If a cookbook only has pretty pictures and recipes, that's okay. I might oo and ah while I flick through it, sticky-note some of the pages with recipes that match my food pangs and get it out again from time to time. It may not be of much further interest, even accounting for the ardent appreciation I have for nearly all things food. I guess what I'm saying is that these kinds of recipe books are a dime a dozen.
But what if the recipe book truly captured the essence of the cuisine's physical place? If it piqued something either nostalgic or yearning in you, in its depiction of that place. If it symbolised in its images your place; a place of plastic stools and tables, of crooked fragile doorways and cracking colonial facades, of bare winter branches, of tireless women with sweat on their brows, of magical market scenes. What if the book was designed with an aesthetic that reflects your experience in that place, with the geometric floor tiles of your abode recreated to edge its pages, with the retro motifs from the plastic tablecloths of your thousand street food meals lifted and superimposed.
How about if the cookbook subtly teaches you something; of the origins of this style of streetside dining, that they relate to the country's wars, changes in its work practices and economic reform. Teaches you something about the society, that "life (there) happens on the streets" and that to survive there, one must have a solid grasp of "the politics of the pavement". Teaches you something about the country's agriculture sector, that the "millions of paddies not only produce the country's staple, rice, but have always been a rich source of protein, providing eels, crabs, snails and frogs".
And what if you see people you know smiling at you from the pages of the cookbook, their lifestyles and wares laid bare. And you can relate to their stories of hardship and know them to be true. And you've sat in their midst and watched them craft their buns or dumplings or clumps of sticky rice. You've heard their voices and seen them flustered and terse or silly with the giggles. You deal with them and their type, daily.
Then, when you turn to the recipes in the book, two realisations occur. First, you have the wherewithal to create these dishes. The wet market, which carries the aromatics of the cuisine's chopping board, the green sprigs the cuisine is famous for, all the animal bits and noodles and rice in all required forms, is just up the street. Second, you've been coached without knowing it, in the finer points of many dishes' preparation and assembly. For ten years, you've witnessed the flash-dunking of noodles, the scissoring of hot chillies, the fanning of the fire.
You can cook these dishes.
In all of the traditional ways: by rolling - a combination of Chinese sausage, jicama and omelette in rice paper for a dunking in a rich hoisin dipping sauce; by grilling - Hanoi's barbeque lunch dish, bun cha, thinly cut bork belly and pork patties, marinated in fish sauce, shallots and sugar, served with noodles and herbs; by boiling - a gingery rice porridge of duck, spring onions and Asian basil; by frying - salt 'n' pepper squid in a coating of chilli, garlic and shallots.
And you can marvel and wonder about the details of preparing others. Marvel at the sense of smell required to choose a rice grain "with a good perfume" or the ability to tie several ingredients together in a spring roll with lettuce and a blanched spring onion bow. Wonder what it might feel like to "peel the thick skin from a pig's tongue". More pleasantly, wonder at the rich taste of black sesame seed and peanut soup on a spoon in your mouth.
Then consider your embarrassment of riches - cook the dishes you want to cook from this book and have the other ones on the street, in your neighbourhood, in your adopted home. Better still, invite the writers of the book and the photographer, who happen to live in your town, to join you.
*thanks Michael for permission to use the images in this post