James Oseland: A Master of Spices Talks about Coriander, Great Asian Markets and His Favorite Kitchen Tool

 James Oseland, author of Cradle of Flavor

James Oseland, author of Cradle of Flavor

One blustery morning last November I found myself huddled over a glass of lukewarm tea at Happy Joy, a blue collar Malaysian-Cantonese eatery on Canal Street in New York. Most days this small pink-walled, lineoleum-floored restaurant is thronged with hungry people coming and going from work, but today, Sunday, there are just a few bleary-eyed Chinese families in puffy down jackets hunkered down over steaming bowls of noodle soup.

A dozen red-lacquered ducks hang in the front window and their fragrance—or it the smell of succulent roast pork?—is driving me mad with hunger. I scan the enormous menu, which features “Famous Malaysian Hawker Food,” wondering about specialties such as Congee with 1000 Year Old Eggs, Curry Beef Skids Soup, and the many varieties of handmade noodles. I want to order everything.

The door bursts open and James Oseland blows in on a gust of icy wind. His nose is red from the cold and he has a long woolen scarf double-wrapped around his neck. Small and slight, with bright inquisitive eyes, the new executive editor of Saveur throws off so much energy that the desultory atmosphere in the restaurant is suddenly charged. Heads swivel, eyes widen. The waitress, clearly intrigued, sidles over to our table. They confer intensely over the menu. James jumps up to investigate the prepared food counter across the room, studies the menu again, and finally orders wonton mee for both of us, thin yellow noodles with dark soy sauce and scallions, topped with fish balls for him and some of that roast pork for me.

Over breakfast, we chatted about his new book, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, arguably the best, and certainly the most enthralling, cookbook of 2006. It is the tale of two decades of passionate travel through the seductive tropical islands where spices grow and, equally, of the extraordinary cooks who shared the secrets of their aromatic cuisine. The recipes are delicious, rigorously authentic and, thanks to Oseland’s intelligent advice on ingredients and cooking methods, very accessible to American readers. (See my review of Cradle of Flavor here.)

This is a portion of our conversation:

Q. Why did you call your book Cradle of Flavor?

A. It’s pretty basic. That part of the world—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore—was my place of apotheosis. It was where my palate woke up, so it’s my own “cradle of flavor.” I used my experiences there as a conduit for the reader, to convey a sense of place and to put the food into context. And then so many of our best-loved flavors come from there—nutmeg, cloves, mace, ginger, lemongrass. We’re beginning to discover some of the lesser known aromatics too, such as galangal.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book?

A. Five years—except it really took 20, if you take into account that I was writing it in my head for that many years!

Q. Where did you write most of it—in New York, on the road?

A. I wrote about half of it in my Brooklyn home, and the other half in Kerala, South India, and in Malaysia and Indonesia.

I actually finished the book in Kuala Lumpur, which is the most amazing food city. I rented a room so I could hunker down and get it done. There were at least 20 hawker stalls right down the street and every night I would plan out what I would eat for breakfast the next day—nasi lemak [ginger-scented coconut rice] or idlis [steamed rice cakes] with curry or dal. After breakfast, I would have to plan what to eat for lunch and then an afternoon snack.

I also made friends with some illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who had a room across the alley. They were great cooks and invited me to share their food—usually fantastically spiced biryanis and mango pickle. They were amazingly accommodating hosts.

Q. Do you cook at home?

A. Not much right now. The magazine keeps me busy. This morning I’ve been trying to finish the Saveur 100 list for the January issue.

But a year ago I’d make a curry that would extend for a day or two, with rice, invariably, and stir-fried Asian greens such as choi sum. When I made rice for the curry, I’d double or triple the quantity. Then the next day I’d make beautifully stir-fried rice, very simple, with fried red chiles, kecap manis [Indonesian sweet soy sauce], and shallots or garlic. Or a pared down Chinese rice with light soy sauce, browned garlic, egg, black pepper, and fresh green chiles.

Q. What’s your favorite kitchen tool?

A. My Cuisinart Mini-Prep food processor.

Q. Seriously? I would have guessed a mortar and pestle.

A. Yeah, it would be nice to do everything that way, but I don’t have time. In places like Jakarta food is still mostly prepared by hand because there are so many people to help. Around 10 o’clock in the morning the women of the house get together in the kitchen. A friend from next door might stop by and maybe a couple of cousins or aunts. Everyone chops and grinds ingredients to make fresh spice pastes for that day’s meals. But the Cuisinart is a perfectly good substitute.

Q. Where do you shop for spices in New York?

A. Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. The turnover is fast and the quality is great.

Q. What are your favorite markets in other parts of the world?

A. In Padang, there’s Pasar Besar Kota Padang. The best thing is the vast section (sections, really) dedicated to all the aromatics used in local dishes—shallots, galangal, fresh spices, daun pandan [vanilla-scented pandan leaf]; and most of all, ruby red chiles called lada merah in Bahas Minang, the local language.

In Kuala Lumpur, Pasar Pudu is a rambling produce and meat market not far from the center of town where shoppers make a beeline for an amazing mix of ingredients, including Indian spices, Chinese vegetables, and Malay aromatics.

There’s a market in Bangkok that has fabulous stalls manned by people from Isaan, Thailand’s northeast and home of its spiciest food. I also like Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City, which is apparently the world’s largest market. My favorite thing? The aisles and aisles of mole vendors, offering sumptuous smelling moles in seemingly endless variety.

Q. How about here in the U.S.?

A. The Saturday morning farmers market in central Stockton, California specializes in pristine, mostly Asian produce—a visit there is like a trip to Southeast Asia.

Q. So where do you get your vegetables in New York?

A. I go to a lot of places in Chinatown, but one I really like is Choi Kun Heung on Chrystie Street. It’s small and a little hard to find, but you can get beautifully fresh vegetables there—baby bok choi, garlic chives, long beans.

Q. If you had to pick a single spice you couldn’t live without, what would it be.

A. Coriander—there’s something so exquisitely, richly fragrant about that spice, plus I love its adaptability. The seeds were first brought to the Malay archipelago by Indian spice traders and they soon became a keystone ingredient, especially in the earthy, zesty flavoring pastes and marinades of Java. Two types of seeds are available: One is round and light brown to tan and has a lemony taste. The other is egg shaped and has a green-yellow tint, with a fresher, grassier taste. It’s especially important to use whole seeds rather than the preground spice, as the latter has little taste. The best, freshest-tasting coriander seeds come from Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani spice shops. They usually carry both varieties and have a high turnover, ensuring aromatic seeds.
Moments later James hurried off to buy a few ingredients for the cooking class he was giving that evening at the Institute of Culinary Education. Among the wondrous dishes we made that night was Acar Terung, a South Indian-Style Eggplant Pickle. Chunks of pre-fried Japanese eggplant were stirred into a vibrant flavoring paste of dried red chilies, garlic, ginger, and fennel, cumin and—yes—coriander seed.

I left with a gift—two envelopes, one of fiery black peppercorns “from somebody’s backyard in India” and another of enormous nutmegs from the Banda Islands. Yesterday, I made James’ version of Spekkuk, or Indonesian spice cake, using one of those wildly fragrant nutmegs. For that recipe, go here.
Happy Joy Restaurant, 125 Canal Street, New York NY 10002, 212-388-0264. Patel Brothers, 3727 74th Street, Flushing, NY 11372-6337,
718-898-3445, www.patelbrothersusa.com. Order the Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus Processor from www.amazon.com. Stockton Saturday Farmers’ Market, 208-934-1830, www.stocktonfarmersmarket.org.

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