My birthday is on New Year’s Day, and following a tradition that my mother started, every year I cook dinner for friends and family. It’s a way to lure the hungover among us to come (1) celebrate me and (2) celebrate the food I grew up eating: soul food, Southern food.
There’s something so anchoring about starting the year with black-eyed peas for luck, collard greens for money, and with a spread of roasted glazed ham, corn pudding, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and other things that I, my mother, and my grandmother all grew up eating. I love that no matter how the recipes vary from the way another generation made them, they all tell a story of a family: of the years my ancestors lived in the American South, of what they brought with them during the Great Migration, and of a people at large. Which is all to say that the very nature of the two books that landed in my mailbox spoke to my love of food as passed down through generations, through traditions, across oceans, and by people the world over.
These books, Kachka by Bonnie Frumkin Morales (with Deena Prichep) and Night + Market by Kris Yenbamroong (with Garrett Snyder), both manage to do two things exceptionally well. They tell the stories of the authors and their traditions, and they invite us, the reader or home cook, to participate in these stories and become a part of them. Both authors spend a significant amount of time discussing how they came to love the food they make, how it is a fundamental part of who they are, and how they’ve made it their own.
In a world that has recently been much consumed by discussions of immigration and policy—one which sometimes fails to remember that so much of American culture has been created by immigrants and other cultures—these books are very much American cookbooks. Yes, they’re devoted to Russian (or Soviet) and Thai cooking, but they also straddle cultures.
Neither aims to be a comprehensive volume devoted to explaining an entire culture or cuisine to the reader/cook. Yenbamroong says, “If you are looking for a cookbook dedicated to the fundamental truth of Thai cooking, this isn’t it.” Morales reminds us that, “This is not an encyclopedia, or a field study, capturing every regional variation. The recipes here are shaped by my background as both Russian and American. Chef and home cook—and true believer in Russian cuisine…” We get two cookbooks that give us a glimpse into the minds of two chefs who are rooted in the culinary identities that shaped them, and entrenched in creating their own new traditions that blend their own experiences, personalities, taste, and talents.
These books feel like they are spiritually tethered in two homelands, which comes through in the cooking. I felt both far away and totally at home while I cooked alongside these chefs and their gorgeous creations.
I started my cooking with Night + Market, which is a stunning book to look at—a gem on any shelf. The handsome design, bright pink and orange colors, beautiful Thai lettering, and the cheeky subtitle (“Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends”) beckoned, and so there I began. Perusing the book, which I read before I started cooking, a line stood out: “I didn’t come out of the womb ready to cook blood soup.” Me neither, buddy, me neither. In fact, at 38 years old, I remain unprepared to cook blood soup. But the book made me want to! One day, I will cook blood soup! (And eat it, too.)
But for now, I am where I am, and I decided to start with the familiar, all found in the “Grandma” section of the book—Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, and Tom Yum Goong. As forewarned in the introduction, if you don’t regularly cook Thai food, you’d best get yourself to the store to pick up some ingredients. Yenbamroong says that if you want it to taste like Thai food, you’ll need at least some “fundamental, irreplaceable” Thai staples.
Yenbamroong mentions that these are relatively easy to find, and if you live near an Asian grocery, this likely will be true for you. I tried to source the things I needed from my local grocery, and a Thai wholesaler in NYC’s Chelsea Market, which it turned out had shuttered just weeks before my adventure began. And so, it was not easy to source the ingredients I needed. Grocery stores, three of them, were out of fish sauce! Shrimp paste, makrut lime leaves, and galangal were nowhere to be found, but I managed to successfully beg my local Thai restaurant for Tupperware containers’ worth of what I couldn’t find. They humored me and graciously charged me nothing for a few leaves of this, a few spoonfuls of that. Everything else, I found with relative ease, if not expedience.
Once back home, I set to work preparing various sauces and oils and other items made of chiles: Chile Oil! Chile Jam! Roasted Chile Powder! (Very satisfying processes, turns out.) Once that was done, I got to work brining the chicken for the Pad Thai and Pad See Ew, with Yenbamroong’s guidance, and beheading, peeling, and deveining the shrimp for the Tom Yum Goong. At last, it was time to cook.
Once you’re set up, all of these recipes make for easy work and pretty delicious eating. My dining companion, 2017 Piglet judge Marlon James, was running seriously behind and the Pad Thai had congealed by the time he even got on a train (important: do not over-soak your noodles!). The perfectly spicy and sour Tom Yum Goong had gotten cold, so I ended up eating most of it myself. Notably, the Pad See Ew was still fantastic—pleasingly chewy and flavorful, hot or cold—but I kept it for myself anyway.
In the end, most of what I made was delicious (the slightly unsuccessful Pad Thai excepted): bright, flavorful, and worth all the extra work for the sauces and oils and brines and powders from scratch. There were many steps, but they were easy...who knew? Moving forward, these dishes will be a cinch for me to make.
One of my big takeaways from this process was that putting in the work up front pays off. After becoming mildly disheartened by many hours of prep, I realized that I am ready to return to these recipes, again and again, well trained in the techniques offered by the book. I’d never thought to make Thai food at home, but this book reminds me that we should know more about how the cuisines that we consistently consume are made. Things that may seem complex or challenging at first are often just a matter of not paying attention to ingredients and techniques that are basic knowledge for someone else. Night + Market did the work of making Thai cooking accessible to me (and presumably, many others), reminding me to figure out how things I eat all the time are made. I was grateful for the invitation to this long-running party.
A couple of weeks later, frazzled by a life crisis that I won’t go into, I returned to cooking with Kachka. In need of comfort, I selected recipes that seemed like they were involved enough to keep my mind occupied, but homey and traditional enough that eating them would be soothing.
First up was the Monday Soup, which felt like a cozy thing to make during what has turned out to be a very chilly spring. This recipe came from Morales’ mother, who ran an in-house daycare. I should have known from the description that I was about to make a vat of soup so large that I would be able to feed an entire village. The vegetarian soup (although I used chicken stock, an option given in the recipe) was filled with potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, dill, parsley, and—surprisingly—oats. And when finished, you throw on a dollop of cream and a pat of butter, which slayed. The soup ended up being a wonderful reminder that humble ingredients, assembled with intention and care, can yield something absolutely magical. I still have approximately 3 quarts of it in my freezer, but I fully intend to eat (or share, if I can bear it) every last drop.
After the soup, I moved on to the Golubtsi (cabbage rolls), which I’ve only ever had the Polish version of. Much like the recipes in Night + Market, this one had a number of different steps, which proved easy (if a touch time-consuming). I confess that I was very concerned and skeptical when the recipe called for an entire jar of lingonberry jam, but the sauce was magical and the work of assembling the meat and rice, rolling it up into little packages, and dousing them in magical Golubtsi sauce was tremendously satisfying.
I started cooking these late and was alarmed to discover on the final line of the third page of the recipe, at 10:50pm, that they required 4 hours of baking. RIP Lisa! Alas, I pushed “on” and set 105 alarms to prevent burning myself up, or my apartment building down. I ate 3 delicious golubtsi in my bed. Unfortunately, my white sheets now bear a forever reminder of the fact that I had the nerve to eat cabbage rolls in bed at 3 in the morning.
Because I like a challenge, my final task was to make Siberian Pelmeni without the mold mentioned in the recipe. Morales is really about that huge portion life, because the recipe calls for 100 dumplings (148 with the dumpling-mold assist). 45 or so felt like enough for me. That said, these were some delicious dumplings—if brutally ugly ones—filled with pork, veal, and beef, then nestled in butter, vinegar, salt and broth, with a dollop of creme fraiche on top.
All the while, I was making things I would never have thought to make at home, with the full assurance that if I had a question, or something went wrong, there was this loving voice on the page telling me what to do, and how it can be done or worked around. Reminding me that this is meant to be fun. And delicious. I lost sleep for those cabbage rolls, and the dumplings, but I ate with gusto when I finished. I was proud of what I’d made and what I’d learned.
I also lost sleep over this verdict. The reality is that if you are reading this and you like to cook at home, you’d do well to buy Kachka and Night + Market both. But this is a contest and a decision must be made. And if I must pick only one, I must pick the beautiful and wisely written Kachka. I learned so much while cooking from both of these books, but Kachka held my hand, gave me hugs, and made a cuisine I’d never deeply considered into something beautiful and delicious.
I’ll cook from both books again, no question, but I’ll make that Monday Soup for years to come—because it is delicious, but also because the stories in the book brought this and all the recipes to life for me. At one point, the author says that “in these pages you’ll find not just Russian recipes, but a guide to the overall Russian way of eating.” If I’m properly understanding what I’ve learned from Kachka, that way of eating is loving, instructive, communal, giant-portioned, and giant-hearted. And I’m fully in.