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Cookbook review: The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

If you aren't blessed with an Asian grandmother, this cookbook will guide you through the steps to make an authentic Asian dish without having to travel across the globe. 

By Monitor Contributor / August 17, 2012

Filipino pancit, like Korean japchae, is a favorite at potlucks. Both dishes feed many, are tasty even at room temperature, and are well-loved by all and featured in 'The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook' by Patricia Tanumihardja.

Sasquatch Books


There's a reason I go out to eat Asian food: I don't have a wok, the ingredients, or the time.

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Josephine is the Christian Science Monitor Weekly intern. Online, she contributes to the Books, Culture, and Business sections. 

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Not only does Asian cuisine require those three things, but you also need someone watching over your shoulder who knows what to do. That's where The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook by Patricia Tanumihardja comes in handy (available in paperback from Sasquatch Books on Aug. 21). In her book, Tanumihardja offers a straightforward approach to cooking elaborate recipes and outlines the ingredients, process, and preparation needed for each. 

Tanumihardja didn't just want to write any ordinary how-to cookbook. She wanted to go straight to the source of Asian cuisine: the grandmother. She claims, “All grandmothers are the keepers of culture and the culinary flame,” and thus proceeds to seek out grandmothers, mothers, and other "goddesses of the kitchen" to record their unique recipes, often only passed down orally. Each recipe has detailed instructions so that even the novice can take a crack at it. The cookbook also includes profiles of the women behind the recipes, some of whom have fascinating stories to tell.

“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” includes a myriad of dishes ranging from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino, and everything in between. Additionally, the dishes allow for a lot of experimentation – if you don't like a certain ingredient or if a certain sauce is too hard to find, you can easily replace it with other seasonings. If you're worried about hard-to-find ingredients, fret not. You can find most of the items at your local Chinatown or Korea Mart, and even grocery stores like Whole Foods have many of the foreign ingredients you will need. 

The best feature of the cookbook is an entire glossary of the Asian cabinet with descriptions of each type of item you might find in it, including all variations of noodles, rice, and sauces. It also explains the different processes of Asian cooking, such as steaming, deep-frying, and stir-frying and the different kitchen implements needed and substitutes you can use. The outlining is essential if you've never thought of cooking Asian food on your own, and proved extremely helpful when I tried two of the book's recipes. 

Here's the account of my attempt to make japchae (or chapchae), a mixture of glass noodles and vegetables including carrots, onions, and mushrooms, usually served as a side dish in Korea. Some background is needed: 

I've never cooked anything very Asian apart from a simple stir-fry, and never thought I'd have a reason to with dozens of options outside my door. But when my family's favorite Korean restaurant went out of business, there was nowhere else to find the same authentic Korean cuisine. Sure, there were plenty of Japanese-Korean-Chinese fusions that offered similar dishes, but they just weren’t the same.

Japchae was one dish that I would always order and which I could not find at any other Asian restaurant. I am absolutely in love with this dish, and missed it so badly that when I traveled to South Korea with three of my friends I was eager to taste it again.

During my time in Korea, we visited the island of Jeju off the southern coast of South Korea. The island is known for its touring honeymoon couples who wear matching shirts as they explore its famous dormant volcano and other natural wonders. My Korean friend's grandparents kindly hosted us while we were there, and every morning we would awake to a full Korean breakfast, featuring mouth-firing kimchi, purple sticky rice, pork with onions, and several other dishes. I couldn't speak to YoungSun Kim, my friend's grandmother, who spent hours preparing each meal, but I was able to utter an abundance of badly pronounced kamsahamnidas (thank yous).


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