Pot Luck

James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor

James Oseland unwrapping otak otak at Noodle House 88
The Chinese-Indonesian restaurant called Noodle House 88 on Bellaire at Beltway 8 is the subject of this week’s Café review. I ate there with Saveur Magazine’s editor in chief, James Oseland, who is an expert on Indonesian food.

“Once you get into Indonesian culture, you really get into it,” he told me. “It’s a very powerful thing.”

Over a pile of the Indonesian fish cakes called otak otak, Oseland explained how he got hooked on the Spice Islands. The son of an office products salesman, he grew up in an average middle class home in California. In 1982, he was studying film at the Art Institute in San Francisco. That year, his life changed dramatically when a classmate invited him to spend the summer at her family’s home in Indonesia.

Oseland was fascinated with Indonesian culture. When his friend went back to California for the fall semester, he remained in Southeast Asia. He spent the whole year there researching foodways and writing down recipes. In the two decades that followed, he returned to Indonesia more than 25 times.

His cookbook, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (WW. Norton $35), is the product of those 20 years of research. Illustrated partly with the author’s travel photos and partly with color food photography, it is the best book I have seen on Indonesian food and a delight to read. Some of the recipes, such as those for chicken and beef satay, sound pretty easy.

I took Oseland to visit Hong Kong City Mall after dinner. He was impressed with the wealth of Asian ingredients available in Houston. – Robb Walsh

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