What’s the USP? Food is better in bowls. There. That’s your USP and, equally, my personal culinary manifesto as a millennial who can’t see his way to home ownership and so, for now, simply aspires to having a really nice set of pasta bowls, please and thank you. Bowlful focuses on a little more than the vessel your food arrives in, though, offering a collection of recipes with distinctly south-east Asian origins.
Who wrote it? Norman Musa, a Malaysian chef with a career that has consistently veered off in unexpected directions. Having moved to the UK in 1994 to study ‘Construction Management (Quantity Surveying)’, Musa didn’t turn his hand to cooking full-time for a decade. Since then he’s worked as a chef for Lotus’s Formula 1 team, popped up on your usual suspect weekend cooking shows here in the UK, and hosted a number of television series in his native Malaysia. Bowlful is his fourth cookbook, and the second to have been published in English.
Is it good bedtime reading? Not particularly – but that’s not what Bowlful is here to do. The front cover pull-quote from Rukmini Iyer tells you everything you need to know, assuring us that the book is ‘certain to add flavour to your weeknight meal plan.’
Like Iyer’s own Roasting Tin series, Musa’s book isn’t meant to be pored over late into the night. Instead, it’s a collection of simple recipes for busy working families. An opportunity to brighten your life a little with quick and easy dinners that are full of flavour. Accordingly, the recipes themselves are short and sweet, and ask very little of the home cook.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The past ten years in British supermarkets have been an absolute godsend for writers of Asian cookbooks. If you live near a Sainsburys or Asda big enough to host a modest collection of affordable clothing, chances are they also stock at least one small bottle of tamarind paste. Good god, you should see the big Sainsburys near me. Three or four aisles in the middle have more inclusive (and less problematic) cultural representation than the entirety of It’s A Small World. As well as extensive Indian, Caribbean, and Kosher sections, there’s a hefty Irish corner, and a stock of Japanese goods that includes Kewpie mayo and Nissin’s exceptional instant ramen. Tucked in the middle of all this, of course, is the real reward for those willing to explore cuisines beyond the Anglosphere – eight shelves stacked with kilogram bags of spices sold at the same price as Schwartz’s little bastard jars four aisles over. Anyway, what I’m getting at is this: kaffir lime leaves no longer present the same existential crisis to your dinner plans that they used to. You’ll be fine, bud.
How often will I cook from the book? The whole idea of Bowlful is that you can dip in readily and knock up something that will more than satisfy you on a Thursday evening after your second hour-long commute of the day. It’s easy to imagine dipping into this once a week, giving yourself little treats like the five-spice duck and kailan stir-fry that, though impressive and flavoursome, are only going to take up twenty minutes of your evening.
What will I love? By opting to cover the fairly broad area of South-East Asia, Musa gives himself plenty of room to manoeuvre. Bowlful has plenty of variety, from Burmese curries to Thai salads. Those really short on recipe collections to draw inspiration from could cook Musa’s dishes two or three times a week without things beginning to feel repetitive.
What won’t I love? Honestly, there aren’t many complaints to make here. This isn’t a book for those looking for great food writing, or even a lot of insight into the cultural history of the dishes on offer. But as simple cookbooks go, this is a very solid effort – the food styling and photography is impeccable, and Musa’s recipes are reliable and repeatable.
Killer recipes: Javanese Lamb Curry, Padang Beef Sambal Stir-fry, Kalio Chicken Curry, Lontong, Wok-fried Noodles with Asparagus and Enoki Mushrooms, King Mushroom Clay Pot Rice
Should I buy it? Too many of us are tied to office jobs that require an hour on the train on either side of the shift and keep us half an hour longer than we were taught to expect (Dolly Parton can count herself lucky that she gets to clock out at 5pm). Books like Bowlful are exactly what we need to inject a little joy and a whole lot of flavour back into that drab daily routine.
Cuisine: South-East Asian
Suitable for: Beginner home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars
Buy this book: Bowful by Norman Musa
£20, Pavilion Books
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas