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The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Author Pat Tanumihardja Interview

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook is a compilation of family and homecooking recipes from across the Asian smorgasbord.  Check out our interview with Patricia Tanumihardja, author of 'The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.'

1.  What top three recipes from your book would you recommend to our readers to try for the summer season?

Seek out vegetables like Chinese broccoli (Chinese Broccoli in Oyster sauce, Pg 107) and pea shoots (Wok-Fried Pea Shoots, Pg 121) at the farmers market as they are at their peak in Spring. The Shrimp and Asparagus with Homemade Black Bean Sauce (Pg 210) is a great one to try too. If you'd like to keep cooking to a minimum, I vote for the Somen Salad (Pg 224) or the Korean Barbecued Beef Short Ribs (Kalbi, Pg 154) to christen your grill.

2.  What is the one Asian ingredient that you can't live without?

Ginger is probably the one ingredient that I use most in my cooking. It adds a warm, spicy quality to just about any dish from stir-fries to a fried chicken marinade. I especially love a drink that my mom makes called wedang jahe--it's basically a whole hand of ginger, smashed and left to simmer in water over the stove to make a tisane. She adds pandan syrup, sugar syrup steeped with pandan leaves. Pandan leaves is one ingredient I don't use often enough but it's one of my favorites. I toss it into coconut rice as well as sweet mung bean porridge.

3.  What/where have some of your most memorable meals been?

As much as I enjoy eating out, my most memorable meals have been enjoyed at someone's house surrounded by friends. I can still remember a Christmas meal I shared with a very good friend, Anna, and her family in the Dolomite mountains in Northern Italy. Not only was the setting perfect--we were surrounded by gorgeous snow capped mountains--the traditional meal was a veritable feast with an assortment of grilled meats, risotto, etc., etc.. and the one dish I still dream about, baccala alla Vicentina, aka salted cod simmered in milk. The meal ended with freshly baked panettone and a sweet strawberry wine called fragolino. When it comes to restaurants, my most memorable meals have been partaking of the Chef's Tasting Menu at Aubergine, in Carmel, CA and the combination of impeccable service and excellent cuisine at Seattle's Canlis restaurant. Oh, and I will never forget the time my dad's friend brought us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a meal that comprised of "exotic meats." Grilled flying fox or snake soup anyone?

4. If you were to give a dinner party, who would be your ideal guests?

To be honest, dinner parties stress me out. I much prefer having just a couple of friends over. I'd love to have a one-on-one with any/all of my grandparents and listen to their stories. I didn't know any of them so it would thrill me to bits to get to know them. If I could pick someone famous from the past, it would have to be Jane Austen. I love her books and I've always dreamed of living in 19th century England as one of her heroines. Ideally, she'd like Asian food :).

5. What's next for you?  Do you have plans for another book?

I haven't been writing very much since my son was born 2 years ago but I'm planning to launch a new blog that will focus on how/what I cook as a contemporary Asian cook and mom, plus, I'm working on a proposal for a cookbook featuring Indonesian cuisine. This cookbook is an ode to my mum who is a fabulous cook. She's the reason I love food and cooking and I am very grateful to her for nourishing my siblings and I when we were growing up. She still does, as a matter of fact!

6.  Can you tell us about how much this book was a labor of love for you? What are some of your fondest memories?

Any cookbook author will tell you that writing a cookbook is a long and arduous process, so you'd better pick a topic that's close to your heart! Fortunately for me, "The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook" was. I never knew either of my grandmothers so I always envied friends who had grandmas to cook for them and shower them with gifts. And when the opportunity arose to write this cookbook, I jumped at the chance!

It took me several months to collect about 250 recipes from friends, acquaintances, total strangers, and I researched old cookbooks as well. In addition to interviewing the women I cooked with and telling their stories in black and white, I also tested every recipe at least once, some even 3 or 4 times. I tried very hard to keep each recipe true to the original. There were some very frustrating moments when a recipe didn't go according to plan, but I kept my sights on the bigger picture and plowed through.

While I learned a lot in the kitchen--cooking tips and techniques, life lessons, even child rearing tips--my favorite part was actually sitting down and sharing a meal with them. This was when conversations ran freely and I truly felt like a part of their family. In fact, some of these women have become family. A couple of them still call and email me to check up on me and my son.

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