Book Review

The Elephant Walk Cookbook

by Longteine De Monteiro and Katherine Neustadt

Houghton Mifflin Co., 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116. 324 pages. Hardcover. 7-1/2 by 10 inches. Color photographs. $35.00.
(Price/availability info may have changed since original publication of review.)

Reviewed by Clytia Chambers(1/1999)

After browsing through The Elephant Walk Cookbook and finding myself quite captivated by the way it blended insights into the Cambodian culture, practical advice on where to get the necessary ingredients, gorgeous color photographs and what seemed, even at first sight, tantalizing recipes, I looked for an excuse to carry a review of it in the Fruit Gardener. I was encouraged, during that first browsing, by Longteine De Monteiro's reference to the garden around her childhood house in Phnom Penh with its array of fruit trees: coconut palms, jackfruit, longan, papayas, bananas, star fruit, jujubes, pomelos.

Two further thoughts made me believe our readers would like to know about this book. The first was the inclusion of some not-so-common vegetables -- long beans, chayote, bitter melon, to cite only a few -- as well as flavorings like tamarind juice and coconut milk. The second was my long-standing observation that CRFG members' love of exotic fruits goes along with a more general appreciation for good and unusual food. I can assure you that you won't be disappointed.

Each recipe is heralded by a sidebar that describes the dish. Here's the description that goes with Caramelized White Fish with Fried Garlic:

"In this braise, slices of firm white fish are cooked in a rich caramelized sauce, infused with the taste of pork, fried garlic and pepper. It's a delicious dish that has an elegant look to it but is simple to prepare. Whatever kind of fish you use (and I have even had it made with mackerel, which was splendid), try to keep the pieces whole while cooking. I like to accompany the dish with rice and any of the pickles in this book."

Coconut and coconut milk, so well described by Fran Jenkins in the November/December CRFG Kitchen, show up in quite a few of the book's recipes. This is not unexpected in desserts, but read this sidebar to Noodles with Red Sauce and Coconut:

"Rich with a sauce of coconut milk and bright red chili paste, these noodles are lightened by crisp green vegetables and the tart lime juice. In the markets in Cambodia, you can buy cooked noodles in circular bundles called chavai and choose any kind of sauce to accompany them. This one was always one of my daughters' favorites. Most Cambodians would use only coconut milk for the sauce, but I add chicken broth as well to make it a little lighter; it also contributes flavor."

The 150 recipes in this book are very varied. De Monteiro, although born to an upper-class family in Cambodia, is not a traditional snob. Some of the dishes were created in the kitchens of aristocrats; others are virtually peasant food.

Variety is contributed, too, by history and geography. As a result, Cambodian cooks adapted the art of blending spice pastes from India, borrowed soy sauce and noodles from China, discovered techniques for baking good bread from France and got chili peppers, beans, tomatoes, and corn from Portuguese and Spanish Colonialists. The result is a rich interweaving of influences in dishes that feature the nation's abundant fruits vegetables, seafoods, fresh herbs, and spices.

These ingredients, of course, are available in the United States and elsewhere, too -- otherwise De Monteiro could never have founded perhaps the first Cambodian restaurant abroad in France and later, three other restaurants after she moved to the United States. One is The Elephant Walk Restaurant in Boston that gives the book its name.

As I tried some of these recipes and imagined others from the tantalizing sidebar descriptions, I was, once again, overcome by regret at not having enjoyed more of this cuisine when I lived in Cambodia some 40 years ago as the wife of an American diplomat. But snobbery ruled: Our Vietnamese cook prepared French dishes, the King's staff served exquisite French meals in the palace, Cambodians took you out to eat in a Chinese or French restaurant when they entertained. It wasn't until we moved to Washington, D.C. and renewed our acquaintance with the Cambodian ambassador -- who appreciated good food whatever its origin -- that we were truly introduced to some of the best of Khmer cuisine. This book of Cambodian recipes, so ably compiled Longteine De Monteiro and her co-author Katherine Neustadt, will help me make up for lost time.


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