David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 4 Feb 08 06:56
I'm delighted to welcome James Oseland to Inkwell to discuss his book "Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia." James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur and the author of Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia,Singapore and Malaysia, published by W.W. Norton. The book was honored with International Association of Culinary Professionals and James Beard awards, and was selected as one of 2006s ten best books about Asia by Time Asia. He lectures frequently at New Yorks Asia Society and the Institute for Culinary Education. A California native, he now lives in Brooklyn and travels to Southeast Asia as often as possible. Leading the discussion with James is our own Eric Gower: Eric Gower lived in Japan for 15 years, working for the Prime Minister's office as an editor and writer on political economy before getting horribly bored and turning his attention to cooking all day long, for the pure pleasure of it. He now lives in San Francisco, teaches cooking, and writes cookbooks. His latest, The Breakaway Cook, was published by Morrow/HarperCollins in 2007. His website and blog can be found at www.breakawaycook.com.
Eric Gower (gower) Mon 4 Feb 08 10:30
I know I speak for everyone reading this in saying that we're thrilled to have James, "Mr. Saveur" Oseland here to rap with us about food, cooking, crazy-good ingredients, travel in some of the world's most interesting countries, food writing, and whatever else he feels like talking about. I've had the good fortune of traveling throughout large chunks of Indonesia, so it's with special delight that I read James' book, Cradle of Flavor. On one trip to Banda, WAY out in eastern Indonesia, about eqidistant from Papua New Guinea and the northern tip of Australia, I actually met the family to whom James dedicates this book, the Alwis. Talk about coincidences! More on that soon, but I just want to say that the very first image/memory that comes to mind when I hear the word "Indonesia" is the nutmeg jam made in Banda. I can still see it, smell, it, and taste it. James, can you make this stuff? Because I demand to know the recipe if you can! One of the more wondrous substances I've ever encountered. Places don't really get more magical for travelers than Banda. I'd love to hear James's off-the-cuff impressions of the place.
Eric Gower (gower) Mon 4 Feb 08 13:25
And after we've heard all about Banda and nutmeg jam, let's just get right to it: I can think of a few denizens of this place who will want to know everything there is to know about the Acehnese wisdom of combing nettles and weed in their food!
Eric Gower (gower) Mon 4 Feb 08 13:37
(and just to get into the spirit, I'm about to fire up a big pot of rendang daging sapi, dry-braised beef, West Sumatran style, outlined in great clarity on p. 304 of the new book; remarkably, I have every esoteric ingredient needed! Will report back).
Eric Gower (gower) Tue 5 Feb 08 09:22
Well the rendang was truly fabulous. I went out and did some errands has it was gently simmering, and I smelled it within HALF A BLOCK of my house on my way home! Insanely aromatic -- it should be even better today. The local house critic was blown away.
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Tue 5 Feb 08 19:31
Thanks, Eric, for your "well"come. This site rocks, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. And, Eric, I'm also thrilled that not only have you been to Indonesia, but it sounds like you've been to its outermost reaches--including the Banda Islands, which are about as remote as Indonesia gets! Magical places like Banda--a tiny archipelago of islands that are one of the few locales on Earth that nutmeg is native to--really signify Indonesia in my mind. Such places also signify one of the main reasons that I wrote "Cradle of Flavor": I wanted to create a book that not only exposed Americans to places that they tend to know little about, but I wanted to honor them in the most true and heartfelt way possible. I love Indonesia (and neighboring Malaysia and Singapore) a lot; these countries have gone a long way in shaping not only my palate but my soul. As for your question about nutmeg jam, and whether or not it's possible to make here: Sadly, no--unless you get your hands on some fresh nutmeg fruit, which is the crunchy-tart-spicy-firm flesh that surrounds the nutmeg's seed pod and is usually discarded after the fruit is harvested. In Banda the fruit is used lots of ways: it's sliced and added to curries, where it lends its lovely, strange flavor; it's soaked in sea water, then sun-dried, and sweetened, and eaten as a snack; and, best of all (I think) it's finely julienned and added to a local sambal (Indonesia's chile-based answer to salsa). Sambal buah pala (as it's called) is one of God's great gifts to the culinary world. I wish I were eating some right now.
Public persona (jmcarlin) Wed 6 Feb 08 09:09
I'm really ignorant of the food from those places so I wonder if you can give a fast intro for those of us know know Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine and want to understand Indonesian, Singaporian (Is that correct?) and Malaysian food.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 6 Feb 08 09:39
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by sending them to <email@example.com> -- please be sure to put "Oseland" in the subject line. Thanks!)
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 09:53
Here's a picture of a fresh nutmeg fruit: http://tinyurl.com/2udczx I just got a fresh supply (from Germany, of all places) of very fresh mace, that spidery red covering, which turns yellowish as it dries. But to make the nutmeg jam, you're saying I need that white fleshy part, yes?
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 6 Feb 08 10:33
(Good lord, where in Germany did *that* come from, Eric?) I'm looking forward to this discussion, although I'm trepidacious that there will be a huge number of crucial ingredients I won't be able to find, which is always frustrating.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 6 Feb 08 10:39
Silly me. I didn't even realize that the nutmeg was actually harvested from inside a fruit (the fact that they're seeds should have been a hint, I know). I'm with <jmcarlin> on this. I know little of Indonesian food, but lots about the Asian regions he mentioned. Are there many similarities to Thai, Indian and Japanese foods?
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 10:53
(Ed, friends visiting from Frankfurt gave it to me. www.gewuerzkarawane.de -- really high quality)
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 11:06
<scribbled by gower Wed 6 Feb 08 11:06>
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 11:08
<scribbled by gower Wed 6 Feb 08 11:10>
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 11:09
I also made the Indonesian spice cake from the book last night. Good lord! It's a gorgeous dessert, and filled the entire neighborhood with tantalizing aromas, I'm sure. I'm enjoying a piece with coffee as I type this, it's really great. James, when you're done giving us the synopsis of the summary of Indonesian/Malay cooking 101, say a word or two on desserts. Are they eaten at the end of a meal, like in the West? What's more prevalent, the classic Indonesian style combos of rice flour and palm sugar, or the more colonial/euro-influenced butter-egg confections? I'm also fascinated by the role colonialism has played in food there, with jaffles on every street corner--would love to hear your take on Indonesian perceptions of "foreign" foods.
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 6 Feb 08 11:11
(sorry about the scribbles, weird glitch)
Which is better - one or two? (smash) Wed 6 Feb 08 12:57
James, I'm really enjoying reading "Cradle of Flavor" but still need to cook from it. Your story backgrounds add richness. I've been to the region numerous times (Singapore, Bali, Penang) on business and holiday, and love the range and flavor.
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Wed 6 Feb 08 14:13
I am so happy to have the chance to talk to someone who knows about nutmeg fruit! Once about 10 years ago now, I found some dried, candied nutmeg fruit in the spice section of Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. I brought a little home, chopped it up and added it to an apple pie, and it was spectacularly good. So I returned to the store, bought the rest of the jar (not quite a pound of the stuff). I hoarded it like gold and only used it when I had the very best apples, because the store never got in any more, and no one that I talked to had any idea what I was talking about when I asked them where it came from. I've never seen it for sale anyplace. I spoke to the owners of a fancy spice shop in Chicago who had traveled to a nutmeg plantation in Grenada and they didn't even have any idea of what I was talking about. So.....do you have any suggestions for where to source candied nutmeg fruit, or do I have to go to indonesia myself to buy a supply?
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Thu 7 Feb 08 06:46
Happy Lunar New Year, everyone. I have to run off to work in a few minutes, but I am going to try to answer the questions about Indonesian food...so tricky to sum up, but here I go! Indonesia is the world's fourth largest country, just behind the U.S., population-wise. It is comprised of more than 15,000 islands that stretch a distance roughly equivalent to that of Fairbanks, Alaska, to Florida. The largest (and/or most culturally prominent) are Java, Bali, Sumatra, Borneo (the lower two-thirds, anyway, which is called Kalimantan), and Sulawesi (or Celebes). The country achieved independence from the Dutch in the mid-1940s; the Dutch had been its colonial rulers for over four centuries and established (more or less) is contemporary boundaries. The Dutch had originally come to the region seeking the indigenous spices that grew in abundance on many of the islands, including nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cassia (a cousin to cinnamon), turmeric, and ginger. But they'd been preceded by quite an illustrious bunch, including the ancient Chinese and Indians (who had been traveling to the islands, also in search of spices, for at least 1,000 years before Europeans entered the picture) and Portuguese explorers. All of these visitors left their mark on native foodways that were already in full swing (owing, largely, to the ancient maritime kingdoms of Java and Sumatra that ruled much of the islands for centuries): the Chinese, for instance, imparted a local love of stir-frying; the Indians, an appreciation of mingling complex spices together; the Dutch, an affection for butter-based sweets; and the Portuguese introduced chiles, which are immensely popular in all Indonesian cooking. All of these streams of influence are mirrored in contemporary Indonesian food: meals are always built around rice (which has been grown in the region for at least--roughly--4,000 years); coconut-milk-based curries, heavily spiced with cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, reign supreme; stir-fries are huge; and there's rarely a meal where chiles (and the sambals I mentioned in an earlier post!) aren't big players. Though there are great differences between the almost countless regional cuisines of Indonesia (just think about it: the place has more than 15,000 islands!), a few elements define them all: The country's foods are lusty, rich, and intensely spiced--a perfect mosaic of a few millennium's worth of influences. As for the general flavor profile of these foods, try to image a gentler, friendlier version of your favorite Thai dishes.... Later today I'm going to try to sum up neighboring Malaysia and Singapore...now off to work!
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 7 Feb 08 13:54
Happy Lunar New Year to you, too. Your description is very helpful. "...gentler friendlier version of your favorite Thai foods" was just what I was thinking right before I read that passage.
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Thu 7 Feb 08 18:46
Back from work! And back to my brief description of the foodways of SE Asia: Right next door to Indonesia are its sister countries, Malaysia and Singapore--places I also cover in "Cradle of Flavor." As large as Indonesia is, Malaysia and Singapore are small--they've got a combined population of about 30 million people. But what joyous foods those 30 million folks eat: Though Indonesia's foodways are the source of many of Malaysia's and Singapore's cuisines, a slew of regional variations and favorites exist, like char kuey teow (a delicious street food made of stir-fried rice noodles and shrimp) and laksa (another noodle dish, this one served more as a soup, with a spicy, elegant curry broth as the soupy base). Man, I love the food over there! It's so alive with flavor!
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Thu 7 Feb 08 18:51
Back to nutmeg: Yeah, unfortunately you need to make the jam from the fresh fruit (and, alas, I don't know where to by the candied, dried version of it). But a happy approximation might be to make a nutmeg-flavored simple syrup (half water, half sugar, and a handful of cracked open nutmeg seeds simmered together for about 15 minutes or longer) and add a few teaspoons to some soda water--like pure and natural Coca Cola.
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Thu 7 Feb 08 18:54
And, Eric, I'm so glad you made the spice cake (which is basically a super-rich pound cake with lots of ground spices)--it's one of my favorite recipes in the book. Cooks in Indonesia do an amazing thing with the same batter and bake the cake into multiple, thin layers, to make a gorgeously striated work of art. But one humble layer suits me fine.
Eric Gower (gower) Thu 7 Feb 08 19:08
Street food in Singapore is so good is makes my whole body hurt. One influential blogger from Singapore told me that nobody cooks at home in Singapore, because you couldn't possibly do better than the street stalls, both in terms of quality and in price, not to mention convenience. What an amazing statement, but it's probably true. Speaking of home cooking, James, I assume you're the cook in the family? Tell us about a typical "survival" dinner in the Oseland household. Surely you don't regularly make rendang on weeknights?As good as that recipe is, man that's a lot of work, a lot stove-attention. How do you balance everything you know about great traditional cooking with the pressures of holding down a full-time (and then some) full-time job and getting food on the table?
Eric Gower (gower) Thu 7 Feb 08 19:10
(slipped by James, and please pardon the typos)
James Oseland (jamesoseland) Fri 8 Feb 08 08:50
Ah, the street foods of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.... My hands-down favorite? A tiny a.m. stall (it's basically a picnic table) on an alley in Penang, Malaysia, called Lorong Bangkok. I get toast that's been grilled over coals, a soft boiled egg topped with a few slices of red Thai chile, soy sauce, and pepper, and a frothy glass of black tea and sweetened condensed milk. Total heaven--East meets West in the most beautiful, organic way. Oh, and then there are the satays of Java: shrimp, beef, goat, chicken.... Yes, I am the cook in the family. And it's true: I don't make rendang on weeknights. But I do make it on weekends (or I make, say, a nice Javanese chicken curry or a Malaysian-style beef or fish stew) and parcel the leftovers out through the week. To go along with it, I'll make up a fresh batch of steamed rice every night along with quickly stir-fried Asian greens, like bok choy or choy sum (easy to find at Asian markets), with some garlic and a pinch of salt. If I don't have a nice main dish already prepared, often--very often--I'll just have the rice and greens and fry an egg until it's crispy around the edges. The combination of the three--especially the way the egg oozes deliciously into the greens--is brilliant. And the meal takes scarily little time or effort to assemble.
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