There are, I have found, two ways that I read a cookbook. The first is pragmatically, looking for new dishes to make for myself and family, new techniques to be learned, ways to improve my skills in the kitchen. But I also read a cookbook as a text to be enjoyed, different from a novel or a collection of poetry, but still, a book. So to review The Fish Sauce Cookbook by Veronica Meewes, released just yesterday, I must tackle both these strands. How does it fare pragmatically? How does it fare as a text?
When I received the electronic ARC of this cookbook from NetGalley, I immediately set about cooking from it, and thus you see above a plate of the Vietnamese Caramel Chicken (on top of short-grain white rice) along with a side of the Skillet Greens. Both of these recipes involve making a caramel with fish sauce, and in both cases it was much more difficult than the recipe indicated. I muddled through, however, and all five of us at the table enjoyed the food — my daughter had the leftover chicken for lunch on Monday, and has already told me she would like me to make it again. I found the chicken delicious, the skin a mix of sweet and savory with deep notes from the fish sauce, the meat tender and juicy, and the sauce that resulted from cooking the chicken in caramel is absolutely addictive over rice. The greens were also good, although the Nước Mắm Apple Cider Gastrique drizzled over them suffered from my problem with the caramel; too much salt, not enough sweet or acid. Still, it was a good adventure in the kitchen, and I enjoyed both the cooking and the eating very much.
That being said, the more I consider this cookbook, the more I find that there is not really any reason for these “50 Umami-Packed Recipes from Around the Globe” to be together under one cover. It reminds me of the Junior League cookbooks I used to find at garage sales during my childhood, a collection of favourite recipes organised with some photographs, but no real attempt to unify them. These chefs seem to be writing for other professional chefs, expecting their readers will have a wood oven ready at hand, or can easily come by ascorbic acid or quail eggs, or know how to use a mandoline to slice things to the proper thinness. There is nothing wrong with complex recipes that demand a high level of skill, but in a cookbook I expect them to be curated and presented with encouragement and instruction, not simply written down without comment. Lacking this sort of framework, there is little difference between this and what I can find searching online for recipes using fish sauce, so in spite of the two dishes I made and enjoyed, I would not let it take up space on my already very full shelf of practical cookbooks.
What, then, about this cookbook as a text? Unfortunately, the lack of unifying structure keeps it from being pleasant to simply read. A purely aspirational cookbook filled with immensely complex recipes can be lovely to daydream over if the chef-author infuses their personality into the page, showing how and why they came to create these dishes. A pragmatic cookbook can be also a pleasure to read if it is informative; I am interested in regional cooking, in food history, and in personal stories. This cookbook has an interesting piece at the beginning about the ways in which fish sauce is made, and a practical guide to different brands, but beyond that it did not contain any of these elements. I suppose, in the end, that I was looking for a very different cookbook — the history of the ingredient, a selection of traditional recipes, then some plays on modern uses so I could begin to incorporate it into my own everyday cooking. That is not what this is, but for the reader seeking a collection of complex and far-ranging fish sauce recipes from a variety of chefs working today, this is where you will find it.