The Piglet2013 / First Round, 2013

Burma: Rivers of Flavor


Naomi Duguid

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Secrets of the Best Chefs: Recipes, Techniques, and Tricks from America's Greatest Cooks

Secrets of the Best Chefs

Adam Roberts

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Judged by: Nathan Williams & Julie Pointer

Nathan Williams is the founding editor of Kinfolk Magazine, a lifestyle and entertaining magazine which represents the work of a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. The publication is the marriage of an appreciation for art, design, and food as well as a love for spending time with friends and family.

Julie Pointer is the head of Gatherings for the Kinfolk community, organizing dinners across the nation that bring together artists, writers, chefs, artisans, small business owners, and readers to dine at a common table. She also contributes as a writer and features editor for the magazine.

The Judgment

I received my Piglet books weeks apart from one another, so I had a good deal of time to mull over Adam Roberts' collection before I even laid eyes on Burma. My first thought upon scanning Secrets was that the design is a bit bland -- the layouts, the photos, the text, etc. Visuals are important to me. If I'm not intrigued or inspired by what I find as I flip through the pages of a cookbook, it's difficult for me to be motivated to keep coming back for more, particularly when it comes to being enticed by a recipe. When I'm about to dedicate my time (and my stomach) to cooking something, having a sense of what I'm going for makes a significant difference, as does whether or not the dish looks particularly appetizing. Granted, I make a lot of meals for myself that aren't especially pretty but that taste delightful, so it's not necessarily that I am prejudiced against ugly food. However, if I'm relying on a cookbook to curate a collection of yummy things for me, I like to at least be seduced by its pages. Truth be told, none of the dishes presented in Secrets looked unappetizing on first glance -- but a slew of white pages full of text seemed rather uninspired.

Of course, there's presumably a reason that Adam Roberts wrote his book like this. He does an excellent job of spelling out every recipe -- of walking the amateur (or the skilled) chef through each step, giving down-to-earth tips and anecdotes along the way. He spends time sharing some background about each chef featured, revealing their personalities not only through photos and their chosen recipes, but also through the history of their restaurants, their style, and the way they handle a kitchen. These certainly aren't glamour shots; rather, each chef is photographed on a normal day at the stove. In fact, the book itself reminds me a bit of boring chef's whites: the layout reflects the plain, standard uniform of the chefs themselves, so that the secrets shared might stand on their own. Rather than relying on the finesse of fancy food styling or sexy design, Roberts falls back on the strength of the recipes themselves. Based on the blueberry crostada I made (twice!) -- which may well involve the best pastry crust I have ever tasted -- Roberts certainly did his homework to make sure the directions rang true for each dish.

In contrast to the lackluster visual appeal of Secrets, Naomi Duguid's collection of recipes and traditional flavors from Burma contains an explosion of colors, textures, and almost sounds that seem to fly off the page. Color isn't always necessary for catching the home chef's eye, but in this case, the richness and vibrancy of each page and each dish calls out to eaters and cooks alike to quicken to the kitchen and to get experimenting. Duguid not only does an excellent job of rendering the dishes she's sharing photographically, but she also spends a good deal of time putting them in cultural context by providing the history of the food or the specific region that food comes from. I was immediately drawn in and motivated to test some of the dishes she outlines.

I quickly discovered that casual cooks who are faint of heart should beware, however. This book may not be for the infrequent gourmet who wants to venture into Southeast Asian food delicately -- nearly every dish requires some special cache of ingredients that you'd better plan to track down, or be ready to prepare yourself ahead of time. For instance, any number of recipes require fermented soybean paste, ground soybean disks, tapioca flour, and a variety of sauces that can be made at home, but which require some forethought. However, if you're dedicated to the pursuit of learning to cook this way on a consistent basis, Duguid is careful to outline how one can easily begin stocking the cupboard with these essentials. For someone (like myself) who is not used to cooking with these kinds of flavors and ingredients, it was a bit overwhelming to flip through and discover that I had very few of the called-for ingredients on hand. However, the suggested payoff (shown on two-page spreads of brightly seasoned foods including an abundance of rice, salads, sauces on the side) for an initial bit of trouble seems to quiet the preceding hesitation. Duguid invites readers to engage in not only a culinary lesson, but also in an investigation of the everyday life and customs of the Burmese people, which proves to be quite rewarding if you can make it through the somewhat foreign combinations and techniques. The dish I settled on making (Golden Egg Curry) ended up being quite simple, straightforward, and satisfying, and provided a good alternative to some of the other mundane egg dishes I often find myself making.

All in all, I found that my fascination lay more with Burma: Rivers of Flavor than with Roberts' anthology of chef's secrets from around the nation. While I truly enjoyed Roberts' fresh take and behind-the-scenes look at well-renowned and recognizable chefs, in all honesty, I rarely have the gumption to approach dishes like Bone Marrow and Escargot, and it takes more than a friendly intro to inspire me to do so (though to be fair, there is a spectrum of difficulty represented in the book). On the flipside, although the recipes in Burma also present me with the challenge of unfamiliarity of flavor and a bit of fear of the unknown, Duguid's thoughtfulness in making these recipes seem approachable, knowable, and tantalizing to the taste buds has ultimately won me over.

And the winner is…

Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Burma: Rivers of Flavor

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Do you Agree?


wolfewoman February 17, 2013
The more recipes I try from Burma, the more I love this book!
StevenHB February 16, 2013
I would really have liked some discussion of what cooking from each of these books was like. Were the instructions sufficiently detailed? Well written. The two references to actually cooking from the books were asides, barely mentioned, and almost overlooked as I read the review.
Christine_K February 15, 2013
I am a proud Burmese!! Although I am a big fan of Roberts and an owner of Secrets of the Best Chefs, I am so happy to see a Burmese recipe book win this round. I don't own any Burmese recipe books but maybe I should give this one a try and experience the outsider's perspective on my country.
To those who are concerned about getting ingridients, there are several websites you can order Burmese food from.
Ron N. February 15, 2013
Hi Christine,

any recommendations ?
Ron N. February 15, 2013
On sites for ordering Burmese food?
Christine_K February 18, 2013
Hi Ron,
I know people usually like Mohinga, the fish soup with noodles and also the tea salad is something different. I would recommend fish head soup with bamboo shoots.
ATG117 February 14, 2013
I agree with those who say that they would have appreciated a review that touched on more recipes from each book. What I don't agree with is the notion that a cookbook should not be judged by it's visual appeal. Food--both eating and cooking--involves all the senses. And to suggest a cookbook loses nothing when it doesn't please one's aesthetic, seems to me akin to suggesting ugly food has no effect on one's appreciation for an otherwise delicious dish. Whether it's Julia Child, Adam Roberts (Perhaps. I have not yet gone through his book), or photoless recipes on food52, the appeal for many of us is just not the same.
Jessica H. February 13, 2013
I love the energy and enthusiasm that Adam brings to both his blog and the cookbook. It's one of the few this year that seem accessible to the home cook.
mainecook61 February 13, 2013
I agree with sel et poivre. One doesn't have to be a professional reviewer to write a good review, as long as the guidelines are clear. These ought to include a minimum number of dishes attempted; an emphasis on the strengths of each book (as well as any weaknesses); and a limited commentary (given the small space here) on dust jackets, visuals, the reviewer's travel experiences or kitchen fears, etc. An editor might easily pare out some of the hackneyed prose ("tantalizing to the tastebuds"--see above review) and overused adjectives, as well as impose some needed organization, since reviews like the one above read like student essays tapped out on a computer ten minutes before they are due.
Kenzi W. February 14, 2013
Ouch. A quick reminder that while this is an open comment section, phrases like "hackneyed prose," and, say, your whole last sentence, do nothing in the way of constructive criticism. We can disagree, and we often will, but we'd rather do it in a more respectful way. Regarding the issue of guidelines, I'll echo Charlotte and reiterate that the essence of the Piglet is to encourage more personal reviews, to evoke each judge's personal relationship with a cookbook; if that means talking about about dust jackets, then that flies. (Kudos to those of you who've pointed out that our visual relationship with a cookbook can be as important as any other facet.) Standardizing reviews with strict guidelines would strip away the sense of perspective each judge works so hard to get across, and of course, we wouldn't choose a judge if we didn't trust the unique way in which they read and evaluate a cookbook. To end: if Nathan Williams' and Julie Pointer's review is to be subjected to a student essay metaphor, I'll correct, for the record, that they indeed tapped out their work well before it was due, and that we wouldn't publish it if we didn't stand behind it.
sel E. February 13, 2013
I have Burma and love it and am glad it won, but I am somehow disappointed by the quality of some reviews during this year of Piglet. Cooking 1 dish from a cookbook, no matter how visually stunning it is, and declaring it a winner, is a poor excuse for lazy judgement. Yes, visuals "help", but good recipeS (plural here people!) that work should be the Piglet's main focus. I hope these poor quality reviews catches the attention of the Piglet organisers. I definitely think a general rule about the judging process is needed here, as I have mentioned before in my comment for SK vs. SMALL PLATES round. Without serious judging process and good reviewers, Piglet will never and should not be taken seriously.
mainecook61 February 13, 2013
It's a good thing that Julia Child never drew reviewers obsessed with "visuals" and apparently disinclined to cook much of anything. All of those quaint (and extremely accurate) black and white drawings in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"? They'd have landed her books---by the standards of these reviewers
---in the reject pile.
luvcookbooks February 13, 2013
An autographed copy of Burma from Kitchen Arts and Letters found its way into my home, although I didn't need it... I am happy to see from the review and the comments that it will be fun to cook from. I think I have all of her books and enjoy both the books (so beautiful) and the food cooked from them. I like Adam Roberts as well, tho I don't own the book reviewed here.
J.N. February 13, 2013
If you are going to judge should cook from them..You shouldn't judge a book by it's cover!
loubaby February 13, 2013
Maybe the next time around when picking judges, there should be a minimum of 3 recipes tested from each book?...I too agree with others, 1 recipe does not make a good judge or judgee.
garlic&lemon February 13, 2013
I, too, have been searching high and low for fermented tea leaves. Yet, every time I go to the Bay Area, the good Burmese restaurants serve fermented tea salad & I get it! How do they get it when we can't? Surely someone in our talented Food52 community can help us figure this out!
Andrea N. February 13, 2013
Ask the restaurant if you can buy some of the fermented tea leaves. Little Yangon in Daly City will likely sell you some. The restaurants often ship or hand-carry ingredients from Burma.
Dina Y. February 13, 2013
You can also easily make your own. Choose green tea leaves (not from bagged tea) and crush them using mortar & pestle or by hand. Bring water and fresh lemon juice to boil. Simmer the tea leaves in the water mixture for about 30 minutes, making sure it doesn't burn but that all the liquid is gently absorbed. Remove any excess water by squeezing and add either salt or fish sauce.
Andrea N. February 13, 2013
Dina -- and here I was thinking that you were just an Indonesian food expert!
Greenstuff February 13, 2013
I have asked about Bay Area-favorite Burma Superstar's fermented tea leaf source. They get them directly from Burma/Myanmar.
Andrea N. February 13, 2013
A UK source for fermented tea leaves via Dina Yuen on FB:
Dina Y. February 13, 2013
Hi Andrea! I spent an extensive amount of my childhood and 20s living in and traveling all over Asia, especially SE Asia. Studied with chefs all over the place and am profoundly in love with SE Asian food.
Dina Y. February 13, 2013
Greenstuff...that's right. Every Burmese restaurant says the same thing. That's why I suggest to folks to either buy online or experiment at home. That's what I did and came up with a decent version.
Nettie C. February 13, 2013
I read the book from cover to cover before I prepared any recipes. The book creates an atmosphere, an awareness of another culture so far away. The cookbook is my gang plank to this cuisine.I made my shopping list and arrived home with at least 6 ingredients I have never cooked with and made an amazing meal. I have heard Naomi speak and she is the " real deal " She lives and cooks the way she writes. Nettie Cronish
Burnt O. February 13, 2013
I have all of Naomi's books, and have been lucky enough to travel to many of the places in them, and to have a well stocked Asian market nearby. It's definitely worth it to explore the different flavors and cuisines, and I like this book every bit as much as her others. I think Adam's book is great for folks trying to learn techniques, but if you enjoy really exploring different cuisines and cultures, Burma is a great book.
Ron N. February 13, 2013
I've looked through Burma pretty thoroughly and the ingredients are pretty easy to get if you have an asian grocer nearby. Duguid did a lot of work finding comparable ingredients that are also used in Vietnamese, Chinese or Thai cuisine.
hardlikearmour February 13, 2013
My only disappointment in this review is that the reviewer only made a single dish from each book. I love the book Burma, and am glad it triumphed, but I don't feel like either book got a fair chance by only having a single recipe tested.
paseo February 13, 2013
Agreed - one recipe made only gives a, to me, somewhat superficial idea of what's inside.
Naomi M. February 13, 2013
I agree! I have both books and love each of them, but Burma I do like more!
student E. February 13, 2013
i had the same reaction when i read this. make more!
anntruelove February 13, 2013
I enjoyed hearing about the design merits of each of these cookbooks but I was left wanting to know more about the successes and shortcomings of the recipes based on the results of testing them. I wish the judge(s) discussed more than one recipe from each book to get a better sense of how well crafted the recipes in the cookbook really are.
kaupilimakoa February 13, 2013
I have cooked numerous recipes from Burma...perhaps the only disappointment was the banana flower salad...the Kachin pounded beef is unbelievably good, as is the aromatic chicken from the Shan Hills.
Dina Y. February 13, 2013
What was the disappointment with the Banana Flower salad?
kaupilimakoa February 14, 2013
it wasn't bad, it just wasn't as good as the others. Flavors were less bright than the other dishes.
kaupilimakoa February 13, 2013
I got a little worried when the reviewer started down the "not for the faint of heart" road...but happy to see that Burma triumphed. Seriously, who in their right mind would embark on cooking without anticipating the need to purchase some specialty ingredients? If we wanted easy/mindless cooking we could pick up the latest "Dinner in 30 minutes" or perhaps not need a cookbook at all.
Greenstuff February 13, 2013
I agree. I got Burma as soon as it came out, and I was a little worried that many of the ingredients would be impossible to come by, particularly as Burma was just starting to open up, and sanctions were still in place. Instead, I was delighted that with just a little effort, many of the recipes were quite accessible.
kaupilimakoa February 13, 2013
I wasn't worried when I bought the cookbook...I expected to have to buy some exotic ingredients. I was worried that the reviewer would allow this to skew his review in favor of a cookbook that didn't require hunting down ingredients.
Greenstuff February 13, 2013
Sorry, I guess I didn't make myself clear. I was agreeing with you that anyone cooking from a book called "Burma," should expect to do a little shopping. I confused the issue by adding my own concerns that there would be a lot of ingredients that simply weren't available. Things like fermented tea leaves, which I haven't found in the States. Have you?
kaupilimakoa February 13, 2013
didn't find tea leaves either :)
Greenstuff February 13, 2013
To be fair, she calls her inclusion of tea-leaf salad "an act of optimism" that it won't be too long before we can get fermented tea leaves (and other imports from Burma too).
healthierkitchen February 13, 2013
I have been told that there is a market in Northern Virginia that carries fermented tea leaves in a "kit" with some of the other ingredients for tea leaf salad. I have yet to get down there to confirm, though.
Christine_K February 15, 2013
You can order tea leaves (laphat) online. I usually go to Min Thila online store. Here is the link; Hope this works out!!