`Seafood of South-East Asia' by noted culinary writer Alan Davidson, the author of `The Oxford Companion to Food' is a reference book which a serious cook must have in their library where time is spent deciding on what to eat rather than time spend actually cooking. This book belongs to a rare breed of books in English such as Elizabeth Schneider's `Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini' or `Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients' which thoroughly cover a broad single subject. This volume is cut from exactly the same cloth and sewn with an almost identical pattern to the author's two other classics, `Mediterranean Seafood' and `North Atlantic Seafood'.
All three books are organized in the same way that gives primacy to information on the aquatic species and secondary coverage of recipes.
Biological family, genus, and species organize the first part on the catalog of species in order that the biological similarity of the fishes is clearly shown. Each article gives the most common English name, the two part Latin scientific name, the scientist who assigned this name (most commonly the great inventor of biological Taxonomy, Linnaeus), the biological family name, and the common name of the fish in virtually every language of the major fishing nationality bordering the relevant body of water. This Southeast Asian volume includes names found in the languages of United Arab Emirates, Bengal, Tamil, Singhalese, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Japan. I have not seen any differentiation between the different languages of, for example, China and the Philippines. I would guess that Chinese names are in Cantonese and the Philippine names are in Tagalog. These names in themselves are entertaining to the linguistically inclined, as it is interesting to see the similarities and differences from country to country.
The articles on every species also have a highly detailed black and white drawing of each animal. The great value to these is that it makes comparing the appearance of different fishes very easy, as every species is depicted in a similar style. It is too bad they could not be depicted to scale, but this would have had the sturgeon filling two pages while the anchovies would be the size of a period. Instead, the remarks on each fish give the average market length and a description of the typical color and markings.
The catalog entry also gives a paragraph or two on cuisine, which is a discussion of the culinary desirability of the species and typical ways in which the animal is prepared. For most fish, this includes methods by which the fish is butchered. The catalog entries also include a list of recipes and page numbers for these recipes in the second major section of the book.
The second major section divides recipes by country. This volume gives us eight chapters on recipes from Burma; Thailand; Cambodia; Vietnam; China and Hong Kong; The Philippines; Indonesia; and Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.
One is tempted to expect these recipes to be very generic and not as interesting as those you may find in books of `haute cuisine' from a fish specialist such as Eric Rippert. This is partially true. Davidson is less the great cook than he is a great fish and food scholar. This means that while his recipes may come from common sources, he gives us much more information on the background of the recipes than the chef may do. A good example of this is in his coverage of Filipino dishes. I compared his `Fish Sinigang' recipe to the `Sinigang Na Bangus' recipe in `Filipino Cuisine' by Gerry Gelle and found that Davidson's recipe was as good or better than the one given by the Filipino chef. True to Davidson's scholarly approach, he describes what type of fish works well in this recipe, even though both he and Gelle specify milkfish (bangos). One odd fact is that Gelle's name for the fish is one Davidson attributes to Malaysia. May be due to linguistic duality between northern and southern Philippines. As with all cuisines, Davidson gives expert advice on cookbooks of the Filipino cuisines, especially as he says cookbook writing is a well-developed discipline in the islands. Icing on the cake is Davidson's overview of Filipino fish cures. One method even looks suspiciously like the famous Caribbean technique that developed into barbecue.
One great delight was the fact that the book includes information on Gasteropods (Snails, limpets, conches, etc), sea turtles, and seaweed. You may not be cooking turtle soup any time soon, but you will know your stuff the next time you watch `Babette's Feast'! My point here is that this book is simply great fun to read and to use as a source of ideas for unusual new recipes.
Unlike the books on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the bibliography shows that the author has based most of his material on sources written in English or French. While Davidson was a diplomat with serious language skills, either these skills did not extend to oriental languages OR most of the good stuff is written in English and French anyway. One of the greatest things about all these volumes is that all of this great material is available in trade paperbacks, which list for no more than $25. For you devotees of second hand bookstores, please note the author's warning that the first edition of this volume apparently had more than a usual number of errors and all known errors were corrected in the second edition.
These are must have books for devoted foodies! A quick look at the list of species in the table of contents shows that almost all of the common named fishes show up on the ice or in the tanks of your favorite local megamart or fishmonger. I am certain that your Maine lobster will not mind being dressed in a recipe tailored to an Asian spiny lobster, although Alton Brown has quipped that the Maine flesh is slightly sweeter.