An Economist Cooks the Book
Bill Rosenberg reviews “neat little Union AID cookbook”
I caught up with a lot of reading over my Christmas-new year break, but I also improved my cooking repertoire and skills (I hope – ask my patient family) by trying several of the recipes from this neat little UnionAID cookbook. It cleverly blends an interesting range of South-East and South Asian recipes with an introduction to UnionAID’s projects. India, Singapore, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam are all represented – and I have probably missed some.
I’ve always been wary of food from these countries because I have a serious food allergy that turns up frequently in curries and sprinkled on their dishes. It’s easiest for me just to keep away from them despite hearing about how tasty they are. But the great thing about most of these recipes is that you don’t “add 2 tsps of curry powder”, thus laying yourself open to the scary unknowns of what might be in it. You make the curries yourself. You know exactly what you put in, and can miss out ingredients you don’t like or don’t like you. They can be as mild or hot as you want – though it takes a bit of experience to learn how much of the hot ingredients to put in. So I had a great first time making curries and creating other new flavours and textures that I had never experienced before. I was also helped midway by acquiring a decent blender, courtesy of some loyalty points scheme we’re in, and that is a great blessing unless you are good with a mortar and pestle.
I learned that making curries is actually not that much different from making a good Italian sauce, even though they usually have a more complicated set of ingredients and flavours. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true, right?), “curry” is an anglicised version of the Tamil word kari and just means “sauce”. It is important to bring out the flavours in the curry paste you have created before chucking in the rest of the ingredients. But you soon learn that no two curries are the same.
I made the Burmese Cauliflower and Tomato Stir Fry several times. It’s easy once you’ve tried it and is another way to add something to cooked cauliflower’s rather bland taste. Tinned tomatoes would probably do as well as fresh ones for this dish, but it might also be a way to use the ones that have got too ripe for a salad.
We gorged ourselves on the Kerala Egg Curry from Southern India. (A guide as to how many people the recipes serve would be very handy if the book is reprinted.) I was timid with the chillies – next time I might go for a bit more heat. But subtle flavours, quick to prepare, and I love hard-boiled eggs.
I need to try the Burmese Pork and Lemongrass Curry again. I haven’t conquered cooking with lemongrass (which colleagues say is not to be missed, but I thought was over-rated and over-priced), and the dish ended up rather soupy and the lemongrass rather fibrous so I obviously did something wrong. But it was a simple recipe with attractive flavours so it’s worth trying.
The Spicy Lamb Curry contains potatoes, so you can vary the quantity of them according to numbers eating and the amount of rice you serve it with. With “two cans chopped tomatoes” it has a lot in common with an Italian casserole but of course with more heat and many different flavours.
The Chicken in Spicy Tomato and Yoghurt Sauce had wonderful flavours (needed for a boring meat like chicken!) and yoghurt adds a distinctive freshness to the dish.
My favourite (but perhaps I am biased from one of the endless series of cooking shows) was the Green Thai Fish Curry. It needs some ingredients we didn’t have in the house, like belacan (shrimp paste), fish sauce, lemongrass and coconut milk (you could get away with lemons instead of limes) but the multiple flavours of the curry and the creaminess of the coconut milk moisturise the fish creating a meal you’d want to make a regular part of your routine. Its only drawback is the ingredients, though once you have made the first outlay on belacan and fish sauce you have enough for a year’s supply!
Finally, the Tangy Thai Fish with Mint and Coriander is a simple and refreshing way to cook fish, which could be a lunch as well as evening meal.
I got a lot from this little book, partly because I’m just a starter in cooking recipes from these regions. For someone like me, it would be helpful to have photos of the finished dishes, though I understand that is easier said than done. But I thoroughly recommend the book. It’s good for your palate and good for the cause.
Note from UnionAID cookbook contributor: We commit to ensuring that Bill is better convinced of the subtle delights of lemon grass and also where best to find it and prepare it.