The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 17: Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet was my first real introduction to the cuisines of Southeast Asia. I mean, I'd eaten at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants growing up, but it was only after reading this gorgeous book that I thought, Oh, I get it now.

That's because the book is far more than a simple recipe book. Rather than focusing on the cuisine of a specific country, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid trace the connections between flavors and cultures along the Mekong river. The book starts in Southern China and follows their travels through Burma, into Laos and Thailand, and finally down into Vietnam. With gorgeous photography (seriously, this is one of the best-photographed books you'll ever see) and compelling essays, Alford and Duguid capture a version of Southeast Asia that is at once peaceful, dynamic, and captivating. Never has a book caused me to want to book a plane ticket so quickly, though this urge was matched by an even stronger desire to jump into the kitchen.

From a culinary perspective, the authors contend that the foods native to this 3,000-mile-long strip of land pay particular attention to the harmony between four distinct flavors: hot, sour, salty, and sweet.

Of course, this isn't exactly accurate. Unlike, say, Fuchsia Dunlop or Rick Bayless, who spent enough time studying and living in China and Mexico, respectively, to write from a true cultural insider's perspective, Alford and Duguid take a knowledgeable, but very outside-in approach to Southeast Asia. In the 17 years that have passed since this book was published, dozens of fantastic texts on regional Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, and Southern Chinese cuisine have addressed the fact that the hot/sour/salty/sweet balance is a vast oversimplification. And in my own trips to Southeast Asia, I've found the region is quite a bit grungier and more hectic than the book makes it out to be. But these are all things I'm glad I discovered for myself.

As a general framework to guide home cooks, though, the four dimensional hot-sour-salty-sweet mapping works fantastically well. Given that my culinary training was mostly in the Western European tradition, I was used to tasting and adjusting for salt levels in dishes instinctively. Sourness or acidity was also in the back of my head, but not something I actively considered with every taste. Sweetness and heat? Forget it—I didn't really consider them in my savory cooking. If something needed to be hotter I'd add some hot sauce or chili flakes at the table.

This book unlocked those last two dimensions of flavor for me, and got me cooking in a whole new way. What I found is that the one- to five-chili rating system you're used to seeing at Thai restaurants in the West does a disservice to the cuisine. Heat is intrinsically balanced and linked to other dimensions of flavor; simply increasing it is like tossing the largest kid in the class on one end of the see-saw: it hits hard and heavy, instead of striking an accessible balance.

I also really like Alford and Duguid's flexible approach to meal-planning. Rather than organizing dishes by region, they group dishes by their role at the table. The "Sauces, Chile Pastes, and Salsas" chapter has recipes for Yunnanese Chile Pepper Paste next to Vietnamese nuoc cham. Lao Stir-Fried-Eggs With Cellophane Noodles are paired with Thai-Style Chinese Greens in the "Mostly Vegetables" chapter. Many of these recipes come with photographs that are every bit as stunning as the images of landscapes and people that populate the book.

That said, if there's one big downside to Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, it's the recipes themselves. First off, there aren't as many as you'd expect a book this heavy and thick to house. Secondly, the results are hit and miss. Alford and Duguid are world-class travel writers and photojournalists, but their cooking and recipe-development chops leave something to be desired. Timing doesn't quite work how it's supposed to, and instructions are vague enough that when something goes wrong, you're left to yourself to try to figure out why.

I find it best to use their recipes in the same way that I use their photographs and essays: as aspirational tools. Enjoy them as introductions to new ideas or flavors—ones that will hopefully inspire you to do more research, be it by traveling to Southeast Asia yourself or diving into other books and online resources to gather more data on particular dishes you'd like to master.

You can buy Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet here.