The Julia Child of Malaysian food

James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, talks about culinary colonialism, his love of home cooking and why Malaysian cuisine may be the next big thing.

Topics: Asia, Food,

The Julia Child of Malaysian food

Pre-made sushi and pad thai may now be making appearances on American dinner tables from coast to coast, but mention Malaysian food to your Midwestern aunt, and you’re still likely to get a raised eyebrow. James Oseland is on a mission to change that. Just as Julia Child‘s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” brought French food into the hearts and hands of American housewives 40 years ago, Oseland’s new cookbook, “Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia,” is a comprehensive and charismatic attempt to introduce Americans to a great, global cuisine.

Oseland, who recently replaced Colman Andrews at the helm of Saveur magazine, first encountered the region’s cooking in 1982 when he took a college friend up on an invitation to visit her family in Jakarta, Indonesia. Intoxicated by the cuisine’s rich layering of spices — in which nutmeg, lemongrass and tamarind frequently reside in the same dish — Oseland began to return on a nearly annual basis. Along the way, he visited old friends and made new ones, learning from local cooks, carefully gathering their recipes and stories. The result of two decades of living research, “Cradle of Flavor” pairs Oseland’s personal tales of exploration with detailed explanations of ingredients and cooking methods. Equal parts how-to manual and cultural guide, the 100-recipe volume bursts with both exotic specialties like fern curry with shrimp and some nearly all-American staples, like spiced roast chicken with potatoes.

Studiously authentic and respectful of traditional methods, Oseland’s book fills a culinary vacuum created by the relative absence of Malaysian and Indonesian immigrants on American shores. Unlike the foods of Thailand and China, which entered the U.S. through waves of immigration, the dishes in “Cradle of Flavor” have had few native cooks promoting them on American soil. But while Oseland has found himself in a de facto ambassadorial role as a result, he’s not looking to simply spark a trend. He leaves that, instead, to star chefs like New York’s Zak Pelaccio — whose Malaysian restaurant, Fatty Crab, has been crammed since opening in 2005 — and to the Malaysian government, which in mid-November announced an initiative to promote its native cuisine by establishing 8,000 restaurants abroad by 2015. Instead, Oseland is betting that a cuisine’s true staying power in the American melting pot will be measured by its presence on kitchen tables — and it’s there that he hopes to make his mark.

Salon recently stole in on one of Oseland’s cooking classes — and pre-class shopping trip — at Manhattan’s Institute for Culinary Education to get his take on the trouble with idolizing restaurant chefs and why the tastes of Malaysia aren’t so foreign after all.

You spent five years writing this book, which gives an overview of more than two decades of traveling and eating. Why spend all that time and energy to bring a relatively obscure cuisine into the American lexicon?

When I started the book, Indonesia — if it was known at all — had become kind of a dirty word thanks to CNN sound bites about global terrorism. And that was so contrary to the place that I knew — the warm wonderful place wasn’t represented at all. So I thought, “OK, I’m going to give people something different.”

The food in the book is the food that transformed my palate. I came from a basic meat-and-potatoes, chicken-pot-pie background and so finding this world of taste beyond what I knew was an astonishment. It was also a great entry point into understanding a place that was at times overwhelming and elusive for me.

It’s a region of the world that was subject to centuries of colonialism. Do you think that history influences the cuisine?

Yes, although I tend to think that, because those transactions go on for so many thousands of years, we look for easy stories, like “the Indians influenced the Javanese.” That seems a bit oversimplified. What if the reverse is happening? I’ve heard people say, “Vietnamese cuisine is so wonderful because the French were there.” And that’s actually kind of patently offensive. Basically there is French bread in the banh ml, those Vietnamese sandwiches, but that’s about it.

So, it’s just so flagrantly off. It’s a Eurocentric vision of the world — which is actually something I’m trying to shake up at Saveur, too. Italy and France are great, but they’re not the be all, end all.

You focus a lot on home cooking, too. Why?

I think that in the part of the world that I’m dealing with, cooking reaches its apogee, its highest point, in the home. In a way, even the more famous street foods of the region — the celebrated satays and the glorious noodles — are made in stalls that are just a small outdoor extension of someone’s home. So I just wanted to reflect that kind of relaxed, soulful idea.

A slow pace, a relaxed cooking style — that’s not how most Americans interact with food.

In the West a lot of times our model is about expediency first and foremost — perhaps because of our growing dislocation to cooking and the convenience foods we were raised on. But there has also been an encroachment of an idea that restaurant cooking is the top of the top. It’s what we strive for but, heck, we’re probably never going to be able to realize it; after all, we all haven’t spent two years at Culinary Institute of America.

I tend to think cooking at its highest is an expression of home and of family and its bonds. And I suspect that’s one of the reasons that Malaysia produces such miraculous and pure cooking. It’s chilled out. People connect to what they eat in as fun and relaxed a fashion as possible, and it ultimately tastes better.

What sets Malaysian food apart from other Asian cuisines?

I think probably the vigorousness of its flavors, the intensity, and the immediacy of the flavors involved. Cooks there have a wonderful way of layering on spice on top of spice on top of heat on top of sweet on top of sour on top of savory.

I adore a really good French sauce as much as the next person, but I think a lot of times in the West we conceive of flavor as this very fragile, poetic thing — and it’s almost a kind of miracle when we can sense the faintest essence of sage that once passed through a stock. At that point taste becomes an intellectual conceit more than a sensory one. So there’s something about the bold taste of Malaysian food that’s just immediately and passionately accessible.

How do Malaysian flavors blend into the American palate?

I’ve traveled extensively throughout Asia, especially Southeast Asia, and actually a lot of the common ingredients of the region are fundamentally American favorites: nutmeg, cinnamon, which is in fact cassia, and ginger, for example. And though certainly not deep and old in the American taste vernacular, there’s also lemongrass, lime leaves and coconut milk, which are just immensely approachable tastes. I couldn’t break that down into hard science, but I’ve felt it and I’ve seen it in other people, too. It’s almost as though they have been etched into our genetic knowledge of flavor, our genetic palate — as if subliminally we can immediately identify with the tastes of Malaysia in ways that we can’t with those of Thailand, say, or Vietnam or even Japan or Korea.

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Malaysian food is getting a bit of press lately; the Malaysian government has launched an initiative to open restaurants abroad, and there are already a few well-known Malaysian restaurants in NYC. Is it going to be the food world’s next big thing?

Well, I certainly hope so, but I think when you’re talking about Malaysian food, you’re talking about cuisines that are ultimately the byproduct of literally thousands upon thousands of years of development and influence. One thing I just want to be careful of in my work is creating a new, hot trend. I don’t think Malaysian food is a hot new flavor, I think it’s an ancient flavor that deserves our respect. So I’m fine with someone coming to my book and only taking one directly or indirectly related aspect to it, say, simply the idea of using lemongrass to infuse a certain dish. It might be a Western dish.

I think that what I’m trying to give my readers in this book is as genuine, true and — dare I use that dangerous word — authentic a version of this food and ultimately of this part of the world as I can. I think it’s important to really understand the roots, the underpinnings, the histories of a particular food before you can really own it. I’m all for experimentation, I’m all for shaking things up as much as possible, and I’m not saying it’s disrespectful to use ingredients if they’re not used as some old grandmother would use them in a Malaysian village. But I guess I’d like to encourage people to at least know what the Malaysian grandmother does with the dish before you make it your own.

In your introduction, you say that you left out some of your favorite recipes that contain hard-to-find ingredients — and later you make a point to incorporate tips for using modern equipment, notably the food processor. How much of a purist are you?

I definitely view myself as a purist, not as messianic, but I do think it’s about respect. Still, in my mission to expose people to these flavors, I didn’t want to wreck anyone’s Sunday trying to find foods that would be difficult or in some cases impossible to find. I talk about some of those dishes and those ingredients in the book because I think they are essential to understanding that whole spectrum of the place’s cuisines, but that’s for book No. 2.

You’re so passionate about this food, and have such a deep connection to it — do you hope to be an advocate for Indonesian/Malay cuisine the way that Julia Child was for French cooking and Marcella Hazan was for Italian?

Those are incredibly flattering comparisons, but I don’t see myself that way. I do, I guess, view myself as an interpreter. I felt a special impetus, a special fire to write this book because the place means so much to me, and has meant so much to my development as a person.

I’ve heard you talk before about your sense that Americans are becoming increasingly disassociated from their food, and from cooking in particular. Can you explain that a bit more?

It does worry me, honestly, just as an American. I think maybe generationally, we’re losing mothers and grandmothers who teach us even simple things — like how to scramble eggs or make our favorite pancakes. Instead we’ve grown dependent on opening a package of Bisquick or just going down to the I-Hop. In my cooking classes, over and over again, I see who has an inherent, nascent fear of even turning on the gas to boil water. It is an insecurity — people think, “I don’t know how to cook, I don’t know how to do that” — and it’s something that does get reinforced when restaurant cooking is seen as the ideal. We don’t aspire to make the amazing beef stew our great grandmother cooked on the farm in Indiana anymore, we focus on a very difficult dish that Gordon Ramsay is ranting about on TV.

Maybe it sounds too histrionic, but I think that there is a kind of danger in that. I will do anything I can to encourage people to find the real joy of cooking — you know, that was the title of our greatest American food book and it is not so far off after all. It takes so little! I want to gently try to encourage people to smell, touch, taste. Cooking can be an amazingly settling, powerful act. And then of course there’s the great benefit of being able to eat afterward, too.

Do you think the American palate is evolving to be increasingly appreciative of exotic flavors?

When I grew up in California, it was pretty Asian — and now I go back there and its even more so. In Stockton, Calif., south of Sacramento, they have a farmers market there Saturday mornings. On good days in the summer there can be upward of 9,000 people coming to the market, and it is essentially 90 percent Asian. So instead of piles of heirloom tomatoes and arugula, there are piles of lemongrass and bitter melons and fresh chilies. Twenty years ago, even, finding that produce would have been impossible — but I think there is truly a seismic shift happening in the way we as Americans see food because of who we now are ethnographically and I think that’s a fantastic thing.

You became editor in chief at Saveur a few months ago, replacing Colman Andrews. How did that come about?

My first piece in Saveur was published in 1999, and pretty immediately, I knew that it was the magazine for me. That sounds cultlike but it really is true; it was a natural and organic fit. Over time, I played with the idea of going on staff, but my itchy feet prevailed, and instead I went on walkabout journeys for a couple of years to Southeast Asia and to India, mainly. Then last fall I was approached about coming on as executive editor, and decided the time was right. I had literally just finished up the book, just gone over the copy editors’ final notations, and it seemed like the perfect thing to do. When Colman Andrews, who was editor in chief since about 2001, decided he was ready to move on, he asked me if I was interested in taking over. I said yes, and here I am. And loving it.

What sort of role would you like the magazine to play in the food world right now?

To celebrate as warmly and joyously who we are as eaters of food: That was our role in the past, that is our role now, and it will be our role into the future. With all due respect, America’s other food magazines tend to get caught up in trends and hot young chefs, and snazzy new ingredients from exotic parts of the world. And I think that Saveur’s approach since its inception has been to instead embrace what’s old and timeless and rich and soulful. I think ultimately readers respond so intensely to the magazine because it’s for all of us, every last one of us, not just the elite few who can afford to eat at that fancy foam restaurant in Chicago. We try to balance that, not cast aspersions on any of it, but just respect it all equally. We respect the White Castle hamburger as much as the creations of Ferran Adria.

You’re planning on sending a writer to Beirut. Why now?

Some other publication might be adverse to covering Beirut now, because of the conflict going on there, but to my knowledge, and from the contact I’ve had with people in Beirut, I can say that life goes on there. The same wonderful people live there, and are making some of the best food on the planet, and I think it’s important to write about that, especially now, when the rest of us are thinking, “Ooh, that’s where they breed terrorists!” It’s about celebrating an extraordinary place full of great people and great food and to not let those CNN sound bites make us afraid of them. I want to connect the world, not disconnect it.

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