The truth is, I don’t cook much these days. My pots and skillets and knives and baking racks and gadgets can sit dormant for months on disorganized shelves and in cluttered drawers. I spend much of my year on the road, eating at—and writing about—restaurants across America. When I am home I’m usually puzzling through stories on deadlines; I might make myself a quick batch of eggs, or bake pre-assembled lasagna from an excellent pasta retailer in Atlanta, where I live. Most of the time I look up from my laptop, suddenly aware of my hunger, and run out for Korean tofu stew or tacos or, hell, fried chicken from Popeye’s.
But in my twenties I made desserts in restaurants for a living, and when my food critic positions were city-based, I would cobble together supper one or two nights a week and throw the occasional overly ambitious dinner party (the kind where the laborious fish stew and Persian lamb and rice centerpiece were delicious but the kitchen would be a kamikaze mess). There is a window every year now, though, when my big writing projects are done for the year and I have two or three weeks off the road. And then I remember how much I love to chop herbs and stir at the stove and study recipes and fill my house with the buttery scents of baking. The arrival of my Piglet cookbooks happily coincided with the most recent break in my schedule.
At hand: Soframiz by Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick, and The Adventures of Fat Rice by Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo, and Hugh Amano. Both are weighty books written by chefs whose establishments I’ve visited on the job; each offers respectful interpretations of cuisines these cooks embraced through research, travel, and ardent curiosity.
Sortun opened Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2001. The restaurant won instant praise for its evocation of flavors from Turkey and the Middle Eastern countries whose shores touch the Mediterranean. (Cuisines from this region remain regrettably under-represented in the American restaurant landscape.) Kilpatrick was Sortun’s pastry chef; together they created Sofra Bakery & Cafe, also in Cambridge, in 2008. The Turkish word sofra, as the duo define it in their book, “encompasses everything you prepare for the table: food, place settings, glassware, décor, linens. Every sofra is unique—we couldn’t even find two people who defined it in the same way! Sofra, or soframiz (‘our sofra’) is a feeling as much as it is a place.”
Their bakery-cafe hums with business all day: Customers order at a counter stacked with sweet and savory pastries and also displaying meze (small plates of vegetable, grain, and dairy salads). Handwritten menus hanging overhead describe flatbreads and shawarmas, daily soup specials, and egg dishes for breakfast. The warming foods at Sofra stir the same feelings as lounging in a calm room flooded with sunshine.
Sortun and Kilpatrick’s book conjures the same cozy, light-drenched mood to winning effect. Just as Sofra isn’t exclusively a bakery, Soframiz isn’t solely a baking book, and that helps broaden its usefulness exponentially. The popularity of restaurants and books by Israeli chefs like London’s Yotam Ottolenghi and Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov has recently cast deserved attention on the breadth of Middle Eastern flavor profiles. Sortun and Kilpatrick’s deep, obvious fluency with tahini, phyllo, yogurts, cheeses, and a mind-bending spectrum of spices makes for a spirited contribution to the conversation.
Certainly, many of the recipes require a time investment. Doughs must rise, chickpeas require soaking, and ingredients like pomegranate molasses and Maras and Urfa peppers may need to be ordered online. Planning pays off. I loved a riff on hummus that combined two styles from the region: butter and olive oil blended into the cooked chickpeas (a Turkish approach) and then served mounded with browned, assertively seasoned ground lamb with toasted pine nuts (a take on a favorite Lebanese variation).
Bothering ahead of time to make zhoug, a spicy, lime-green Yemenite herb sauce, added heady dimensions to Sortun and Kilpatrick’s take on shakshouka, the dish of baked eggs in tomato sauce that’s lately become a staple on brunch menus across America. This surpassed any version I’ve had in a restaurant.
Precise instructions helped me make a success of jam-filled Syrian shortbread cookies, whose usual delicacy relies on making clarified butter and allowing it to set and soften in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Mulberries are beloved in Syria, so I used mulberry jam from Sqirl in Los Angeles to fill the cookies.
And Sortun and Kilpatrick took a practical approach to their recipe mix: If yeasted doughs for flatbreads and savory pies seem daunting, salads like Green Apple Fattoush, lentils with chard, and cacik (a Turkish meze of yogurt with green vegetables and herbs) and desserts like gingerbread with a cocoa glaze leap out as utterly approachable. Many of the cookbook’s photographs have the same golden glow as the Cambridge cafe. There’s a soothing, encouraging manner to Soframiz that I know will one day embolden me to make spanakopita in serpentine coils and flatbreads filled with spiced lamb and kasseri cheese.
The Adventures of Fat Rice is the opposite of soothing. It riles you up with its splatter of vivid photos, mismatched fonts, graphic novel-like illustrations and instructional drawings, engrossing charts, and cheeky, thoughtful headnotes. The book may appear irreverent, but its contents express absolute reverence for the disappearing cuisine of Macau.
Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo opened their restaurant Fat Rice in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2012. They’d previously run an underground dining club called X-marx, cooking ever-changing menus spurred by the city’s multiculturalism, dipping into Vietnamese, Polish, Indian, Mexican, and American Southern culinary repertoires. In 2011 they took an inspiration trip to Asia. Their last stop was Macau, a small slip of land about an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong that’s been a special administrative region of China since 1999.
Over the last 400 years, Macau developed a remarkably unique cuisine born of colonization and adaptation. Portuguese colonizers arrived in Macau in 1557, intermingling with the established Chinese traditions and bringing with them not only European culinary influences but ingredients and techniques from other corners of the globe, including South India, Africa, and Malaysia. For Conlon and Lo, Macau’s singular amalgamation had special resonance: He is Portuguese-American, she is Chinese-American. The Macanese dishes—homey joys like galinha bafassa, or braised chicken with turmeric and potatoes, and curried oxtails with potatoes and peas—captivated them. Later, when they decided to make the food of Macau the focal point of their first restaurant, they knew the menu would also innately reflect and explore the many cuisines that became part of Macanese cooking.
This is all laid out through smart storytelling in the book’s introduction; it also serves as a primer for understanding the restaurant’s immense and enduring popularity. (Fat Rice didn’t always take reservations. Now it does, mercifully. Reserve well in advance.)
Straight up: Intensive, professional-level recipes fill many of these pages. I personally never want to make arroz gordo, the restaurant and cookbook’s namesake dish, a centerpiece project of rice, turmeric baked chicen, char siu (Cantonese-style barbecued pork), chile prawns, clams, tea eggs, and olives—and that’s a partial list. But I have eaten this extraordinary dish at Fat Rice several times, and I am grateful to be able to study the exhaustive preparations that comprise this masterpiece.
Home cooks can find feasible pleasures. Shrimp curry with tomato and okra, a Macanese classic likely by way of Goa, India, required a fiery make-ahead curry paste that included Filipino cane vinegar (which I found at an international grocer). Served over their version of coconut rice, it was a killer weeknight meal. Even better was minchi, a hash of ground pork and beef that is one of Macau’s cornerstone dishes. Again, it required an investment of ingredients—including light, dark, and sweet soy sauces—but the results were richly gratifying, with flavors equally comforting and exhilarating, wonderful served over the diced fried potatoes suggested as an accompaniment. Leftovers made for an invigorating breakfast.
But here’s the thing: Conlon and Lo’s book (written with Hugh Amano, the restaurant’s opening sous chef) is a volume that also far transcends the basic function of providing clear, accomplishable recipes. It is a love letter, a travelogue, and a documentation detailing their grasp of Macanese traditions and their translations for an American kitchen. The unchecked enthusiasm of their words—teamed with Dan Goldberg’s photography of the dishes and Macau street life, and Sarah Becan’s comics-style illustrations—make this the kind of book you read before bed, with images of fat noodles and preserved lemon pickle and galinha à Africana (“African” chicken) weaving through your dreams.
Disappearing into The Adventures of Fat Rice, I’m at once traveling and at home. I’m enamored with both of these books, but the scope and gusto of Fat Rice compels me to send it onward through the competition of the tournament.