"Hot Sour Salty Sweet"
by Michelle Auerbach Brode
he summer is over. School has started. Once again I am anchored to the mother's workaday life. Wake up, feed the kids, wash the kids, get the beloved kids of school age out the door and into the car less than ten minutes late and into school with a minimum of temper tantrums and a hat. Then entertain other children with dishwashing and the like until pick-up time. Cook. This was a very good day, I might add.
My mind is still wandering to all the places we could have gone this summer within a six hour drive of our house. I am reluctant to give up the fantasy of me and the kids piling in and out of the car along I-70 on our way somewhere fabulous where all will be entertained. My kids just reminded me at breakfast of the hotel room we rented for the four of us in Aspen, Colorado. I called the Aspen Resort Accommodations and said I need a cheap room with no bugs. This was important to me as my husband points out my idea of camping used to be not staying at a four star hotel. (Colorado has changed me. I swear.) Anyhow, I still have a bit of anxiety about bugs. I lived in New York for a very long time. Bad bugs live there.
"No bugs?" The woman repeated. "This is Aspen. We do not allow bugs." She found me a truly cheap room which proved to me that Tinkerbell exists. The kids are still talking about it. It looked to me like a camp bunk with indoor-outdoor carpeting thrown in. It was clean and had no bugs. There was a bunk bed smack up against a king sized bed. That was the room. As a truly good mother I figured this was the time to teach the kids to jump off the top of a top bunk. There was nowhere else to land but on the king sized bed. It was impossible to get hurt. High adventure for the Auerbach Brode family. So we are still discussing it as fall descends on us from high up in the mountains.
I want to travel. I want to be Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. This is my current fantasy life. (Oh and climbing Everest. I am figuring that no bugs can live at that altitude. They are never mentioned in the litany of traumas of Himalayan high altitude climbing.) Who, you may be wondering are Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid? None other than the authors of Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. These guys and their two kids Dominic and Tashi actually travel. To places with bugs. They have a stock photo agency called Asia Access and they travel Asia taking pictures and asking for recipes. I am impressed with the whole idea. I am jealous. I am thrilled for them. Especially the kids. I had never eaten curry before I landed in New York at eighteen. Never ate Thai food until much later. Malaysian? Who knows.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid are my heroes. They have published three amazingly delicious cookbooks, each one more visually beautiful than the last, and they write well and they take stunning pictures and they have integrated their children into the whole process. I can get to Aspen. They traveled the Mekong River from Yunnan in southern China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam--with Dominic and Tashi. "Hot Sour Salty Sweet" is the record of this journey, and they bring you along. Little stories about trading pants with a man who spoke no English, recipes from markets, homes, and restaurants, and photos I absolutely cannot describe in words.
Let's stick to the food, which I am now cooking all the time. I did have to go to the local Asian grocery for a few ingredients. That being said it is all pretty easy. There are noodle dishes kids will eat. This is a plus. Imagine yourself at a "restaurant outside of Saigon" as you are "setting off on a long trip by car to Northern Viet Nam" as the authors were and you are eating Hearty Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup which is just a fancy name for Pho, the traditional soup of Viet Nam (that means noodle soup). Like Campbell's but infinitely better. Or Ginger Chicken Noodle Soup that the authors call "easy to prepare and always a big hit."
Other kid-friendly food includes Eggs Scrambled with Tomato and Hui Honey-Filled Flatbreads. Those are a bit more work but they can sell a mostly grown-up dinner to the heels-dug-in pickiest kid on earth. (We know her. This is not false advertising.) Check out the whole Snacks and Street Food section. I have never met a kid who resists for long when plied with stuff rolled in other stuff or anything you can dip.
Grown-ups and kids with wide palates will dance through the rest of the book alighting on every recipe saying "Oh, let's make that!" I stopped putting sticky notes on the recipes I wanted to try within two minutes. No point. Flip it open and let the fates decide. Easy recipes include stuff like Stir-Fried Cabbage with Dried Chiles and Ginger and Rice Paper Roll-Ups with Shrimp and Herbs. All the vegetable dishes are relatively easy and include a lot of familiar ingredients. "Hot Sour Salty Sweet" graduates to tough stuff involving sauces and steps that would take more than one grown up more time than I have to prepare dinner, and I admit to not trying them. As I have never had an off recipe in any of Alford and Duguid's three cookbooks, go ahead and try the stuff that looks good to me but I couldn't do. Steamed Pork Dumplings and Classic Vietnamese Spring Rolls for instance. Or any of the curries for which you make your own curry paste.
As the days grow shorter and the nights longer warm spicy food is a way of drawing warmth into our bodies and adventure into our lives. This would be a good season to follow the adventures of the Alford Duguid family down the fantastically far away Mekong river and fantasize about all the family adventures you could take when your time is freer and you can once again go anywhere that is less than six hours away by car.
Michelle Auerbach Brode was a professional chef. Now she is much happier cooking at home for her family and talking about food incessantly. If you need to talk to her about food or anything else she can be reached at Michelle.Brode@pobox.com.