12 May 2013

Rosemary Brissenden - South East Asian Food ~ Cookbook and food writing

A chance find by Alison in a stack of free books leads to a great rediscovery.

Being a mad devourer of books, I have a book collecting problem that seems to go along with the territory. Having a partner that sells books for a living makes it even worse. So walking past a pile of books with a ‘Free’ sign on them is a red rag to a book hoarder bull.

Looking through the stack becomes a challenge. Searching through once, twice, scanning titles and pulling out possibilities. There seems to be no luck this time finding something good until spied is a book tucked away into a far corner with a Penguin logo on the side. A good sign, there's a few others in our collection that look like this.

The typeface below the logo reads Rosemary Brissenden ‘South East Asian Food’. This looks really good. I'm in a hurry so I tuck the book into my bag and head off for my lunch date with myself. I'm happy to have something to read while I eat, the saviour of single diners everywhere.

So while munching on my katsu don and curry I begin to read the blurb on the back cover and inside description. The author it turns out is an Australian, but the book has a distinct British bias. Published in 1969, I imagine the kitchens of the early seventies and how home cooks were spreading their wings. I start getting quite excited to find an author who has studied the region since the 1950's, written one of the first books on South East Asian food and who rarely gets a mention in the food writers pantheon. I needed to find out more.

Rosemary Brissenden had an early introduction to Asian food through study tours to Indonesia, learning cooking from the families she was billeted with. Back home in Australia, she learnt from international students at Melbourne University. Later her research in Asian politics and international relations continued her interest in the food of the region, and she collected recipes during field trips and learnt again from colleagues at ANU in Canberra. Her skills as a researcher are revealed via a comprehensive and detailed collection of ingredient descriptions (without shying too far away from substitutions); a glossary covering ingredients and their common name in English, Indonesian, Malay, Indian, Hindustani, Tamil, Cantonese and Thai; food customs and historical and social context; sample menus and finally the recipes. There are no photographs in the book, as in the style of many publications of the time, but like Elizabeth David’s work (an acknowledged influence) there’s no need.

Brissenden introduces the book with an overview of how food in the South East Asian area shares common ingredients, based on a common structure and culture:
“In spite of all outside influences, South East Asian societies and cultures have uniformly maintained a basic structure of their own; they have assimilated what has been useful from abroad without being swamped by the notions of others…The food of the area fits very neatly into this picture. The countries which have been placed in the region by experts in geography, history and the social sciences turn out to be identifiable in much the same way by the student of cookery”. Think of this next time you see a bit of Thai on a Malaysian menu and moan ‘It’s not authentic!’

There are large sections for each of the areas, combining Malaysian and Singaporean together and setting off the interesting debate on food origins. Read quote above again and move on. The Malaysian and Singapore chapter also includes Chinese and Indian dishes common to both nations which you might find if you wander down Bukit Bintang or in Little India. The food of Java and Sumatra is mostly explored in the Indonesian chapter. The Thai section is the smallest of the three chapters, but still provides a comprehensive overview.

There are some telling differences a few decades of changing food culture have made. A small list of Chinese grocery stores in London is no longer necessary today, instructions on how to make your own coconut milk, replacing fresh coriander with parsley is recommended as for many foreigners “coriander leaf has a decidedly unpleasant taste”, the use of MSG (a discontinued practice influenced by the unproven ‘Chinese Restaurant syndrome’, cue negative comments now) and whether a frying or roasting chicken is better for curries. Most home cooks would now be more likely to have a bottle of Chinese cooking wine in the cupboard than a bottle of sherry in the parlour and a mortar and pestle is more than just a decorative kitchen accessory. The differences in how food writing has changed is also a contrast, with the rise of photo heavy blogs and reliance on instructional videos making this book almost unreadable for some.

Despite the changing style of food writing, the book still stands as an excellent guide to food of the region. Brissenden mentions in interviews that many of these recipes are being lost due to the changing nature of work and women’s role in the home, so it serves as a reference to traditional dishes perhaps now lost. The increase in western influence (through the rise of the internet, tourism in both directions and trade) would also be changing the way food is prepared and a shift away from traditional foods to a perceived ‘modern’ style of eating further casts tradition adrift. I can’t help but wonder how much someone would learn from an international student of today who has grown up with Starbucks, McD's and KFC.

Rosemary Brissenden deserves to be referenced and remembered for her contribution to food writing and research in the same way Naomi Duguid, David Thompson and Fuschia Dunlop are feted. She was featured as part of an exhibition on extraordinary people in food and wine at the National Portrait Gallery alongside Charmain Solomon, one of my first Asian food stars. The book has been re released by Hardie Grant with additional sections on Vietnam and Cambodia, countries inaccessible to Brissenden at the time of the original publication. It is not readily available on shelves dominated by the glossy tomes of TV chefs as fluffy and air filled as a Chinese pork bun but you should be able to find it online. Or find it at your local free book stack and relish.

For more, read through this interview with Rosemary by Carli Ratcliff, including links to recipes from the latest edition of the book. 


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).