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Comments by YACCS
Sunday, October 01, 2006

Spice Islands

The Way We Eat: The Interpreter of Curries

Published: October 1, 2006

Most people return from far-flung vacations with fleeting food cravings, but only in extreme cases are their eating habits forever changed. James Oseland is one of those cases. Twenty-four years after he went to Jakarta on summer break to visit a college pal, he still eats turmeric-tinged rice with his right hand and grinds spices the day he’s going to use them, and if he hears someone speaking Bahasa Indonesia at, say, Ikea, chances are he’ll invite him to lunch. “That kind of travel has permanent underpinnings on how you perceive the world,” he said on a recent Saturday morning as his pickup truck barreled down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway toward Elmhurst, a neighborhood in Queens that functions as his wormhole to Southeast Asia.

Granted, that vacation turned into a yearlong expatriation and sparked two dozen return visits, during which he spent most of his time cooking with people he met on the road. What has resulted is Oseland’s first book, “Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore” (Norton), which chronicles his evolution from an enchanted outsider to a serious cook gone native. And in hinging every recipe on a person or situation — a bowl of street-vendor noodles he discovered after a long trip on a rickety bus, a cabbage-ginger sauté a friend deemed too simple to share — he demystifies a cuisine and culture that are little known to many Americans.

At New York Supermarket, Oseland got smiles and stares. Who was this lanky 40-something white guy squinting behind Buddy Holly glasses to pluck out the best water-spinach leaves? Were he in Southeast Asia, he might have started a conversation with a similarly persnickety shopper and followed him home for a meal or a week. He says he believes that “the kitchen is an amazing conduit to finding out about a place.” This made him a natural for Saveur magazine, where he recently became editor. In their kitchens, “people share not just what they cook, but who they are.”

The aromatic cuisines of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia draw on indigenous, Chinese, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese and British influences that flavor dishes to varying degrees, depending on the region and household. But the satays and sweet-sour sambals most of us know from American restaurants are the Cliffs Notes version: regional and ethnic themes, like the spicy Nyonya fusion foods born of Chinese and Malay intermarriage, are often diluted, conflated or altogether absent on menus.

Sure, you can find rendang, a dry-braise technique that simmers ingredients in coconut milk until it reduces to a flavorful sludge. But personalized variations, like the lip-tingling anise-cinnamon chicken that Oseland picked up from a young cook in Kelantan, Malaysia? Good luck.

“There are so few people from that part of the world here,” Oseland explained as he shared his breakfast bowl of jackfruit and lontong rice-cake curry at Minangasli, a tiny restaurant in Elmhurst, which operated by word of mouth from the West Sumatran chef’s home for years. With its 15,000 islands, Indonesia is the fourth-most-populated country on the planet, but only about 70,000 Indonesians live in the United States, and a mere 2,700 in New York. The Malaysian community is slightly larger.

It hasn’t helped that Malaysia and Indonesia have never had a Paula Wolfert or Elizabeth David: a sharp-eyed observer who translates recipes for Americans with equal parts cultural context and watch-your-step kitchen advice. It’s a role Oseland assumes naturally. Back at the supermarket, he pointed to pale, spongy long beans that looked unhealthy compared with darker, snappier ones sitting nearby. “These tend to be, to my mind and most cooks there, the far more succulent variety,” he told me.

In college, I studied Indonesia in Southeast Asian history and have had Malaysian food in Queens, but it's hard to find outside Flushing and Flushing is a trip. But I'm sure people who actually eat this reguarly will enlighten us on it's qualities

posted by Steve @ 12:10:00 AM

12:10:00 AM

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