I began cooking pretty seriously when I was in primary school, and as an adult did all the cooking in my household for 25 years (ending with my wife's unsolicited offer to take over for the next 25), so I haven't depended much on cookbooks since the olden days. And until now, I had only used any given cookbook the way one does -- a recipe at a time, every few weeks or months or even years. Spending hours over just a few days studying cookbooks cover to cover was a new and odd experience for me.
I'm afraid I couldn't help but judge Burma: Rivers of Flavor a little bit by its cover -- specifically, by the cheesy title and jacket copy ("the dazzling cuisines of this faraway land"). That mode, it turned out, continues inside: this is a cookbook that wants to be a travel book too, with sidebars chronicling lakes, internet cafés, temples, indigenous cosmetics and the military regime. The good 29-page glossary would've been enough extra information for me. (Seeing entries in a cookbook index between "noodles" and "nutmeg" for "nuns, Buddhist" and "nuns, Catholic," however, was amusing.) The pretty photographs of Burma and the Burmese tend toward generic postcard shots.
As a result of my Burma meal, I now have the ingredients to prepare Burmese meals for the rest of 2013, because the two recipes I chose required me to hunt and gather special things (chickpea flour from the health food store, dried shrimp from an awesome Chinatown grocery) and then to make them more special -- to toast sesame seeds and the chickpea flour, to hydrate and grind the shrimp into powder, to transform shallots every which way.
I like shallots, but who knew they were a central feature of the dazzling cuisines of this faraway land? My Green Mango Salad used shallot oil and (delicious) fried shallots, and Mimi's Bean Soup with Tender Leaves used one-and-a-half-cups (!) of raw-ish minced shallots. Both dishes were terrific, recognizably Southeast Asian but distinctly not Vietnamese or Thai.
All cookbooks, I've decided, should be designed without jackets: score for A Girl and Her Pig, with its cool and slightly disconcerting cover portrait of the author wearing a dead little swine around her shoulders like a pink stole. In fact, the book is well-designed throughout, with charming decorative drawings and excellent food photography. (Although after a 20-plus years of stylishly shallow-depth-of-field close-ups, isn't it time for some clever new ubiquitous food-porn trope?) And the editor might have told the designer that the recipe for beef pie didn't really require six lavishly illustrated pages, and that two dozen routine photos of the celebrity author were several times more than necessary.
But I like the way Bloomfield's plainspoken regular-girl voice comes through strong, such as her description of being a blotto English teenager, her "eyes squinty like two piss-holes in the snow." Her dishes are mostly like that as well -- simple (what she calls "rustic") but tasty, vivid, and idiosyncratic, pub food rethought with care and originality. My dinner of Carrot, Avocado and Orange Salad and Sausage-stuffed Onions was delicious. And hereafter I will cook oatmeal with half water and half milk, and feel unwise for buying (inevitably crappy) tomatoes in winter.
Even though both of these cookbooks contain around 100 recipes, both feature tomatoes and chiles prominently, and each succeeds on its own terms, they are entirely dissimilar, an apple and an orange that in a perfectly sane and just world wouldn't be judged head to head. But here we are. A Girl and Her Pig is the better book, and more than Burma: Rivers of Flavor, made me a slightly better cook.