This month, we share books on gourmet secrets, Japanese cuisine and culture, and Chinese food from the famous Mission Kitchen restaurants.
Author: Juan Mari Arzak
Publisher: Grub Street, 278 pages
Mention Juan Mari Arzak and you’ll likely draw a blank. Ferran Adria? Most people – even non-foodies – would know the name. But the fact is, Arzak’s modernist cooking predates Adria’s emergence in the 1990s.
The cooking revolution that swept Spain in the 1970s was traced to a small kitchen in San Sebastian where Arzak pioneered New Basque cuisine. The Basques are a linguistically unique and culturally and ethnically distinct group living in the north of Spain and south-west France.
Arzak, who studied under French master Paul Bocuse, took inspiration from the French nouvelle cuisine movement in the 1960s and began to create lighter versions of rustic, seafood-centric Basque cuisine, which earned him three Michelin stars in 1989.
Today, Arzak is hailed as the father of modern Spanish cuisine, and his daughter Elena – named Best Female Chef of the World in 2012 – has risen as a star of his modernist cuisine.
One of the dishes that fired foodie imaginations back then was Arzak’s hake in green sauce with clams, which made the world sit up and take notice of Basque cuisine and the revolutionary notion that the cooking of the future is as much about what you didn’t do to the food as what you did to it.
On the cover of Arzak Secrets is another remarkable fish dish, Bonito in a Bonfire of Scales and Onions, the fish smoked and coated in a sauce of skin and scales and then just barely cooked on a hot plate to keep all its juice. It is seasoned with red pepper oil and served with a pickled gherkin broth in a separate dish, and caramelised onion rings and melon balls.
The dish looks incredible and revolutionary but the entire recipe is contained within one page of loosely set text, which in itself is revolutionary – such recipes in other books often run into reams in addition to referring to basic recipes at the end of the book. In this book there is no basic recipe section. All recipes are short and sweet and contained within one to two pages. In other words, the techniques don’t seem that daunting. The book makes the recipes seem very doable.
You do need to be a savvy gastronome and experienced cook to understand what it is all about, but the very determined and curious novice should be able to make headway as well.
Basics are not explained in this book so if you don’t know what a Roner is, some homework is called for.
The recipes involve some modernist kitchen equipment like liquid nitrogen, a whipping siphon, syringe, and smoker, and ingredients such as xanthan gum, methyl, micronised cocoa butter, dry ice, and gelatine and agar, of course. But not all recipes in the book require special ingredients or tools.
Ultimately, this is a book about techniques and ingredients. Its content flows seamlessly, shining the spotlight on a parade of ingredients from everywhere, both common and uncommon: egg, goji berry, baobab, blue potato, isomalt, white clay, metals – yes, metals like gold, silver and bronze. The more interesting part is what you do with these ingredients.
Cook this book and you will be on your way to enjoying such incredible food like a metal soup, pumice stone, square apple, red currant paper or dessert of intxaursaltsa with mutant red cabbage where the broth changes colour in front of your eyes.
If modernist cooking rocks your boat, this is a very fascinating book worth a spot on your bookshelf.
With Arzak Secrets, first published in Spanish, the door to Arzak’s world famous kitchen is thrown wide open for you to walk right in. Perhaps it will inspire another Adria.
At any rate, Arzak didn’t want to take his secrets to the grave, calling the jealous guarding of recipes and culinary formulae an “outdated belief”. So Arzak’s secrets are now open secrets. – Julie Wong
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture
Author: Matt Goulding
Publisher: HarperCollins; 327 pages
Travelling 8,000km through seven cities from north to south, Matt Goulding (of Eat This, Not That! and Roads & Kingdoms fame) eats his way deep into the Japanese foodscape – and psyche – to offer this witty, funny and immensely insightful gourmet travel book that warms the belly like a hot shot of sochu.
Topics cover the great okonomiyaki of Hiroshima, the kaiseki of Kyoto, the finest sushi bars on earth in Tokyo, the kuidaore propensity of the Osakans to eat themselves stupid and so on.
Think you’re a ramen expert? So how many regional styles of ramen are there in Japan?
It’s as much about the food as the people around it. The stories tell of the lives of the people working behind teppan and sushi counters and also the salarymen sitting in front of them.
A Guatemalan okonomiyaki chef in Hiroshima on the top 10 lists of many local experts.
An old Japanese woman with a vanished family who comes in to the Guatemalan’s restaurant to drop a large to-go order.
In between such absorbing tales is infotainment on burning topics such as “One Night at a Love Hotel”, “The Eight Wonders of the Japanese Convenience Store” and “Wagyu 101” – spoiler alert: there’s really no beer in that beef. And what you really, really need to know to eat sushi like a pro.
Anthony Bourdain is right when he says in the foreword that the world needs this book. – JW
The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook
Author: Danny Bowien & Chris Ying
Publisher: Ecco Pr, 318 pages
This is a book that reels you in the moment you see these enticing words on the cover: Forewords by Anthony Bourdain and Momofuku’s David Chang. If these culinary wizards have endorsed it, surely it’s worth a try?
Umm, that’s up for debate. For one thing, the book is 318 pages long but only has 49 recipes. Why, you ask? Well, because so much of it is devoted to random chit-chat, including interview transcripts that go into way too much personal history that I didn’t really care about.
It’s surprising that David Bowien, so well known for his Mission Chinese Food restaurants and his co-writer, Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of food magazine Lucky Peach, would come up with this. Together. Although, given Lucky Peach’s zany sense of humour, maybe it’s exactly what you should expect.
Personally, I found that there’s just so much text to wade through to finally get to the recipes that it’s like an arduous excavation project with no end in sight.
With most cookbooks, you get a sense of the author from the way they’ve written their introductions and, to a larger extent, through their recipes. Here, you find you know way too much about the authors and not enough about the food.
The information about Bowien’s experience with his restaurants might be useful for aspiring chefs (if they like reading novels) but ultimately won’t resonate as strongly with home cooks, I feel.
There are some interesting recipes here, though, like the thrice-cooked bacon, crunchy tea-smoked eel rolls and fried rice with salted cod fish, but not all of them have accompanying pictures, which lessens their appeal somewhat.
In the end, although some of the information is genuinely interesting, you’ll probably only want to read this if you’re a huge fan of Bowien and want to know everything there is to know about the man. – Abirami Durai
Did you find this article insightful?