Cookbook of the week: “Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai and Lao Roots” by James Syhabout with John Birdsall (Ecco, $39.99)
Most chefs with Michelin-starred restaurants, plus a classical training and the résumé to go with it, would pour all that fancy stuff into their debut cookbook. Glossy cover. Art house photography of white tablecloth dishes and, well, tablecloths. Anecdotes from world-class kitchens. Recipes one’s from own world-class kitchen. Not James Syhabout, whose restaurant Commis is the only restaurant in Oakland, Calif., with a Michelin star and who is a veteran of Manresa, the Fat Duck, Coi, Mugaritz and El Bulli — a heady list of some of the best restaurants in the world.
Rather Syhabout’s first cookbook, “Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai and Lao Roots,” published recently by Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at Harper Collins’ Ecco, is a tribute to his culinary heritage and his other restaurant — a casual street food joint called, you guessed it, Hawker Fare. The 98 recipes within the book trace to the food Syhabout grew up with: His family came to Oakland from the Isan region of northeast Thailand as refugees in 1981, when Syhabout was 2. The food that the chef highlights is thus Isan Thai and Lao, his parents’ culture. As the chef writes in his introduction, “Lao food tends to be focused inward; it’s far less public than Thai food. You rarely eat in restaurants in Laos — if you’re not eating at home, you’re slurping noodles on the street.”
So we have a remarkable catalog of the food from that home and those streets, and a deeply personal chronicle of Syhabout’s past and present culinary journey. He brings it all: his Oakland childhood, the struggles of his refugee parents, his professional trajectory from his mother’s restaurant kitchen to haute cuisine palaces back to the eventual kitchens of his own restaurants, and all the heat and spice and doubt and drive along the way.
The writing here is as expert as the recipes, as Syhabout’s writing partner is John Birdsall, the two-time James Beard Award-winning, Oakland-based food writer. The photography is pretty great too: not only colorful, playful shots of the dishes (rice vermicelli in chicken-coconut curry broth with pork blood; fried eggplant and mackerel with acacia-leaf omelet and grilled shrimp paste dip), but also of the chef on the streets and fields of Thailand, as well as the cooks, vendors, farmers — and Buddhist monks — who are all part of the story. (For more street cred to pair with the street food: Anthony Bourdain wrote the preface, Roy Choi wrote the foreword.)
Syhabout’s book is fun, fascinating and very timely. Consider the themes that flavor both the stories and the recipes: immigration, cultural identity, the economics of high- and low-end dining, authenticity. As Syhabout writes: “Authenticity turned out to be a unicorn: cool to think about but just try tracking one down. What makes food delicious is a whole range of nuances, adjusted to each cook’s taste. They’re all just as good. That’s the trippy part.” And something for the rest of us to think about over a bowl of Syhabout’s glorious rice congee.
RICE CONGEE WITH PORK MEATBALLS AND FRIED GARLIC OIL (KHAO DTOM MOO SUUP)
About 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling times. Serves 6 to 8.
FRIED GARLIC OIL
1/2 cup (120 grams) minced garlic, about 2 heads
1 cup (205 grams) canola oil
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the garlic and oil and stir to mix. Set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic turns golden brown. Transfer immediately to a mixing bowl to stop the cooking. When the oil is cooled, transfer to a jar or other airtight container. The oil keeps at room temperature for up to 3 weeks; longer if you refrigerate it.
FRIED CHILE OIL
2 ounces (56 g) dried red Thai chiles
2 ounces (56 g) dried puya chiles
6 garlic cloves
Using a coffee grinder reserved for spices, grind both kinds of dried chiles to a medium-fine powder. In a small saucepan, combine the chiles, garlic, oil and salt over medium heat. Slowly fry the chiles and garlic until fragrant. The chiles will start to turn dark red as the garlic toasts to a tan hue. Remove the pan from heat and cool to room temperature. Store the chile oil in an airtight jar at room temperature.
RICE CONGEE WITH PORK MEATBALLS AND FRIED GARLIC OIL
5 ounces (141 g) coarsely ground pork
1 tablespoon (12 g) seasoning sauce, preferably Gold Mountain brand, plus extra to serve as a condiment
1/2 teaspoon (2 g) MSG (optional)
Pinch of ground white pepper
1 teaspoon (4 g) kosher salt
3 tablespoons (6 g) finely sliced scallions
1 quart (946 g) water
Three 1/8-inch slices fresh ginger (12 grams)
1/2 cup (115 g) raw jasmine rice
1 tablespoon (12 g) fish sauce, plus extra to serve as a condiment
Roughly chopped cilantro, for garnish
Fried Garlic Oil, for garnish
Lime wedges, to serve as a condiment
Prik phong, to serve as a condiment
Fried Chile Oil, to serve as a condiment
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the ground pork, seasoning sauce, MSG, white pepper, salt and 3 tablespoons scallions, kneading to incorporate. Set aside.
2. In a medium soup pot, combine the water and ginger slices and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water is at a rolling boil, add the jasmine rice and lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. After 20 minutes of simmering, add the pork mixture in teaspoon-size pieces. Simmer the porridge for another 15 minutes, then add the 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.
3. Dish the porridge into small serving bowls and garnish with chopped cilantro, scallions and Fried Garlic Oil. Serve with condiments on the table.
Each of 8 servings: 189 calories, 4 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 0 g sugar, 366 mg sodium
Note: Adapted from a recipe in “Hawker Fare” by James Syhabout. He writes, “You can make congee from leftover cooked jasmine rice, though the final consistency will be a bit thinner. Reduce the amount of water and cooking time.” He also writes that prik phong translates to chile powder, and that “in this book it refers to whole puya chiles toasted in a dry pan over low heat until they’re dark and brittle (but not burned), tossing often to make sure they toast evenly. Cool and grind them.”
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