The trouble with a cookbook, any cookbook, is that it arranges food according to a theme—one of the four seasons, one of the three meals, one of the world’s countries or regions, one of the multitudes of weight-loss regimens—and that isn’t the way people think about food. Memory is the province of food. Just ask Proust as he brandishes his madeleine.
The most satisfying way to think about food is during a conversation with a good friend. And when you pick up A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (or Susie as she introduces herself to readers at the book’s beginning) that’s exactly what’s offered—if your good friend happens to be the granddaughter of a Chinese financier, millionaire, and “mobster (probably),” the daughter of the man who practically invented the coffee –table book in all of its sumptuous glory, and an adventurous eater whose tastes embrace the cuisine of every country on the planet.
Approach this book with the advice Susie Chang gives her children—“Try One Bite.” Whether it’s paella or phad thai, scallion pancakes or stroopwafels, you’re going to find something that you’ve never tasted before and certainly never dreamed of cooking, or drinking either. No matter if it’s a Basil Mojito, a Lavender Vodka tonic, or the non-alcoholic Longest Day Tea, this lady is going to convince you to make and sip a “Garden in a Glass.” After all, she’s the kind of friend who confesses to “standing clueless in the pantry at 4:30, thinking wistful thoughts about beer, and walk to the table with a meal for six an hour and a half later.” Sound familiar to you? Oh no,not me either…
At times Susie Chang seems formidable. She’s the kind of mother who has been known to spend half an hour making steamed eggs or a soufflé omelet for a very young son who would eat eggs in no other form until she introduced him to egg crepes with truffle oil. But she becomes less terrifying when she provides no-hassle recipes for apple sauce, pumpkin bread, or a cold mixed-berry soup for those days when cooking is the last thing on anybody’s mind. She admits to almost committing arson with a funnel cake and to succumbing to a mint ice cream addiction—yes, she will tell you how to make both of these indulgences—as well as how to cook pilfered chanterelles with roasted monkfish and garlic chives. “It was good enough to be a last meal on Death Row…amorallydelectable.”
She’s the kind of friend who assumes nothing and tells all—how to clean a monkfish, how to use a knife, how to cook rice, how to make a simple syrup, how to roll jiao zie, the traditional New Year’s dumpling, in three easy steps, with photographs. And she doesn’t ignore her single friends—there are six glorious recipes that will make a number of meals for one solitary eater, including an enticing chocolate mousse that “serves one on a bad day.” I tell you, you have to love this woman.
Hungry for Braised Chinese-Restaurant-Style Spareribs? Daunted by the thought of tracking down ‘the Elusive Red Bean Curd?” Look for it in “the Scary Inscrutable Jars section” of an Asian grocery, and if you “just can’t find it, make the recipe anyway.” Want Thai food without leaving the house? Yam Neua is worth the “tearful complications” of slicing those lethal little bird chiles and the four or five shallots. “Mere flickers of agitation,” Susie Chang warns the unwary cook, “could prove incendiary.”
A Spoonful of Promises offers more than recipes. It is studded with wit—“There’s nothing wrong with canned pumpkin puree, other than it lacks poetry.” An essay about saffron leads to an insightful examination of living with an aging father, and the unfading presence of a mother who died young pervades the page of this book, evoked in tender stories and the fragrance of baked apples. “We are dreamed of by our parents and remembered by our children,” is a sentence that is a gift. There are many gifts in Susie Chang's collection of stories and recipes. Read her words and savor them all.—Janet Brown
This review originally appeared in The International Examiner.