Tom Parker Bowles, et al., Lonely Planet’s The World’s Best Spicy Food

cover artRegarding the growing popularity of spicy and hot food, I feel rather the way I do when one of my favorite musicians suddenly gets very popular. I’ve been eating hot chiles since the 1960s, long before you could get any kind of hot sauce except Tabasco in a store. I was an “early adopter” of Huy Fong’s Sriracha and Chili Garlic sauces, back when you had to search for them in the aisles of Asian stores hidden away in out-of-the-way strip malls. Now Sriracha, popularly known as Rooster Sauce, is more often than not piled in big bins right by the checkout counters of mainstream mega-grocers.

Oh, well. I could see the writing on the walls a few years ago when it was announced that more “salsa” was sold in the U.S. than ketchup. (Of course, a lot of that salsa is labeled as “mild,” which to me is an oxymoron on the order of semi-boneless roast or jumbo shrimp.)

Obviously, this popularity has spread to the entire English-speaking world, and the folks at the Australia-based Lonely Planet series of travel books have hit on the idea of combining a travel book and cookbook focused on spicy food. If you’re the type of traveler who only stays at all-inclusive resorts where they feed you only the foods of your native land or pale imitations of local fare; or if you’re one who searches out the KFC and McDonalds franchises wherever you go, you’re probably not interested in this book. But maybe you should be. Conversely, maybe you’ve been tempted to visit that Thai or Ethopian or Croatian restaurant in your town or neighborhood, but didn’t know what to order, or didn’t know what was in that yummy-looking dish and were embarrassed to ask – well, this book’s for you.

Tom Parker Bowles is the lead author, and he’s joined by 29 other Lonely Planet staffers, bloggers and contributors. It looks to me as though they’re mainly travel writers who’ve been called on to contribute a few bits about the foods they’ve encountered in their travels, and even suggest a likely spot to find the dishes and how much it’ll cost you. That’s the layout of the book, anyway: Each dish gets its own two-page spread, with a write-up about it, maybe its history and the context in which it’s eaten and perhaps an explanation about some of the ingredients; that’s followed by a “where you’ll find it” bit, and then a recipe for it. Each is illustrated with photos of the country and its people, and some foodstuffs that are at least somewhat related to the recipe.

I like to read travel books, and a like cookbooks, especially those about spicy, exotic foods. I found this book to be an enjoyable read for the most part. I liked some of the contributors’ styles more than others. Mr. Parker Bowles’s style is a little more “gee-whiz” and breezy than I care for, but most of the writers are competent, although sometimes it’s obvious they’ve had to create more than a little filler in order to take up the space they’ve been allotted.

My only serious quarrel is with the book’s arrangement: The entries are alphabetical. Therefore, you get Goulash from Hungary followed by Groundnut Soup from Ghana, followed by Hong Shao Niu Rou Mian from Tiawan, then Hot Chicken from Nashville, Tennessee. Reading this as an American, I’d be perplexed by “groundnuts” which we call peanuts, so how would I even find this chapter in the index? What’s “Hong Shao Niu Rou Mian”? Beef noodle soup, it turns out. Why are Asian recipes called by their Asian names, but Groundnut Soup isn’t called by its Ghanan name? If I want to find that Hot Chicken recipe, I’d look under “chicken,” not “hot.” Why not group things somehow? By continent; by content of flesh, fish, fowl or veg; by main dish, soups, salads and misc.; by breakfast, lunch or dinner? Anything, just not alphabetical.

Each recipe comes with symbols telling you whether it’s easy, medium or complex; what type of utensils you eat it with; and whether it’s hot, medium or mild, and vegetarian. Quantities are given in metrics and their American equivalents. They’re generally well written and easy to follow.

I tried a recipe and found it worked just fine. I chose Larb Gai, one of two larb recipes, and I have to admit that I cheated a bit and ad-libbed, which I tend to do with nearly any recipe. But aside from adding some lemongrass even though it wasn’t in the recipe, I stuck closely to the ingredient list, and the flavor ended up being quite good and very popular with those ‘round the table that night. I plan on trying some more of the recipes. Maybe the Jamaican Jerk next time I grill some chicken; and definitely the Hungarian goulash next winter when I need some warm, spicy comfort food. And maybe I’ll up and fly off to Lisbon to try some Pica Pau, a spicy Portuguese tapas-style dish. Bon apetit!

(Lonely Planet, 2014)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.