The grandmother-as-kitchen-guru mystique transcends boundaries, from Italian nonnas to Jewish bubbes. Grandmothers have often been through hard times and know how to make a meal from meager ingredients. They’re usually adept at feeding large groups of people with varying tastes, and cook by instinct, rarely using recipes that exist on paper. This fall, a number of cookbook publishers are releasing books by Asian women of a certain age. The books are quite serious and not at all hokey or gimmicky, and span a range of nationalities, but all are written about--or by--Asian women over 60.
Encompassing Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Indian grandmothers, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens by Patricia Tanumihardja (Sasquatch, Oct.) features 130 recipes the author culled from Asian grandmas. The author, a food writer who unfortunately never knew her grandmothers, was nonetheless drawn to writing about Asian grandmothers’ recipes, finding that grandmas tend to be keepers of the cultural—and culinary—flame. “In Asian cultures, you tend to have three generations living under one roof,” Tanumihardja says. Grandmothers play a role of “passing on the culture and roots to their grandchildren.” None of them cook with recipes, Tanumihardja found. “It was a pinch of this a dash of that.” Although the women Tanumihardja talked to use flavors ranging from ginger to hot chilies, curries and vinegars, their food tends to be hearty and vibrantly flavored. And soy sauce seems to be ubiquitous.
While The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook may be the only upcoming book specifically focused on grandma’s cooking, there are also a number of titles by well-established Asian cookbook authors coming. They aren’t being pitched as cookbooks by grandmothers, per se, but they do share a homey, old world take on Asian cooking, devoid of trendy ingredients. At first glance, The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living (Wiley, Oct.) by Su-Mei Yu looks it might be a spa cookbook, with brightly-colored vegetables and a hot pot filled with fresh ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil on the cover. But inside, 63-year-old Yu, who was born of Chinese parents in Thailand and came to the U.S. at age 15, explains her book is about the “very old and wise path” toward a healthful, content life. Amid recipes for steamed fish with lime, chiles and garlic, Yu shares instructions for making tamarind, honey and yogurt face mask.
Harumi Kurihara, whom Julia Moskin of the New York Times called “the most famous of several modern Japanese domestic goddesses who pride themselves on raising domesticity to an art,” shares some of her favorite flavors from her childhood in Everyday Harumi: Simple Japanese Food for Family & Friends (Conran/Octopus Books, Sept.). Kurihara, 62, calls herself “a serious housewife” and is inspired by her traditional upbringing in a large family in central Japan. She’s been eating dishes like cucumber and wakame seaweed in sweet pickled dressing, and shares those recipes in this, her third book published in the U.S.
Finally, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, 72, is releasing her 12th Chinese cookbook this fall: Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. Lo was born in a suburb of Canton, China, and moved to the U.S. in 1959. She has been called a “Chinese Julia Child” and has credited her culinary knowledge in part to her own grandmother. In Mastering, she writes that her grandmother taught her how dishes should progress from mild (or cooler) to warmer throughout a meal; and that her grandmother—who presided over the family’s New Year meal—also explained Chinese New Year-related sayings and traditions.
Tanumihardja says grandmothers “are the closest link to their original culture; a lot of them were the first in their families to come to the U.S.” While writing down recipes may not be typical for them, for a new generation, it may be the best way to maintain that link.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.