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To accompany our very competitive, NCAA-style tournament of cookbooks, we asked you—our readers!—to get in on the fun and test and review 15 cookbooks dubbed Piglet Community Picks. Read on for some of our community's reactions to Asian-American by Dale Talde and JJ Goode—and keep up with all the reviews here.
I was so excited to cook from Asian-American. As a lifelong devotee of General Tso’s chicken and wonton soup, Dale Talde’s book seemed like a glorious reason to stop apologizing for my terrible taste in takeout and be able to convincingly argue that Americanized Asian food was in fact The Next Cool New Cuisine.
It came so close.
I started by reading through Talde’s amusing introduction about his childhood and the comparisons between what he, with a Filipina mother, and his friends (Korean, Indian, and other Filipinos) ate at home. It’s a good backdrop to his cooking, which while certainly Asian-fusion, is really best described as Asian home cooking fused with classic American fast food and a healthy dose of P.F. Chang’s. Thus we have kung pao and lo mein, “phot roast” (pot roast in pho form), and fried rice modeled after egg and cheese sandwiches. His cravings for McDonalds and Popeyes make his way into the recipes, which are fatty, meaty, and very, very fried.
The writing seemingly unconsciously mimics Talde's cooking. But whereas the fusion occurs naturally in his food, at least conceptually, it is jarring in the writing.
This is frustrating because the writing is good. For instance, in a very funny passage, he credits his emergence as an Asian chef to his bosses typecasting him as an Asian chef, tasking him with tempura and dumplings, which he learns to cook on the spot.
Then there is offhand discussion of Talde's anger issues and resentment of people he thought had it easy: It is so casual at times that it ends up taking away from an otherwise pleasant, introspective narrative. I have no problem with cursing in food writing, but the slang feels forced and won’t age well as the book lives on (“not hatin, just sayin”). It’s like your dad is trying to write a hip hop song.
This disconnect with the food is exacerbated by the photos. The pictures of food are great, and a few snapshots of Talde and his family and friends during his introduction serve a worthwhile purpose, but they’re interspersed with painful Talde Looking Cool photos. T.L.C. photos are largely him and various others eating or standing around on the street, wearing cool clothes and doing cool things, sometimes draped in women in minimal clothing.
Talde suggests this is a longstanding joke, and it could very well be harmless. But I wonder how I would feel about his clear characterization of women as props if I were a woman working in one of his restaurants.
More: Listen to the Food52 Burnt Toast podcast for Talde's take on the images in his book.
All this aside, I was still excited to cook Talde’s food, largely because I love his refusal to accept that to be good, food must be “authentic.” I also appreciate Talde’s instructions on how to use the book: Buy pre-made fried chicken if you want, mess around with his recipes. It’s all in the right spirit. (Be warned, though—the shortcuts are in the preparation, not the ingredients. If you want to cook seriously from this book and you don’t do a lot of Asian cooking already, plan on a trip to your local Asian market or an online order.)
As I said, the Asian-American fusion is conceptually natural—the problems came in the execution. We started with kung pao chicken wings. It looked like a good weekend project, but I don’t know if I was prepared for how much of a Weekend Project it is. The chicken wings are marinated in yogurt before being fried twice in batter, then sautéed and coated in kung pao sauce.
Talde recommends frying the wings in 3 inches of oil, which caused them to stick terribly to the bottom of the pan unless we stood by while they cooked and kept them moving. Even so, much of the batter fell off. The kung pao sauce had very little heat and was cloyingly sweet, and the wings ended up with no crunch. It’s always possible that the lack of crispiness was my execution, of course, but our other attempts suggested greater problems.
Talde prided himself on his pretzel dumplings, dumplings cooked as pretzels, first boiled in baking soda and water and then fried. His dumpling filling was delightful—I will definitely make it again. The pretzel technique was neat, but the hard, salty crispiness of the dumpling outside overshadowed the subtle chive and pork filling, and when you dipped them into the suggested mustard tahini sauce, the filling was completely overwhelmed.
And while the bacon pad thai was incredibly easy to make, it called for so much tamarind concentrate and sugar that it tasted of nothing else.
Something else to keep in mind: Talde’s recipes make enormous amounts of food, and while you can of course half or quarter them, we weren’t prepared for how many hours we’d devote to making a huge amount of food that ended up relatively mediocre.
Talde’s book came so close to being fun to read, pleasantly irreverent, and a source of fun new cuisine. It just didn’t quite get there.
What Other Testers Had to Say:
"Many of the recipes take short cuts, using prepackaged foods such as canned biscuits and leftover rice. While convenient to the home cook, I like a challenge. Short cuts are great when you do not have the time, but I prefer to be provided with a full recipe and make those substitutions only when necessary."
“Most helpful, he has one- or two-page asides throughout that talk to the reader about how to get and stay motivated (such as, “At home, the reality is that the more tasks you plan to take on, the less likely you are to actually find the time to perform any of them.”) He goes on to suggest what you could call shortcuts (having the butcher butterfly your chicken, buying lobster that’s been cooked), but “I call it delegating,” he says. That works for me!”
“Part of Dale’s inauthentic schtick that I can embrace is his encouragement of shortcuts that make sense—too lazy to make broccoli? Pop over to the Chinese take out place. Don’t have the time or patience for frying chicken? Start with some Popeye’s. These things never would have occurred to me.
I love that Dale draws inspiration from places that would normally make me turn my nose up, like P.F. Chang’s and Hidden Valley ranch dressing. He even prompted me to buy tater tots for the first time in my life. To me, someone who prefers to cook from scratch, that’s powerful. (And the pretzel dumplings were the clear winner of the night.)”
“Not everyone might like Dale’s style—be it his cooking or his personality—but I think that’s part of his charm. Dale Talde is true to himself throughout this book, and from his example gives us the confidence to do the same.
For me, the narrative can be summarized in the tiny piece of the advice he wrote in my copy during his book signing: It says simply 'Love and Eat.' Be it the foods we grew up eating, the new foods we crave, or the foods we make ourselves, we should always be proud of the food we love to eat and love to cook, because it makes us who we are.”