Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Tastes of the Orient

‘That was the one thing I gagged at’, she says of the food she ate throughout her year in Ban Koi Noi. As for the rest, ‘It was earthy but it was nutritious and a lot of it was extremely delicious,’ says Brissenden, who was interested in the role of food in village life.

The author of the culinary classic South-East Asian Food was worried about a loss of culinary traditions in Asian cities and wondered whether the situation was the same in the countryside.

What she found was pretty much a subsistence lifestyle. Apart from the pork delivered each morning on a motorcycle, the villagers ate plants gathered from beside paths and in the rice fields, fish from the river, frogs, flying ants, crickets and termites, as well as homegrown chickens and produce from the house garden. Brissenden lived with a local family.

‘I went out into the fields, I watched them cooking, I was just part of the scene. I went [to Thailand] to see what the food situation was like but I became fascinated by the whole village life.’

So fascinated that it will be the subject for her next book. In the meantime, she is promoting her recently revised South-East Asian Food. The authoritative and ground-breaking book has sold steadily since it was first published by Penguin in 1969, at a time when such food was relatively unknown and exotic in this country.

It was the first book of its kind which attempted to discuss and characterise the food of the region, though Brissenden was limited by the political events of that time, covering only Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai food. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were included in a revised edition in 1996.

Martin Boetz, chef at Sydney’s acclaimed Longrain restaurant, called South-East Asian Food his bible, praising it for its ‘phenomenal detail’ and for being ahead of its time. Elizabeth David listed it among the books every serious cook should possess.

High praise indeed for its author, who grew up in the Pacific islands in the 1930s when her father was posted by the Victorian Department of Education to Nauru, and later the Solomon Islands, to help establish their education systems. Some of her earliest memories from that time involve food. She remembers eating a bowl of fragrant steaming noodle soup with seafood and fresh herbs at the age of four, during a family visit to a small Chinese trading settlement.

It was one of the bright spots in the ‘rather boring and repetitive Anglo-Saxon diet adhered to by expatriate colonial service communities at the time’. Tropical fruits and exotic foodstuffs fired her imagination, yet it was many years before she discovered the huge variety of delights that were possible in food.

‘Our daily fare was built around supplies brought in on ships once every six weeks and tinned corned beef, soups, cold-climate vegetables and fruit. The 40s and early 50s in Australia brought little gastronomic joy. Rationing, followed by seven years of bad boarding school food, could only contribute a sense of what good food should not be like.’

In 1957, Brissenden, then a student in Melbourne, went to Indonesia for three months with a goodwill delegation of Australian students. It was there that she discovered the joys present in the sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter tastes that could stand alone or be mixed and matched, the textures that were creamy, crunchy, cleansing or rich, the flavours and aromas based on herbs and roots, and age-old techniques of fermentation and food preservation.

All were a revelation, and in time she came to make similar discoveries throughout the rest of south-east Asia. On her return to Australia, she searched for a book on the subject, without success.
‘Melbourne Uni at that time was one of the major centres for Colombo Plan students, so I sought out Asian students, watched them when they cooked, picked their brains and started to develop a bit of a repertoire of my own,’ she said.

In 1958, after graduating from Melbourne University with a BA (Hons) in politics, Brissenden moved to Canberra, where she lives today. She was appointed a research fellow in international relations at the Australian National University, where her academic career continued until 1984.

Brissenden’s late husband, Bob, worked in the English department at ANU and during the mid-60s he held a second job as literary editor of The Australian, then in its infancy. When she suggested to the newspaper’s editor, Max Newton, that the newspaper needed a column on south-east Asian food, she was asked to write it.

‘It was then I realised what I didn’t know.’ But she took to the task enthusiastically, and the column soon aroused the interest of Penguin. Thus, in 1965, a heavily pregnant Brissenden embarked on a six-week tour of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where she was welcomed into private homes and kitchens.

At the time of the book’s publication in 1969, ‘the whole south-east Asian ingredient thing was a problem. You had to be devoted. You had to be really keen on the food to make the effort of finding ingredients.’ Brissenden bought dried spices and made her own coconut milk from desiccated coconut.

‘The big difference came after the end of the Vietnam War when the Indo-Chinese refugees came to Australia. Their main entry into economic life in Australia was through food, not only in restaurants but in bringing food into the country.’

In the decades since the book was first published Brissenden has found that much has changed within Asia itself. The most obvious changes in terms of its food has been the loss of culinary skills brought about by rapid urbanisation.

‘When I was first in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in the 1960s there was very little in the way of electricity. You might have had a kerosene stove if you were wealthy, otherwise it was charcoal.

‘They were rural economies and the capitals were just emerging from the colonial period. People lived in extended families, they had cooks, they had grandmothers who supervised and were in control of the culinary activities in the household. Culinary knowledge, skill and activity were all passed down through the generations.’

Today, in cities such as Jakarta and Bangkok, there are more nuclear families and few servants. It takes a long time to negotiate the traffic to get to work, so people often have breakfast in the car or stop at a street market to pick up dinner on the way home.

‘Supermarkets have whole bags and refrigerators full of ingredients already packed, and there’s the attraction for American fast food. There’s much less cooking done in the household, and this has meant a huge loss of skills.’

Brissenden says such changes are inevitable, and that it can’t be wrong for people to enjoy greater choices and a growing affluence. But she is worried that south-east Asia is following a similar path to that of western countries. The original south-east Asian cuisines showed great eclecticism, having been built on a ‘large number of fascinating influences and an assertion of individual development of culinary heritage, and I find it a pity that that is being lost.’

Given her academic background, it is not surprising that Brissenden takes a scholarly approach to her research, though her writing is far from tedious.

From the outset, Brissenden has been intrigued by the culinary patterns of south-east Asia: ‘There are individual cuisines in the various countries but also echoes between countries.’

This has led her to examine trade and migration patterns and the role they play in the evolution of the various cuisines. Brissenden says that while the cuisines of each country display individual characteristics, an overall regional character is also recognisable, as a consequence of common historical, cultural and ecological experiences. She believes that with people’s increasing familiarity with Asian ingredients and flavours, there are many who ‘want to go a bit deeper’ with their cooking and who seek more substance in the books they buy.

Rather than organising her recipes into categories such as soups and main dishes, she has arranged them according to ingredients and the ways in which they are cooked. Part of her reasoning was that a category such as soups is an odd notion in this context: ‘really they are just wet dishes ... some we might identify as soups, some as stews’. But she also hopes that by organising the book in this way, it allows readers to better develop their expertise.

‘South-east Asian cooks don’t have recipe books, they taste everything individually. They make their own spice pastes and adjust the five basic flavours—sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter—to their own taste, and this is something I’ve tried to encourage in this book. People should not take the measures as being authoritative.’

Brissenden admits that entertaining with south-east Asian food is often difficult, since the shopping and preparation is time-consuming.

‘If you are cooking this kind of food you do have to immerse yourself in it,’ she said. ‘I’ve given shortcuts but I have to say I do believe that spending a bit more time cooking in a relaxed way is coming back in. A lot of people who are working very hard find it extremely relaxing to do something completely different.’  ?

South-East Asian Food by Rosemary Brissenden, has been revised and re-released by Hardie Grant, isbn 1 740 66013 7, rrp $49.95.

Christine Salins is a Canberra based freelance writer. She edited The Canberra Times Food & Wine supplement from 1994–2003.

Rosemary Brissenden will eat almost anything—except perhaps the termites, procured from a
rotten stump, offered to her while living in a village in Thailand.




submit a comment

Similar Articles

Looking through the cracks

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 14 May 2006

When men are cooked for, the call is for lots of fried red meat and spuds, with bacon featuring everywhere. But when they take to the stove, it’s a different story.


Book reviews

  • Nathan Kensey, Daniel Marti, Aaron Martin, Beth Doherty
  • 14 May 2006

Reviews of the books: Who did this to our Bali?; Off Course: From Public Place to Marketplace at Melbourne University; Dark Dreams, Australian refugee stories by young writers; A history of the devil:  From the Middle Ages to the present.