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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #37 (September 7, 2004), page 16.
Create unique but daunting Asian culinary masterpieces
Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass:
By Wendy Hutton
Tuttle Publishing, 2004
Hardcover, 224 pages, $35.00
By Pamela Ellgen
The beautiful cover, boastful introduction, and bountiful research in Wendy Hutton’s Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass cookbook led me to believe I would soon be in culinary paradise. Unfortunately, the first few recipes I tried left me hungry. But before I gave the cookbook two thumbs down, I wanted to try one last dish, ga xao hot dieu, or stir-fried chicken with mango and cashews.
I began testing the recipes in Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass with my husband’s personal favorite, the ubiquitous pad thai. This is where my disappointment began.
According to Hutton, "Thai food is the most emphatically flavored of all Southeast Asian cuisines." However, after sampling the finished product, I wanted to add more coriander, lime, and fish sauce.
And Hutton’s instruction on using rice stick noodles was unclear to the point that they were still hard and chewy when finally put on the plate.
Maybe favorites such as pad thai should be left only to the experts. I moved on to what I hoped was a more doable dish.
The green papaya salad looked like a perfect complement to a family Easter brunch. But after my less-than-successful pad thai experience, I decided to save the exotic for another day.
At my local grocery store, much of the produce is displayed before it is ripe. This fact made finding a green papaya easy. I also bought several birds-eye chilies, a tomato, green beans, and fresh limes. The dish really had a lot going for it; usually you can’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables. The problem was in the papaya. Not even the two teaspoons of sugar called for and a somewhat-sweet tomato could balance its bitterness. And the texture of the dish resembled a smashed sea anemone instead of an appetizing salad.
Traditionally in Southeast Asian cuisine, the balance of the four flavors — hot, sour, spicy, and sweet — need not take place in a single dish, but may be spread throughout the meal. Of the four flavors, the papaya salad was hot, thanks to the chilies; it was sour — a little lime goes a long way; and it was salty, with enough fish sauce to make my kitchen fragrant. But sweetness would have to come from another dish. After this recipe I began to lose hope that any of the recipes in Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass would turn out.
I moved on to what seemed the most simple recipe in the book, Lacy Malay pancakes, with only four ingredients. Though the pancakes turned out differently than I expected — they were very soft and moist instead of crisp as they looked in the picture — they paired nicely with chunks of sweet mango. My hopes for the cookbook brightened and I decided to try one last dish.
Though Hutton describes stir-fried chicken and cashews as a "Chinese restaurant cliché," this dish had several unique elements — mango, tomato, and sugar snap peas — found throughout Vietnamese versions of the dish, making it entirely original to the Western palate, not to mention delicious. Even better, it took under an hour to prepare and serve. At last, one recipe that redeemed the hours I spent searching for obscure ingredients and hovering over a sizzling wok for the previous few.
I recommend this cookbook to the Asian cooking enthusiasts who already have an ample supply of coriander growing in their garden and toasted dried shrimp paste in their cupboards, and those who don’t mind experimenting with a recipe a few times before they intend to enjoy the finished product. My faith in the culinary virtuosity of Wendy Hutton was restored with the chicken and mango stir fry, but for the at-home chef who needs a cookbook that will deliver every time, keep looking.
Stir-fried chicken with mango and cashews
Using a sharp-pointed knife, cut the mango lengthways, following the stone to remove the two "cheeks" of flesh. Cut diagonal slashes across each mango cheek, ½ inch apart, taking care not to cut right through the skin. Use a spoon to ease out the mango slices.
Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt.
Heat the oil in a wok until very hot, then add the chicken and deep fry in two separate batches, stirring frequently, until just cooked, two minutes. Remove with slotted spatula and drain on paper towel.
Pour out all but three tablespoons of oil from the wok. Re-heat the oil and stir-fry the garlic and chili over medium heat for a few seconds. Increase the heat, add the snow peas, and stir-fry one minute. Add chicken and fish sauce mixture, stirring to mix well, then put in the reserved mango slices, tomato, and cashews. Stir for about 30 seconds until heated through, taking care not to smash the mango. Transfer to a dish and serve with steamed rice.