Cookbook author finds the magic in vegetables

By Mike Peters(China Daily)
Updated: 2017-04-25 08:00:01

Patricia Tanumihardja brings Asian cuisines' traditions to California where she has run a farmer's market. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When she moved from Singapore to Seattle for college, Patricia Tanumihardja says, she was "shocked to learn that many of the fresh fruits and vegetables I had taken for granted back home were hard to come by."

Singapore is a tropical island that imports most of its food, so many of the same items were available year-round. In Seattle, many things were available only at certain times of the year. Quickly entranced by the "farm-to-table" movement, she eventually even ran a farmer's market in Pacific Grove, California.

However, the eating mindset of her native Asia stuck with her.

"One-pot meals like nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and mee soto (noodles in turmeric-spiced broth) featured rice or noodles studded with tiny bits of meat and showered with fresh vegetables, herbs, spices and chiles. This is a perfect example of the peripheral role meat plays in the average Asian diet."

That works, she says, because Asian cuisines have a way with vegetables, often mingling contrary flavors to play with the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

Patricia Tanumihardja. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"If you've had a bowl of tom yum soup or a plate of sweet-sour pork," she says, "you'll agree that Asian cooks are masters at balancing these tastes."

For example, she adds, "Harmonizing the contrasting flavors of ingredients like palm sugar (sweet), soy sauce (salty), tamarind juice (sour) and chili paste (spicy) elevates a vegetable dish from ordinary to oh-so-delicious."

Another tip: Oils infused with garlic, onion and chili add a whole new dimension to a vegetable dish. Subtle gems in the book include how to make roasted veggie stock, healthier eggplant "meatballs" (bake them instead of frying), and lots of do-ahead tips.

Of Chinese descent, Tanumihardja was born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, so her embrace of East and Southeast Asian dishes is wide and eager. She's traveled in Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Thailand and the Philippines to explore the cuisines of those countries. Research for her previous book, The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook, gave her the opportunity to learn first-hand from the bearers of those food cultures.

The author's real pleasure at engaging with local farmers wherever she goes shines through in the new book. Meanwhile, the treasure trove of recipes-organized by seasonal availability will make it easy to get lost in the joy of vegetables.

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