For a freshly married new homeowner possessed of a touch too much confidence, the recipe clipped, wide-eyed, from a newspaper food section in the summer of 2006, was almost too much. Deceptively titled “Pork and Watermelon Salad,” it called for 4½ to 5½ hours’ work, plus marinating time, as well as 28 ingredients, many of which, like the two cups of Indonesian kecap manis, the Chinese black vinegar and the Vietnamese coriander leaves, weren’t the sorts of things our local supermarket stocked. After cubing five pounds of watermelon and pickling its rind with kaffir lime leaves, rice vinegar and chilies, and then braising the pork in an inky, fishy Southeast Asian brew, you then had to deep-fry the belly à la minute in peanut oil.
It was the dumbest thing you could make for, oh, say, a housewarming party of approximately 100 friends. But it was a dare, of sorts, and a way for a cook who’d been fascinated only with French and Italian until then to dip into the Southeast Asian larder. That recipe was the first time I bought fish sauce, and slender Thai bird chilies, and sticky, earthy brown pucks of palm sugar or gangly coriander root. It was also punishingly delicious: fatty, porky, salty, funky with the ferment of soy and fish sauce against sour, refreshing watermelon and a touch of slow-torching chili heat. Our guests mobbed it. This dish was gone in less than five minutes.
The recipe’s author, a shaggy-haired, globe-trotting, ganga-huffing New York chef of the Fatty ’Cue and Fatty Crab empire named Zak Pelaccio, has just released his first cookbook. Called Eat With Your Hands, it spans Malaysian, Vietnamese, French, Sicilian and Southern U.S. cooking and ingredients, often pulling many disparate elements into single dishes. That lack of discipline is its beauty. “It’s your party, baby,” Mr. Pelaccio writes near the beginning, just before the sidebar on how to skin a frog with kitchen scissors, and before instructing readers not to worry too much about following his instructions exactly. There’s a photo of the chef on one knee, drinking from a beer bong. The book is even peppered with drink and song pairings for every recipe. (Mr. Pelaccio recommends you listen to Iffilah Ha-Ha, by the Mayafra Combo, while making his green papaya salad.)
Does it try too hard at the bad-boy shtick? In a word: Yes. But unlike most other introductions to Southeast Asian food, like Australian chef David Thompson’s authoritative, but at times stern Thai Food, this one seems to say on every page, “Don’t worry, broheim. Just crack a beer and cook.” (Or stronger stuff. The recipe for a whole pig calls for “A couple joints.”) It’s accessible in spite of itself.
With a little shopping, anybody can make whole roast chicken with turmeric, chilies, coconut milk and celery mostarda. Shrimp with guanciale and preserved lemons is a brilliant idea (and easy, frankly), anchovy butter and chilies with barbecued ribeyes is genius, and spareribs with fish sauce and palm sugar syrup sounds a whole world fresher than the usual bourbon and tomato glaze.
Mr. Pelaccio has included that pork and watermelon recipe, also, though he’s made it somewhat simpler these days. It’s a go-to party recipe. Really. Put down your Julia Child, already. You can do it. That’s a dare.