Eliot, and John Russell's 1460 "Boke of Nurture"; accompanying is a treatise of the aphrodisiacal properties of crab and how the crab relates to the zodiac. With the recipe for Strawberry Balsamico Soup, you get a history of the agricultural development of the modern strawberry and a quote from Sir Izaak Walton: "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did."
The collection of 100-plus recipes spans the globe, but it also reveals the world through the medium of soup. Exaltation is, above all, a fascinating read that captivates and entertains, while it seduces you into cooking each and every delicious recipe.
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