Published two years ago, Pat Tanumihardja's debut cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian-American Kitchens, is a collection of family recipes and stories spanning more than a dozen Asian cultures. Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens, and keeps a blog based on her cookbook. Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, she currently resides in the Washington D.C. metro area.
How did you get the idea to write The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook?
Sometimes, the perfect project can really just fall into your lap. I was interviewing the Sasquatch Books publisher (now my publisher) for an article I was writing for a local community paper, and we started talking about food, cooking, and cookbooks. He told me that he’d always wanted to publish a cookbook about Asian grandmothers and their recipes, and I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve always been interested in how food, history, and culture intersect, and the idea instantly appealed to me, because I never knew my grandmothers, and I think that, deep down in my heart, I’ve been seeking the grandma-granddaughter bond I never had. When I was growing up, I was always envious of my friends who had grandmas living at home with them (or just a short drive away) who cooked for them, gave them sage advice, and, of course, lots of gifts!
I offered to send him a proposal and the rest, as they say, is history. In an industry where we’re frequently told how difficult it is to publish a cookbook, I think my story is one of hope. While serendipity and being at the right place at the right time help, you have to be a good fit for the project as well.
Do you have a favorite dish in the book?
This is such a difficult question! I hate to play favorites, but yes, there are dishes in the book that I’ve cooked over and over again even after recipe testing was done, which is saying quite a lot.
Mochiko chicken — a Japanese-American recipe given to me by Daisy Kushino — is one that my husband and sister love as well. Sweet and savory pieces of chicken are coated with cornstarch and mochiko flour (Japanese sweet rice flour) and deep-fried to a crisp. Another is a Burmese pork curry recipe courtesy of Alvina Mangrai. Unlike Indian curries, this dish is very mild, using turmeric, paprika, garlic, and ginger as the main herbs and spices.
As for sweets, I love the pumpkin coconut custard from Phiroum Svy. It is so simple, and I love the contrast of the smooth and creamy custard with the firmer pumpkin flesh. Plus, the presentation in the pumpkins is lovely.
What kinds of research did you have to do? How did you find these grandmothers? Can you describe the recipe-collection process?
I cooked with as many people as were willing and recorded the recipes as they were showing me how to make the dishes. Every time I cooked with someone, I’d bring my arsenal: timer, measuring cups, measuring spoons, measuring tape, my notebook, and my camera. It’s a good thing I’m quite the multitasker!
When a grandma merely motioned to chop cilantro or add soy sauce, I’d stick my cup or spoon in front of her and take measurements before she could do anything else. I found myself fishing packaging out of sinks and garbage cans just to note down the weight of those pork ribs or chicken wings that she just threw into the pot. It required a lot of dexterity and a lot of patience, but it worked.
Taking photographs also helped record many details I would have otherwise missed, and of course, when I got home I’d test the recipes to make sure they tasted the way they should.
Many of the grandmothers were related to friends or acquaintances, so I got lucky many times over. Friends would be like, ”My mom is visiting from Ohio, would you like to cook with her?” I was also very well connected to the Asian-American community in Seattle, so I had a very good network to tap.
When personal connections failed, I just tried my luck. I really wanted to learn about Lao dishes and recipes, so someone put me in touch with the deacon of a Lao church in Seattle, and he told me just to show up on a Sunday and he would introduce me to some good cooks. That’s what happened, and these women opened up their kitchens to me.
I also collected recipes through email and via phone from various people. There was a lot of back-and-forthing with these recipes, as inevitably ingredients or steps were left out, which led to some interesting results in the kitchen.
I also consulted old cookbooks, especially community cookbooks like church or temple cookbooks that were very popular fundraising projects.
What are your own emotional or cultural connections to the recipes in the book?
As an immigrant twice over, I’ve always realized that food and culture are very much intertwined. Food shapes us as a society, and in my case, food — together with the values my parents instilled in me — shaped who I am.
Indirectly through food, I learned customs and traditions; I learned the importance of having dinner together as a family; and I learned how to cook, which has become an indispensable skill now that I have my own family. Food was one of the vital links between me and the cultural network I didn’t grow up in.
In the same way, all grandmothers are the keepers of culture and the culinary flame, for their children and especially their grandchildren. Grandmothers are the closest link their grandchildren have to their homelands and their ethnic cultures.
Food also brings people together. When I was growing up, we’d have community events every other weekend, whether at church or within the Indonesian community, and there was always lots of food. Through my research for this book, I have discovered that when any Asian community gets together, food is always at the center of the gathering.
After writing this book, I am glad to know that I’m not the only one to experience these phenomena, but that they are so widespread.
What most surprised you about working with the grandmothers for this book?
This really shouldn’t have surprised me at all, but I was amazed at the generosity of these women that I met — with their time, their knowledge, their trust in me (in some instances they let me, a total stranger, into their houses), their stories. And not a single one allowed me to bring ingredients or reimburse them. Sometimes I had to clarify details multiple times with them even after the fact, but they answered my questions patiently. I was incredibly touched.
These women are not celebrities but grandmothers, mothers, wives, regular members of the community just like you and me. However, each and every one of them had a fascinating story to tell. Stories of fleeing the Communist regime on foot and/or by boat in the dark of night, stories of bitter sacrifice so that their children and grandchildren could lead better lives, stories of cooking and baking for hours on end to celebrate birthdays and holidays . . . the list goes on.
What was the most fun aspect of writing your book?
I got to meet so many amazing women who not only had wonderful tales to tell but also gave me private cooking lessons. These moments were priceless and will definitely not be replicated.
What has it been like seeing readers’ reactions?
I really wasn’t sure how the book would be received — aside from my family, friends, and the people who contributed — but I have been overwhelmed. People have been so receptive to both the stories and the recipes.
It’s been wonderful organizing events, talks, and demos, and getting to meet people who have nothing but warm praise for the book. The best part is that people always have their own stories to append about their grandmothers, cooking, and/or family recipes.
Do you have professional training as either a cook or a writer? How did you learn to cook? What was your own experience cooking with your mother when you were young?
I don’t have professional training as either a cook or a writer. I learned to cook from my mother, and I was an advertising/communications major in college and learned on the job as a PR and marketing professional (although it was a very different kind of writing).
I can’t say I was very much help in the kitchen when I was really young. But I do remember always being in the kitchen with my mum. I had a masak masak (it literally means “cook cook”) set which comprised a wok, a spatula, a “burner,” and a mortar and pestle. I’d squat on the kitchen floor “stir-frying” vegetable trimmings or pounding discarded lemongrass tips in my mortar right next to mum as she made the real food. As I got older, I graduated to helping make kue mangkok (an Indonesian version of cupcakes) by stirring the batter and pouring it into little teacups, or rolling lumpiah (spring rolls) or skewering satay.
My mum was and still is a serial taster. Every time she’d dip her finger into the sauce to see if it needed extra seasoning, I’d follow suit to taste what she tasted. So she didn’t formally teach me how to cook; it all happened through observation, copycatting, and osmosis. And I’m glad for it, because I’ve developed the taste buds and the culinary know-how to create all her dishes in my own kitchen today. It also helps that my mum is just a phone call away.
In your opinion, what is the most difficult aspect of being a writer?
I think staying motivated is one of the most difficult aspects of being a writer, especially a freelance one. This is definitely not a career for someone who expects overnight success and a six-figure income. (It can happen, but not for 99 percent of us!)
It’s easy to enjoy the writing life when you have lots of assignments coming in, you have a book deal in the works, and you don’t have writer’s block. But when you’ve pitched 100 queries and not one editor has bitten, or you haven’t written more than half a page after eight hours in front of your computer, or when a magazine hasn’t paid you after six months, it’s a little harder to see the bigger picture — i.e., why you chose this profession. And this is not something that just plagues beginners. I’ve spoken to very experienced writers who lament the same things, which can be very discouraging.
That’s why I think belonging to a writers’ group online and/or in person is one of the best career moves you can do for yourself as a writer. You can vent, ask for advice, or just break the monotony of working at home alone like many of us do.
Is there any particular junk food that you can’t resist now and then?
Please don’t judge me: Filet-o-fish from McDonald’s.
What’s the biggest food-related surprise you’ve ever had?
Living in England for two years, I discovered that British food isn’t so bad. I’ve come away with favorites like toad-in-the-hole and pasties that I make regularly. Oh, and their puddings are sublime.
Roz Cummins is a Boston-based food writer.
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything