Behind the veil of steam
A travelogue for the hungry gourmand tucks into Asia's best food with gustoA Fork in Asia's Road
By John Krich
Published by Marshall Cavendish Business, 2012
Available at leading bookstores
Reviewed by Hal Lipper
"A Fork in Asia's Road" is comfort food for anyone who travels in Asia and loves its varied and rich cuisine. With wit, a reporter's passion for detail, and a writing style that's both fluid and poetic, John Krich's combination culinary travelogue and social commentary explores modern Asia's love affair with food. He reviews what's grown, concocted and consumed in its ever-changing societies where recipes are constantly evolving, yet many of the finest dishes border on extinction.
Krich meets culinary anthropologists in Malaysia and Thailand, interviews food scientists concocting new forms of noodles in Taiwan, and travels to little-known outposts like the Golden Farmers' Mansion in China's Sichuan Province. There, "the surest sign that people are no longer peasants is their desire to want to eat like them."
Krich and I were cubicle-mates nearly two decades ago at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, where he would rhapsodise about his love for Korean and Chinese food. He'd already travelled around the world to write his book "Won Ton Lust", about the Chinese diaspora and the planet's best Chinese restaurants. But he and writer Stan Sesser had yet to embark on their remarkable Journal series about the finest restaurants and food stalls in all of Asia.
"A Fork in Asia's Road" is a compilation and update of 50 of the features Krich wrote for the Journal, Saveur, Time Asia, the Far East Economic Review and the South China Morning Post. But his book is much more than a mere compendium. Krich has organised it into sections so that it expands on social themes, including food as politics, history, identity and science.
The chapters are short, mostly two to four pages, which I initially found disconcerting. I loved Krich's 2,000-word essays in the Journal and feared this book would be like Michael Pollan's "Food Rules", a collection of self-evident rubrics that are no more satisfying than the fast food that Pollan rails against.
Krich's tome is blessedly deeper. While his passages are brief, they're filled with humour and illustrative commentary that bring his tales to life and raise important issues in today's Asia.
"In politics, I'm an internationalist. When it comes to food, isolationist. The United Nations is fine, except when it's on my plate," Krich writes. "There's a reason why creme brulee was concocted, and it wasn't to bear the flavour of green tea, lemongrass or pandan leaf."
This might make several Bangkok chefs wince, but Krich generally equates fusion with confusion. Here, in the nation's capital - which is now Krich's home - he praises Australian-born chef David Thompson for "taking inspiration from old recipe books and older home chefs" and reviving near-forgotten Thai dishes at his restaurant Nahm. Krich, however, has fewer kind words for the capital's other culinary colonisers who've attempted to follow in Thompson's footsteps or reinvent Thai cuisine with new-age foams and meringues.
On the banks of the Chao Phraya, Krich finds Mark Brownstein a California-born chef, TV personality and food exporter who searches for fruit, teas, spices and oils rarely known outside their native countries, such as Thailand's bael syrup and sliced matum, which is preserved by boiling in palm sugar. The Western chefs who buy these items will, undoubtedly, use them to flavour their creme brulee, but Krich ignores travesties committed in other hemispheres.
Thailand accounts for just a few chapters in "A Fork in Asia's Road", which follows food from Singapore to South Korea. Krich travels to a duck farm "50 kilometres northeast of Tiananmen Square, as the uncooked bird flies. The skies are cardboard, ponds icy, trees desiccated to brittle sticks." This is where they process three million of the five million ducks consumed annually in Beijing. Krich spares readers the grisly details and instead focuses on the secrets of a prized Peking duck.
In Hong Kong he dines in the city's illegal eateries, hidden in basements and high-rise apartments, where some of the former colony's finest food is served. And, he introduces readers to a Malaysian princess who has published a "class-straddling act of culinary preservation", an anthology of recipes she collected and cooked with the people of her sultanate.
Krich writes of the exacting science employed by Din Tai Fung, the Taiwan-based dumpling chain now spanning three continents. "Every precious 4.8-gram piece of Din Tai Fung dough, weighed on solar-powered scales, is allowed to vary by only a tenth of a gram," and "each dumpling must have at least 18 folds or is rejected."
"A Fork in Asia's Road" explores what Krich calls "the hidden world of Asian kitchens". As one of the Journal's finest food writers, he parts "the veil of rising steam" and returns with wonderful tales and rare insight into Asia's fast-evolving food scene.