Review: Hot Sour Salty Sweet

Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

If there is one cuisine that I’m probably most unfamiliar with it’s the Southeast Asian cuisine. Every time I see a recipe that comes from that region, there are probably more ingredients that I don’t recognize than ingredients I do recognize.

It’s not that I don’t try. I really am starting to learn some basics, but I think it’s kind of hard unless you’ve actually been to the region in question. Luckily, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, the authors of “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” spent enough time there to become regional experts. Even if you’ve never been there, if you have any interest in learning about some of the magical dishes and culture of Southeast Asia, this is the book for you.

The River Road

When the authors decided to set out on the journey that became this book, they were searching for some unifying trait that could link the cuisines of all of the Southeastern regions. Much like countries in the Mediterranean area have distinct elements to them, they found something similar.

As they got more into their trip though, they realized that the journey wasn’t exactly what they thought it would be. They kept coming back to one centralized thing: The Mekong River.

“So, our initial goal of eating our way through Southeast Asia evolved into the somewhat specific goal of exploring the food of the Mekong region by eating our way along the river, from Yunnan to Vietnam. Like students in a life drawing course, instead of drawing the entire model, we found ourselves drawing only an arm, an elbow, a hand.”

Journey through Photos

One thing I loved about this book before even really getting into the recipes, was the photos. As the two authors traveled along the river they took stunning photos of the people and the geography. Of course, there are photos of the food, but the photos of the region were more interesting I thought.

As someone who has never been to this area of the world, I found myself just leafing through the book looking at all the great photos. Rice fields, street vendors, lush river deltas and near-third world streets give the entire book a very unique feel. Even if you never cook a recipe out of this book, it would be a fantastic coffee book and is really fun to page through.

Hot Sour Salty Sweet

You figure out how the book got its name very early on. Those are the flavor profiles that each dish will balance. Even beyond each individual recipe, each menu will try to balance those flavors. Once you start to identify which ingredients in Southeastern cooking give each of these traits, it becomes easier to adjust a recipe to your liking. Fish sauce, for example, will add a salty background to any dish. So by adding a few drops of fish sauce to something, you can bring out a salty element.

The authors do a good job of walking you through different recipes and how those recipes balance these four tastes.

Sauces, Chiles, and Salsas

The chapters in this book are organized by food. I love that they start the book with these items because they seem so integral to that cuisine. I don’t think I’ve ever had Southeast food without some sort of dipping sauce or chile paste or something to enhance the flavors of the food. It’s fun and flavorful and one of my favorite parts of the meal.

Some of these sauces are incredibly simple (like the fresh chile-garlic paste which has 4 very standard ingredients) and some will require a bit more effort. What shocked me though was that all seemed fairly doable. None of the sauces or pastes required days of cooking and I think the most ingredients one had was around 10, but most were in the 4-6 ingredient range.

It was demystifying and encouraging to see the recipes laid out in such a straight forward manner. It made me want to make some of them right away!

As a note, each recipe is also classified by the region where the authors found it. They also provide the original names for all of the dishes so you’ll see something like:

Thai Fish Sauce with Hot Chiles
[ prik nam pla – Thailand, Laos]

This is probably helpful for some people, but since I’ve never been to any of these places the extra classifications were a bit lost on me. You do come away from it though with a feeling that towns hundreds of miles from each other have a lot of cuisine elements in common.

After this chapter there are two fantastic chapters covering soups and salads, each chapter having about a dozen recipes.

Rice and Noodles

The next two chapters really embody what I think of when I think of these dishes. As the authors say, if rice is the bread of the Southeast then noodles are the potatoes. They are basically a part of every meal, even breakfast and dessert in some cases. One recipe that I definitely earmarked was a fairly elaborate, but traditional Pad Thai – one of my personal favorites. At 22 ingredients, it’s a substantial dish and some of the ingredients may be hard to find, but nevertheless, you may see it on Macheesmo in the future.

Meats and Veggies

There are entire chapters that follow the rice and noodles chapters on vegetables, seafood, poultry, beef and pork. This is when you start to really get the impression of how thorough this book is.

The authors leave no recipe unwritten it seems. You have to love that!

Street Food

Maybe the best chapter in the book, in my opinion, is one of the last ones which discusses all of the interesting street foods available in a typical Southeastern village. The recipe that I must make immediately is the pork dumpling recipe. The authors finally shed some light on the dough that’s used to get that great texture (Asian tapioca!). Again, I’m not sure where to find that, but I can probably hunt it down.

This book is a work of art in my opinion. It’s visually stunning, very well-written, and includes hundreds of recipes. Coming in at around 350 pages, the authors really take the time to take you along with them as they traveled along the river in search of great food.

If you are at all interested in Southeast Asian cuisine, this is one of the best books I’ve seen on the area. “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” would be a great addition to your cooking library if you want to start experimenting with Asian food and can’t afford the plane ticket and decades it would to replicate their experiences.

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