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Cookbook review

Kitchen friendly, home-cooked, and grandmother-approved

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2009

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any cook worth his or her salt probably went to school at Grandma University. Whether it’s pot-au-feu or apple pie or red-cooked pork, food cooked by a grandmother is understood to be food cooked with patience, thrift, and a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom. If you missed out sitting by your grandmother’s stove, or your family ethnicity doesn’t happen to match the food you know you were born to eat, Patricia Tanumihardja’s book goes a long way toward addressing that need.

“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking From Asian American Kitchens’’ is a pan-Asian volume that sprawls through the kitchens of half the world. The dishes are Malaysian, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and - rather extensively - Chinese. Many recipes have this in common: Afterward, I found myself exclaiming, “Now I know!’’

Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, for example, proves that sometimes it’s just one detail that makes the difference. In this case, splitting the stalks lengthwise so that they cook properly and become tender and absorbent. Water spinach with shrimp paste and chilies shows how you get the benefit from salty, stinky shrimp paste: Grind it with shallots, cook it in some oil, add greens.

Most exciting, for me, was learning to unlock the secrets of one great Southeast Asian stir-fry after another. In Thai basil pork, it’s garlic, oyster and fish sauces, and basil. For Vietnamese caramelized chicken with lemongrass and chilies, it’s heaps of minced lemongrass with garlic and cilantro cooked in an oil-suspended caramel sauce (a new technique for me). Lao chicken and herb salad explodes with every weird herb you can find in the Asian grocery - Vietnamese coriander or “rau ram,’’ sawtooth herb, galangal, kaffir lime leaf - with gritty, nutty roasted rice powder for texture. For years I’ve plunked down $8.50 so someone else can make these dishes for me. Free at last. Now I know.

Not every dish is a showstopper. It’s a little scary leaving miso-smothered salmon to marinate for three days. The long wait helps the seasoning penetrate all the way to the interior of the flesh, but I didn’t find the payoff sensational. With 1/4 cup each of oil and butter, Bengali-derived spiced chayote and peas is too rich for me even at my most decadent, even with its pungent counterbalance of mustard and fenugreek seeds. Burmese pork curry is a competent but uninspired sermon on soy and ginger, and Filipino fried noodles are rather bland.

The wide-noodle Thai dish we know as “pad see ew’’ is better. The secret is vinegar. But my fresh rice noodles disintegrated into a mush (use dried ones, and it works like a charm). I liked the fiddly little shiu mai, with their combination of black mushrooms, pork, and shrimp, but they don’t compare to the ones you can get in even a so-so dim sum parlor.

Because no grandmother’s cookbook is complete without a recipe that costs practically nothing but takes two days to make, my friend Cindy and I decided to try Shanghai soup dumplings. Pig’s feet, ham hocks, and chicken backs go into a daylong broth so naturally gelatinous it sets at room temperature. You cut the gelatin into a seasoned pork filling. After that, it’s just a matter of making dough, rolling wrappers, pleating dumplings, and steaming everything carefully so that the soup inside liquefies without leaking. It took the two of us all afternoon to finish, and we ate them in 10 minutes.

Even if you’re not a glutton for facts, this is a charming book in other respects. There are in-depth stories about 10 of the contributing grandmas. Practical, grandmotherly tips and modern-use notes from the author make nearly every recipe more user-friendly. And the serving sizes (rarely accurate in Asian cookbooks) and estimated prep times (practically never accurate in any cookbook) are actually correct. Next time you go to pick up the phone to send out for lemongrass chicken from the corner cafe, make it yourself. Now you know.

THE ASIAN GRANDMOTHERS COOKBOOK: Home Cooking From Asian American Kitchens By Patricia Tanumihardja

Sasquatch Books, 368 pp., $35