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Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia

by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid are renowned for their award-winning cookbooks, Flatbreads and Flavours and Seductions of Rice. Like those two offerings, their new book, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, arises from their passion for travel and non-Western cuisines. Alford and Duguid travelled the Mekong River south from Yunnan China, through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in order to understand how the river has influenced the cuisines of the myriad peoples of the region. Many of these areas were previously closed to Westerners, and their book is a ground-breaking survey of a diverse region linked, in part, by a palate made up of the four sensations that give the book its title.

To many Westerners, the recipes here may seem “exotic”– green papaya salad, from Vietnam; shrimp in hot lime leaf broth, from Thailand; pepper-salt tofu, from Yunnan; smoked fish and green mango, from Cambodia. But that’s the great beauty of the book. Alford and Duguid take an almost anthropological approach to recipe collecting. Dividing the book into chapters covering specific ingredients and preparations, such as salads, fish and seafood, and sweets and drinks, they draw recipes for each from the homes and restaurants of the dozens of villages, towns, and cities they visited.

The emphasis is on authenticity: very few ingredient substitutions are made, and instructions and sources are meticulously recorded. (Despite this, the dishes are surprisingly simple, and mail-order sources are given for rare ingredients.) Each chapter also holds captivating anecdotes about the authors’ experiences, and excellent photographs.

Alford and Duguid’s Mekong appears, in the end, as a sort of natural infrastructure facilitating the spread of culinary culture. As such, they aptly compare the river to the Mediterranean Sea. But while there are many cookbooks celebrating Mediterranean cuisine, Hot Sour Salty Sweet is the first to do so for the Mekong. It does so superbly.