Year’s best cookbook: ‘Momofuku’

My column this week was on – what else – “Momofuku”. Seriously, you can cook with this book…and if you just want to give it a looksy, Daniel Boone Regional Library has a copy.

“Let’s be real: You’re never going to cook from ‘Momofuku,’ by David Chang and Peter Meehan.”

So began an Associated Press review of the “Momofuku” (moe-moe-FOO-koo) that ran in this section last week. The reviewer went on to say the book is worth a look anyway, but still, the message seemed to be, “Don’t bother trying out the recipes in the best cookbook of the year, just look at the pretty pictures and move along.” Please.

I knew this lede — snappy though it might have been — to be hogwash.

I’d already cooked from the book, finding at least one recipe weeknight-worthy. In fact, I was purchasing ingredients at Chong’s Oriental Market at 6 p.m., and by 8 p.m. we were eating something utterly amazing. Clearly, this book is no collection of five-ingredient, 30-minute meals. It is going to require a trip to one of our Asian foods store for ingredients you can’t pronounce. But it’s worth it, I promise.

It’s also worth explaining the hype. Meehan, in his introduction of the book, lays it out pretty well.

”What is Momofuku? That’s a tough one. Momofuku is a restaurant group based in the East Village in New York City. Momofuku, the name, is Japanese (and means ‘lucky peach’); David Chang, the owner and head chef, is Korean- American; the food eludes easy, or really any, classification. There is a focus on good technique, on seasonality and sustainability, on intelligent and informed creativity. But it is deliciousness by any means that they’re really going for.”

Having spent several delirious hours lunching in Chang’s Momofuku Ssam last year, I can attest that it is deliciousness that they achieve. Spicy sausage and rice cake stir fry. Brussels sprouts with fish sauce and mint. A banh mi sandwich. Pork belly tucked into pillow-soft buns. We ran through as much of the menu as possible, and it was all — all of it — unforgettable.

So I didn’t flinch, didn’t even debate the issue with myself when I heard there would be a book. I would be buying it, and that was that. A few days after “Momofuku” arrived, I got down to work and ended up with a remarkably faithful version of the sausage and rice cakes.

At the same time, Momofuku is enough fun to buy even if you don’t cook from it.

First, the book reads like a novel. A brash, obscene, hilarious novel. More Hiassen than Hawthorne, it’s filled with the bizarre personalities who occupy restaurant kitchens around the world. Chang is one of them. He describes his youthful obsession with noodles, the dawning recognition that he wanted to be a chef and then his bouncing around from New York to Japan and back. Eventually, he worked his way into Tom Colicchio’s restaurant, Craft. A recommendation from there landed him a challenging gig at Cafe Boulud.

“I worked the back garde-manger station, doing cold preparations like terrines and charcuterie and a lot of the canapes that would start the meal,” Chang writes. “I worked as hard as I could, but I got my ass handed to me nightly. I was struggling, and I wasn’t cooking that well. I had come with a recommendation from the Craft crew, but I felt like a bust free agent.”

A family illness led to an early departure from that job, but it also triggered another realization for Chang: He would open his own noodle shop, do things his way. The rest, as they say, is history, and Chang begins telling his through recipes. All are mouthwatering, and some, if you’re willing to take a chance, you might even make yourself. Add it to your Christmas wish list before it’s too late.

Scott Rowson lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at showmeeats.com. Reach him at showmeeats @gmail.com.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

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