In Search of Authenticity

CookbooksWalk down the cookbook aisle in any brick-and-mortar book store or surf any book-selling website and one can easily get overwhelmed by the number of cookbooks out there these days. While I generally like most cookbooks and spend hours reading through them, there is one trend that has emerged in the past few years I find alarming and disturbing: the neither-this-nor-that fusion east-meets-west cuisine cookbook.

No offense to the authors but your fill-in-the-blank-inspired creations are nothing but shallow, soulless, pieces of goo to my native Asian palate.

If you intend to make a Vietnamese dish, please create it according to the native way rather than just casually throwing in a few Vietnamese herbs or a few dashes of fish sauce. Would you call an all-American burger “Thai-inspired Burger” by substituting the typical lettuce leaves for say, mint leaves? Maybe you would. That’s my point precisely.

At least your books have impeccable food photography and your publishers strong marketing muscle.

And since I’m on a rant, don’t even get me started about Chinese food in the United States. Being of Chinese descent, it saddens me to see those so-called Chinese food chains (Panda Express & PF Changs alike) flourishing in America. Mind you, the last time I was in China and Hong Kong, I didn’t see any Orange Chicken or Beef and Broccoli on the menu.

Now if you are in search of authentic Asian cookbooks and recipes like I am, here are just a few Asian cookbooks that you should have on your shelf.

  1. “Authentic Recipes” series of cookbooks. I love everyone of them especially “Authentic Recipes from Malaysia” and “Authentic Recipes from Indonesia.” By the way, this series of cookbooks used to be branded “The Food of (Country).” The contents are essentially the same.
  2. Cradle of Flavor – James Oseland’s anecdotes, stories, and recipes are vivid illustrations of the cuisines of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
  3. Lonely Planet – World Food Malaysia and Singapore. Although there aren’t a lot of recipes in this book, it provides in-depth information about the foods of Malaysia and Singapore.
  4. Famous Street Food of Penang: A Guide & Cook Book. If you are a fan of Penang hawker food, this is an absolute must-have. You can find it at MPH book stores in Malaysia.

Famous Street Food of Penang: A Guide & Cook BookIn the sea of new-age, mishmash, and chichi culinary trends, I hope our native taste buds and distinct palate do not give in to mass market tastes created by conformists, marketers, or hipster wannabes. I beg to differ – I beg to be authentic – I beg to be real when it comes to my cooking.

P.S.: If you are a fan of fusion, modern, or east-meets-west cuisines, this article is by no means a personal attack or a critic of your lifestyle. This article voices my own personal opinion and culinary preference.


  1. Great article! The Authentic Cookbook series you mentioned is the same as “The Food of…” series. They are great.

  2. Thanks for the great reviews. Oredi ordered some books. Oh yes, found u from 5 kali mama links.

  3. Chubbypanda says:

    Hear hear!

    – CP

  4. Annapurna says:

    I concur in spades! I find that the traditional cuisine of most countries is being drowned by the fusion tsunami (and yes, it is a tsunami, crushing all history and cultural heritage in its wake). I live in Paris and it saddens me to see that you can find tagliatelle with salmon in almost any brasserie, but a classic like beef bourguignon has disappeared from virtually all menus.
    Personally, I cook a lot of thai and vietnamese food, even going so far as to invent recipes. However, I am a radical purist and I NEVER EVER use ingredients or cooking methods that are not native to those countries. All this to say: keep on ranting! Someone needs to carry this torch…

  5. fooDcrazEE says:

    relax – they are pleasing the palate of the locals there. How many times have we heard about their food here in Malaysia? The usual – thats not a burger – thats sh*t…

    try cooking some for them to taste and you will know what i meant

  6. I have found authenticity in, yes ! your RM Blog ! all the way & away (from home…..)

    I am & will be with you all the way … n away.

    Keep it up !

  7. Audrey Cooks says:

    Wow! looks like you’ve got the latest “Penang Hawker Food” guide. E&O with Star Publications. A good guide. I think when I go back to Penang, I will definately need it.

    Another good recipe book is the Nyonya Flavours also by Star Publications.

  8. Rasa Malaysia says:

    Annapurna – exactly my point. ;)

    Foodcrazee – I hear you, but I just wish that we don’t screw up the authencity of traditional recipes because of the fusion tsunami as Annapurna puts it.

    Tonixe – you’re one of my favorite readers as you continue to show me your support.

    Audrey – yes, I saw that cookbook but didn’t buy it because I was not impressed with the food photography (I know, I am such a snob!). That being said, I will buy it the next time I go home. Or maybe we can collaborate and make an even better ones. Hehe.

  9. Tummythoz says:

    New flavours/edibles r introduced. Availability of tradisional ingredients fluctuates, sometimes totally extinct/becomes illegal. Substitution becomes necessary. IMO tastes, likes, preferences r just very personal and evolves with time. Kinda like generation gap foodwise. *chin resting on right hand – feigning a wise look*

  10. Bee Ean Tee says:

    I talked to a Thai restaurant owner, and he told me that if the Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants in France don’t serve nem (spring roll), they don’t attract as much customers. Basically, when a French comes inside an Asian restaurant (except Jap & Korean), they expect to see nem on the menu.
    So, to survive, the Chinese restaurant has to include the nem eventhough it’s really a Vietnamese dish in which the Vietnamese don’t eat it dairy either.

  11. Chubbypanda says:

    Bee ean tee makes a good point. Sorts sounds like how a lot of Chinese restuarants in the States used to have to carry egg rolls and teriyaki chicken, ’cause Americans expected that it would be served. Or how Paad Thai is carried in most Thai places, even if it’s not specific to the region of cooking they serve. Restaurants are forced to adapt the to expectations of their clientele in order to survive.

    Lemon chicken anyone?

    – Chubbypanda

  12. Rasa Malaysia says:

    I agree, they have to “adapt” to the environment they are in to survive, but I just can’t stand it that they “localize” the food so much that they are no longer authentic, case-in-point: Chinese food in the US. The worst thing is that there are tons of cookbooks that “preach” this fusion-tsunami cooking style. I just think that if you want to write a Chinese, Thai, or any Asian cookbooks, be true and authenthic to its very core. I am talking recipes; they can do fancy things to the presentations, but the taste has got to be original.

  13. Annapurna says:

    I am afraid I disagree somewhat. I am sure there is a market for people who would like to discover “authentic” Asian food. Our ability to taste varieties of flavors and savors is being numbed by the globalization of food. When my friends come to dinner, they are more than happy to sample new flavors. In fact, they look forward to it. I don’t think they are particularly exceptional. So I don’t think a thai restaurant needs to serve pad thai in order to stay afloat. I think this is a niche that is only going to become more important and it’s word of mouth that ultimately makes or breaks a restaurant. If it’s good, the curious will come…and spread the word.

    PS I live in Paris, and am a restaurant-goer. I know many people who will go out of their way to go to restaurants that serve dishes you don’t find everywhere else.

  14. James Oseland says:

    Hi, it’s James, author of “Cradle of Flavor.” Thanks for your words! (And all the Penang listings bring tears to my eyes on this chilly New Yor City night….)

  15. James Oseland says:

    Oops–make that New YORK City.

  16. Rasa Malaysia says:

    Dear James,

    I can’t believe my own eyes when I saw your two comments here. I still can’t believe it as I am typing this…thanks so much for visiting Rasa Malaysia. It’s truly an honor, what I am feeling now is simply beyond words (actually I feel like jumping up and down my couch ala Tom Cruise style)!!

    Your writings, cookbook, and work inspire me.

    Thank you.

  17. Rasa Malaysia says:


    I hear you. Unfortunately, the majority would still go for teriyaki chicken, egg rolls and pad thai. The truth is they probably don’t know the difference between what is authentic and what’s not, so they just go for the usual suspects and what they are familiar with. That’s the reason why it’s so important that we travel to new countries, soak up local cultures, hang out with local people, try out local cuisines and immerse yourself in their lifestyles.

  18. Bee Yin, all your suggestions on read sounds great !! :)
    Gotta go disturb you & exchange cookbook readings one of these days. Btw, I’ve got here Easy 100 Pork Cookery by Amy Wong & James Wan, Hawker’s Fair Sauces by Alan Kok, another Hawker’s Fair Simplyfied, & Makanan Gerai Mamak by Margaret Cheng.

  19. Thanks so much on your food recommendations and recipe books. I will try to source them out…

  20. Rasa Malaysia says:

    Shirley / Tikus,

    Sure, let’s exchange cookbooks soon. Will have to schedule a time to meet up.

  21. Bee, Well put. There’s just one problem — what’s authentically ‘Chinese’? Eg. many Malaysian Chinese can’t take mainland-style Chinese food because of the amount of oil – which is very ‘authentic’. Still – I really appreciate your frustration with the neither here/nor there ‘fusion’ thing!

  22. don’t know the difference between what is authentic and what’s not, so they just go for the usual suspects and what they are familiar with. That’s the reason why it’s so important that we travel to new countries, soak up local cultures, hang out with local people, try out local cuisines and immerse yourself in their lifestyles.

  23. Thanis Lim says:

    I do admire the authenticity and tradition of recipes but for some reason my passion is still in mixing different cultures into my dishes. I especially like to use local South East Asian ingredients readily available to create Fusion dishes.

    Advantages include fresher in season ingredients – which is one of the most important basis for good dishes – and also matching the tastes of locals. It is by no means trying to commercialize food – but to be creative and it’s actually a joy when you try dish out South East Asian variations of classic dishes. Think about Tom Yum Tiger Prawns Linguine – A Laksa Pesto – that uses Daun Kesum and Sunflower Seeds instead of Basil and Pine Nuts – Coconut Pandan Creme Brulee – black sesame or Nasi Pulut Ice Cream – such are some of the exciting examples of marrying different cultures together.

    While it is important to stay true to tradition, which I believe in Malaysia – it is difficult to pass down to our younger generation, it is also important to be more open to try and mix cooking ingredients and techniques from other cultures.

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