There are five new books on my desk, each featuring recipes from the Far East, particularly India. Perhaps it indicates a renewed interest in these intriguing, mystical, fragrant and incredibly flavorful cuisines after several lean years of publishing in this field.
Foremost among them is "Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of the Far East" (Carol Southern Books, $35). It is a knockout of a book, which deservedly captured the 1994 Cookbook of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation. With photographers Michael Freeman and James Murphy in tow, this accomplished author takes the reader on a wondrous culinary journey through the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Each cuisine has its own elements, yet each is a link in a chain thousands of years old that stretches from the Sea of Japan to the Indian Ocean.
The strength of Ms. Jaffrey's work lies in the careful crafting of the text and the recipes. Virtually without fail, she has provided alternate ingredients when necessary, well-thought-out instructions and a chapter on basic recipes.
Vegetable and Prawn Fritters and Salmon Poached with Tomatoes and Swiss Chard are both from the Philippines. Cucumber and Pineapple Salad from Malaysia; Sizzling Pancakes from South Vietnam; Hot and Sour Chicken Soup from Thailand; Green Beans in a Coconut Sauce from Indonesia, and Shrimp with Garlic and Oyster Sauce from Hong Kong are but samples of the rewarding experience awaiting the reader and the cook.
"Madhur Jaffrey's Spice Kitchen" (Carol Southern Books, $15) is an interesting little book of 50 recipes to introduce cooks to the 4,000-year Indian tradition of blending spices and aromatic seeds "as if they were colors on a vast palette." In addition to the simple recipes, Ms. Jaffrey provides an intelligent guide to such spices and seeds as ajwain, asafetida, kalonji, rai masala, nutmeg and mace. She also illustrated the book.
"Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals" (Hyperion, $27.50) is a beautifully presented cookbook for which Ms. Jaffrey writes the introduction. When not cooking or writing cookbooks, Mr. Merchant produces award-winning films with James Ivory ("A Room with a View," "Howards End," etc.), and Ms. Jaffrey is a busy actress who will try her talented hand at directing a Merchant/Ivory film production, "Cotton Mary," for release next year.
Mr. Merchant's passion is preparing memorable Indian dishes with all the richness of the culture itself. In his desire to improvise as he goes, he disobeys "all the conventions and laws of cooking," which is what many of us do also, but what emerges is always exciting. Some of the 200 recipes are traditional, others are his own adaptations, but all reflect his penchant for speed and ease of preparation. As the book's subtitle says, it is "new Indian cuisine for fearless cooks and adventurous eaters."
"Indian Light Cooking: Delicious and Healthy Food from One of the World's Great Cuisines" by Ruth Law (Donald I. Fine, $25) capitalizes on today's fascination with "low" this and "healthy" that. Many of the recipes come from the south of India, which is traditionally vegetarian. Therefore, light is a given. Each of the 200 or so recipes is accompanied by a nutritional analysis, but the author points out that "no warranty as to the accuracy of these results is expressed or implied."
"Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine from South India," by Chandra Padmanabhan (Thorsons, $26), promoted as "an ideal cookbook for today's lifestyle," falls right in line with Ms. Law's volume but without the analyses. The author promises a "simple introduction to basic South Indian vegetarian cooking" in 130 recipes colorfully depicted throughout.
Ms. Padmanabhan says she has standardized the measures but admits that "our cooking never makes use of exact weights and measures." Food is prepared by the senses: If something looks and smells right, it is right. This makes for some adventurous times in the kitchen.
Lombok, an Indonesian island, "was once an important link in the spice trade chain," writes Ms. Jaffrey in "The Taste of the Far East." Lombok means peppers, and although many Lombok dishes are fiery hot, Ms. Jaffrey turned down the heat somewhat on this one by introducing sweet red peppers. If fresh galangal, a ginger-like root, is available, add a 1-inch piece, peeled and chopped, to the ingredients in the blender. It also is sold frozen in many Asian groceries.
Ms. Jaffrey prefers chicken thighs for this flavor-filled dish, but a cut-up chicken will do fine.
"Even though there are a fair number of ingredients in this recipe," she writes, "it is quite easy to put this mouth-watering dish together. It may be made ahead of time and refrigerated, so it is ideal for parties." Serve with plain rice.
Chicken Curry Lombok Style
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 red pepper (6 ounces), de-seeded and coarsely chopped
3 fresh, long, hot red chilies, coarsely chopped (or 1 teaspoon chili powder/cayenne pepper)
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 candle nuts or 6 raw cashew nuts
8 shallots or 1 large onion (4 1/2 ounces), peeled and coarsely chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste (terasi) or anchovy paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
4 good-sized slices of dry, sliced galangal (see above)
4 whole cloves
1 inch cinnamon stick
1 14-ounce can of coconut milk
8 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 1/2 pounds chicken thighs (or pieces)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1-2 fresh, hot, red and/or green chilies for garnish (optional)
Put the red pepper, the 3 chilies, ginger, candle nuts, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste into the container of a blender. Blend until you have a smooth paste, adding a little water if needed. Leave in container.
Put the cumin seeds, peppercorns, galangal, cloves and cinnamon into the container of a clean coffee grinder or other spice grinder and grind until fine. Put this powder into the blender and whir for a few seconds to mix. (This paste may be made ahead and frozen. Defrost thoroughly before using.)
Open the can of coconut milk without shaking it. Spoon off the cream at the top and set aside. Pour the remaining milk into a measuring jug. Add water to make 1 1/2 cups.
Heat the oil in a well-seasoned wok or a wide, nonstick pan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, put in the curry paste from the blender. Stir and fry for 6 to 8 minutes or until the paste is dark red and quite reduced. Add the chicken pieces and salt. Stir and fry for another 2 minutes. Now put in the thinned coconut milk and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off.
Spoon off most of the oil that will have risen to the top. Stir in the coconut cream and mix well. Heat through gently. Serve, garnished with the additional chilies.