Often I choose books that focus on a single cuisine but in the case of Bowlful by Norman Musa, I was drawn in by the promise of fresh and vibrant dishes from across Southeast Asia. Born in Penang, Malaysia, experienced chef and author Musa has spent much of his life exploring the cultures and cuisines of the wider region, developing recipes based on the flavours, techniques and dishes he has encountered.
What appeals to me about this book is the prevalence of familiar favourites such as Pad thai, Gado gado salad, Massaman duck curry and Banh mi alongside dishes I’ve not eaten or cooked before, such as Javanese lamb curry, Pansuh baked chicken and Kacang pool three bean stew.
In his ‘Introduction’, Musa admires the way that Southeast Asian dishes are “packed with diverse ingredients, rich in herbs and spices, and have such exquisite flavours“. His collection of recipes focuses on the foods of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines. He discovered many similarities in the way the people of these countries cook and eat, not least the way that food is most commonly served and eaten in bowls, hence the book’s title.
In an essay on ‘Southeast Asian Cuisine & Eating Culture’, Musa underlines both the similarities and the differences in the cuisines of each country, not to mention the (occasionally contentious) examples of dishes that multiple countries claim to have originated! ‘The Bowlful Cupboard’ provides helpful guidance to 46 key ingredients, and is followed by a guide to solo bowls, communal bowls, signature bowls and tapas bowls.
Recipes are presented in three main sections for Salads, Curries and Stir-fries, and Noodles & Rice. Curries and Stir-fries is subdivided into Fish & Seafood, Meat & Poultry, Vegetarian and Plant-based chapters), and Noodles & Rice is split into Meat & Seafood, and Vegetarian and Plant-based categories.
At the start of each chapter is a list of all the recipes within, which makes it easy to find what you are looking for. This is supplemented by a decent index, though you won’t be able to search by original language names in most instances. Throughout the book recipe names are given only in English, often describing the key ingredients, and sometimes the cooking technique – gado gado, pad thai, and adobo are among the few exceptions. I’d love to also see original language names of dishes (transcribed into the roman alphabet) and to be told which country every recipe is from (which is the case for only some dishes).
In some of my cookbooks about Southeast Asian cuisines, recipes sometimes have a dauntingly long list of ingredients and a similarly extensive set of instructions. The recipes in Bowlful are nearly all short and sweet (I can find only 2 that spill into second pages) with the instructions often pared down to just 3 or 4 short paragraphs.
Not all recipes have an image but many do. Photos are bright, colourful and utterly tantalising, simple served in a varied selection of bowls (as you’d expect given the book’s premise), without the fussy styling or plating that can be discouraging in books aimed at the home cook.
So far we’ve enjoyed Musa’s Chicken Adobo, Kalio Chicken Curry and Javanese Lamb Curry, all of which were very straightforward and easy to make. We really appreciate that the 80 recipes in Bowlful are simple enough for beginners, work very well for weekday meals when time and energy are often limited, and offer a great way to bring delicious Southeast Asian flavours to the table.
Recipes from Bowlful
We have permission from Pavilion to share these three fantastic recipes with you from the book: [coming soon]
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Bowlful: Fresh and vibrant dishes from Southeast Asia by Norman Musa from publishers Pavilion. Book photography by Luke J Albert.