Bibliobites in May: Ish the Third

It’s official: “-ish” is now a trend in the cookbook world.  It’s a positive trend overall, acknowledging that while we may not be discussing or producing something totally authentic (for one or multiple reasons), it’s close enough to (literally) give you the flavor of a particular cuisine.  And as the title of this post implies, this is not our first go-round with an ish-ful  book.  In March 2020 we reviewed Indian-ish and in May 2023 we explored Jew-ish;  and this month our group tackled Chinese-ish by Rosheen Kaul and Joanna Hu.  Both authors are ethnic Asians who grew up in Australia; their backgrounds encompass India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.  It’s quite the cultural mashup, and and the recipes in this book reflect that; they’re mostly Chinese-inspired with various twists, be they Australian or Asian.

Most of the dishes in this book reflect a style (the “ish” part again) that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans.  You won’t find any recipes for kung pao chicken or lo mein in this book!   To further complicate matters, some of the ingredients proved tricky to find, and the authors sometimes used food terms that aren’t common in the US.  But once we’d decided what to cook, procured our various sauces and condiments, and translated Australian food names, how did it go in the kitchen?

Vegetables are featured prominently in this title, and we happily dove in, with some mixed results.  Among the hits were the classic smashed cucumber salad; this version was spicier than many with a bit too much garlic, but “loved the sesame oil!”  Despite the fact that the cucumbers are pounded into submission, this salad stayed nicely crunchy in the fridge for a few days.  Sichuan tiger-skin peppers were a yummy version of roasted peppers, with a mellow dressing of soy sauce and black vinegar.  These also kept well, and were a welcome addition to many other dishes.  Two people tried stir-fried seasonal vegetables; this recipe was more about the technique than the particular ingredients. The veggies were tasty with their garnish of sesame oil, and the steam/stir-fry method worked well enough that “I might try again.”  On the downside, three earthly treasures had “so many steps” and was “lots of work.”  This combo of eggplant, potato, and peppers sounded promising, and did taste good, but used much more oil than our cooks deemed desirable.

Noodle dishes also had a prominent role in the book, and we made several of those.  Burnt scallion oil noodles had “nice flavor;” though the scallions were either too burnt or just right, depending on who you talked to!  The recipe states that it serves one, but with a third cup of oil and 5 1/2 ounces of noodles, it would be a very hearty serving.  Classic dan dan mian was more successful; both cooks who made it would make it again.  The marinated pork was zippy and savory with ginger and white pepper, and the noodle sauce was equally addictive with its notes of soy, tahini, sesame, and garlic.  A generous drizzle of chile oil put it deliciously over the top.  Chongqing hot and sour noodles also hit the spot; the spicy and sour flavors were well balanced, and the whole dish was perfect “comfort food.”  On the other hand, crispy rice vermicelli pancake didn’t make the grade.  There wasn’t enough egg to properly bind the noodles and it just “didn’t really taste like anything.”  Two cooks made creamy tofu noodles with soy-vinegar dressing, and it definitely didn’t appeal to either.  It was a “gray blob” with “way too much tofu” for the quantity of noodles.  The flavor was “OK” with a “nice spice level” but the “gloppy” texture was not a hit!

Other mains we tried included mom’s braised ginger chicken, which four people made.  This was a “good,” if not stellar choice.  Despite a healthy amount of ginger, the overall flavor was pretty mild.  But it was a pleasant comfort food, and aged well in the fridge.  Sichuan pepper chicken with fried basil was a more boldly-flavored choice, but it was still “nothing special.”  It did need more basil than our cook had available; this is a summer dish for sure!  Familiar vegetable fried rice was unfortunately “boring.”  There weren’t quite enough veggies in it for our cook, and the recipe called for 2 teaspoons of salt, quite a bit for only 3 cups of cooked rice.  Like the stir-fry vegetables, this recipe was more about learning the technique, so once mastered you could adapt to your own taste.  Stir-fried tomato and egg was described in the recipe headnote as “as traditional as it gets,” though it’s basically scrambled eggs with tomato and scallions, which didn’t seem particularly Asian.  The recipe did feature a great way to scramble the eggs: heat oil in the pan until smoking hot, add eggs and turn off the burner.  The residual heat cooks the eggs quickly yet gently.  This works best if you have a pan that retains heat well, and prefer your eggs on the looser side!

Asian cuisine isn’t noted for baking or desserts, so we only made one; but it was a keeper: mango pudding was smooth, fruity and refreshing.  It did contain some dairy but wasn’t heavy, and made a cooling end to a spicy meal.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a super-successful title for us.  It was a good introduction to a very different style of Asian food, but most of the recipes just didn’t call to us and/or didn’t turn out as we hoped.  Sourcing some ingredients turned out to be time-consuming, and learning a new way of approaching Chinese-ish food could at times be frustrating.  It was a new world, and maybe that’s the point!  The book is clearly a passion project for the authors, and an affectionate look at their own Chinese-ish heritages.  There are lovely, heartfelt essays about the authors’ experiences growing up as the children of immigrants, and the eventual melding of all the disparate elements in their culinary lives.  The book showcases author Hu’s illustrations as well as the standard photos, which made for a different and charming reading experience.  But, despite all these plusses, we didn’t really enjoy the cooking experience, and this was reflected in our voting: we averaged a 1.77 (out of a possible 5).  Ouch!

Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, June 28 at 11 AM.  This will be our last meeting until September, so we’ll meet in the McCarthy Meeting Room for conversation and a potluck!  We’ll be discussing Boards and Spreads by Yasmin Fahr.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  See you there!