An Interview with the legendary Charmaine Solomon
Charmaine Solomon is one of the world's best loved cook book writers and the most respected authority on Asian food and cooking. I had the immense pleasure of welcoming Charmaine, and her beloved husband, Reuben, to Canberra on numerous occasions over a decade and their cookery classes were always fun, always interesting and always sold out!
When Charmaine's The Complete Asian Cookbook was first published in 1976, it was instantly heralded a classic. There have been numerous reprints since that time, and now the tome has been completely revised into a magnificent, cloth bound 640-page album, offering 800 traditional and contemporary dishes from fifteen countries.
I chatted with Charmaine this morning about the revised edition of The Complete Asian Cookbook and asked what has changed from the original, which was published 36 years ago. ‘There is a new layout, stunning photos, an updated glossary and new recipes,’ Charmaine told me. ‘We have revised the book to cater for the changes we have seen in the availability of fresh ingredients. We have also added several recipes'.
'Among the new recipes are more Cambodian recipes. We could not access Cambodia at the time of the first publishing, due to the "Bamboo Curtain", you see', Charmaine explained. 'I met Cambodian refugees here in Australia and learned about their food and cooking from them at that time. One lady, a journalist, was very kind. She cooked a meal for me and explained all about Cambodian food. Nina and I recently visited Cambodia and attended cooking classes there, so we could learn more and include more recipes in the book’.
Charmaine’s knowledge of Asian food and cooking spans a lifetime. She was born in Ceylon; the teardrop shaped land that she notes has been romantically called ‘the pearl in the ear of India’. Charmaine says she prefers to refer to it as ‘The Land Without Sorrow’, which was the name given to it by the first travellers from China.
According to Charmaine’s ‘Family Stories’ in Family Recipes (Viking 1998), her mother, Kitty Desmond, was ‘born in Burma and had Irish, Anglo-Indian, French and Indonesian forbears, but more Irish than anything else’. Her father, Willie Poulier, was of Dutch Burgher heritage. Charmaine has memories of her paternal grandmother making preserves in an enormous brass pan that shone like gold. She also recalls the food shortages and rations during the Second World War, the horrible-smelling rice and treats of sliced white bread seasoned with salt and pepper.
At nineteen, Charmaine became a journalist with the Ceylon Daily News and was asked by the Editor to write a weekly cooking column. She says she couldn’t cook at the time, so she sought the expert guidance of her father’s cousin, ‘Aunt Hilda’, who had written the first cookery book published in Ceylon.
Then Charmaine met Reuben, who ‘wooed’ her with music and food. They dined at the five star hotel where Reuben lived and worked, and Charmaine had her first taste of chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce and other gourmet meals. After Charmaine and Reuben emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s, Charmaine won a cooking contest in 1964 and was invited by Margaret Fulton to join Woman’s Day as a food writer. Charmaine’s first book, the South East Asian Cookbook, was published in 1972. And that was the beginning of a distinguished career that has seen 31 cookbooks published over some 40 years.
Out of all this selection and a lifetime of cooking, does Charmaine have a favourite recipe? I asked ‘No I don’t have a favourite recipe. That is like asking me if I have a favourite child’, Chairmaine replied with a gentle laugh, ‘but I do love the flavours of Thai food and cook Thai meals quite often’.
Is there a specific book or books that you cook from, I asked. ‘I cook from Charmaine Solomon, Liz,’ she replied. ‘All my recipes have been so carefully tested, cooks will have success with whichever recipe they cook'.
I asked Charmaine if she has a favourite cook? ‘Two of my favourite cooks are Julia Childs and Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson writes like a poet,’ Charmaine replied.
I mentioned the outstanding success of the book. ‘Yes, I receive emails from all over the world asking about The Complete Asian Cookbook’ Charmaine said. ‘I even had an email from someone overseas wanting to buy a copy for his son who was moving out from home. He had grown up on dishes cooked from the book and now he wanted to learn how to cook them himself!’
Charmaine’s daughters, Nina and Debbie, are passionate about Asian food and both very good cooks. ‘They have been in the kitchen and travelling with me since they were young teenagers. With their close help, I have been able to give The Complete Asian Cookbook a makeover’, Charmaine said.
Deborah notes in the preface that when the title, The Complete Asian Cookbook, was first mooted with the publisher all those years ago, Charmaine had said ‘No cookbook is ever complete’. Deborah says ‘Well, this one comes close. It will be a joy to have a new and updated copy of this classic in my kitchen ready to receive its anointing with cooking oils and curry stains to bear testament to happy meals with family and friends. That’s what makes any cookbook complete’.
On the subject of oil stained pages, I shared a story with Charmaine about a chap I worked with who would carefully photocopy recipes from his cookbooks, thus ensuring that the books remained in pristine condition. On this, we shared a laugh. And, I noted Nina’s comments in the preface: ‘Those who have owned this book in its earlier incarnations will welcome the new recipes alongside their old favourites. Working through the manuscript has reminded me how many more wonderful recipes there are to be explored than those on the oil splattered pages of my original copy. It’s about time I splattered the rest of the book. Let’s cook!’.
Do you like to keep your cookbooks clean, or do you prefer oil-splattered pages, I asked of Charmaine. ‘Oil splattered books are definitely the best kind, Liz, that’s the sign of a well-cooked book’, she laughed.
The Complete Asian Cookbook takes readers on an extensive journey into the cuisines of India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam, The Philippines, China, Korea and Japan. Charmaine explains wok cooking, using coconut milk (including making it from scratch from desiccated coconut as well as from fresh!), chillies, noodles and rice varieties. Each chapter introduces the ingredients, cooking utensils and cooking styles of that country. Following each is an amazing collection of easy to understand recipes, and readers can be assured that Charmaine has shared her kitchen wisdom on every beautifully embossed page. The glossary is well detailed. Alan Benson’s superb photographs simply add to the overall deliciousness of the book.
In closing, is there anything would you like to say to your readers, I asked of Charmaine. ‘It is with great pleasure that I invite enthusiasts of Asian food into this new edition of The Complete Asian Cookbook. I wish everyone who reads it great enjoyment and happy cooking’, she said.
The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon (Hardie Grant Books RRP $59.95) is an essential reference and classic cookery book that should be given pride of place on every cook's bookshelf. For more information, visit Charmaine’s web site here.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.