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Herbed chicken with nuoc cham cucumbers.

Tara O'Brady

In these grey days of February, when my plan is to hunker down and keep close to home, I feed any sense of wanderlust by feeding my family, with travel-inspired cookbooks as my guides.

When I am actually abroad, grocery stores are always on my itinerary. I poke through the aisles with greed and curiosity, relishing the opportunity to discover how locals eat. A meal can embody the history of a place, its economics, politics, priorities and heritage. My spreadsheet of sites-to-see furthers the study, allocating equal column inches to restaurants, cooking schools and bookstores as it does landmarks.

At home, My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes brings me back to the city’s bairros; I can smell the caramelized sugar wafting from pastelarias, feel the sun and breeze blowing across the Tagus at the Praca do Comercio. When I cook from the book, past memory is brought to full-colour present, as dishes recreate the faraway with startling immediacy.

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A book from Dishoom, the famed London restaurant, is an ode to the Iranian cafés of Mumbai and in its pages I find reminders of my South Indian family’s homes. The photographs could be pulled from our albums, and I’m again in the cool shade of my aunty’s porch, with salty-sweet limeade in hand. The bacon naan roll with tomato chutney is everything I want for breakfast, washed down with searing sips of heady masala chai. The meal brings forth memories of every time I’ve tasted it before. Reading the descriptions alone is a journey.

Then, there are books that transport me to where I’ve never been. Meredith Erickson’s Alpine Cooking: Recipes and Stories from Europe’s Grand Mountaintops sends a welcome shiver down the spine. The photographs, with gleaming, clear light and the brightest blue skies against snowy peaks, conjure the imagined nostalgia of a perfect après ski moment. Her treatise on schnitzel is contagiously passionate; her mention of the hidden basement workshops of grand hotels captures the romance of those industrious spaces; each section is marked by a love letter to the geography of a region. Erickson situates you in the landscape and saves a space for you at the table, with raclette and cornichon waiting.

Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise grants the armchair traveller entrance to the everyday alchemy of Basque cuisine, with the expertise of one who knows the land intimately. As with the other books, Marti Buckley intersperses recipes with longer passages detailing specific aspects of cultural interest. These are cookbooks-cum-anthropological studies, odes to people and places as much as how-tos on cooking.

On a recent Saturday, I lost myself in Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavours by undisputed icon Andrea Nguyen. Her straightforward teaching inspires immediate action, and soon enough I was in the kitchen with her voice in my ear.

I’ve made meatballs like this for years, not wholly traditional except only to the ingredients I often have on hand. They are inspired by those southeast Asian flavours, cribbing heavily from the tastes of Vietnam with a generous inclusion of herbs and chili paste. A combination of ground chicken and pork keeps the mixture lush, as all too often ground chicken on its own resembles cotton rather than anything temptingly succulent. I pair the meat with cucumbers dressed in nuoc cham, a Vietnamese condiment with a foundational funk of fish sauce made bright with garlic, fresh chilies and an assertive dose of lime juice. The juxtaposition of twangy, almost-pickled, cool vegetable against sizzling meat is especially effective here. I would offer the dish, as is, as a snack with drinks for a larger crowd, or round it out with sticky rice for the family for dinner. It is travel without moving, leaving us as equally sated as we are stoked for the next adventure.

Herbed chicken with nuoc cham cucumbers

Serves 4 to 6

For the meatballs
  • 1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • 2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce (Thai nam chia kai), or 1 tablespoon chili paste (sambal oelek, or similar) and 2 teaspoons cane sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 3 shallots, finely minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/3 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, minced
  • 1/3 cup loosely packed basil leaves, minced
  • 3/4 pound ground chicken, preferably not lean
  • 8 ounces sweet sausage meat, pork or chicken (about 2 sausages, casing removed)
  • Neutral oil, for cooking
For the salad
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 to 2 Thai bird chilies, stemmed and seeded
  • 3 tablespoons cane or golden brown sugar
  • Juice from 1 lime, plus wedges for serving
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 English cucumbers, sliced
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • Sesame oil, as needed
  • Mixed picked herbs (cilantro, basil, mint)
  • Chili flakes and toasted sesame seeds, optional

Start with the meatballs. In a large bowl, mix together the panko, chili sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, cilantro and basil. Let stand for 5 minutes, to allow the panko to soften. Crumble in the ground chicken and sausage with clean hands, gently work to combine. Form the mixture into 16 portions, shaped as desired (patties and the pictured quenelles grant flat surfaces for browning, balls will give a more tender-bellied result). If there is time, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

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While the meat rests, make the dressing. Pound the garlic, chilis and half the sugar together in a mortar and pestle to a paste. Stir in the rest of the sugar, lime juice and fish sauce, and most of the water. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, finely mince the chilies and garlic and stir into the remaining ingredients.) Taste; the dressing should be quite intense as the cucumbers are mild and juicy, but if it is hair-raisingly bold, dilute with the remaining water. Fold the dressing into the sliced cucumbers and onions in a medium bowl. Drip in some sesame oil and set aside until serving.

Set a heavy, cast-iron or non-stick skillet over medium heat. Pour in enough oil to thinly coat the surface. Working in batches as necessary, cook the patties on all sides until golden brown and cooked through, about 8 minutes total, depending on size. Transfer to a plate and keep warm while you finish up with the rest.

Arrange the still-sizzling patties on a serving plate, then spoon the cucumber salad over and around. Make sure to spoon the collected vinaigrette over the meat. Scatter with extra herbs, chili flakes and sesame seeds if desired, and tuck lime wedges alongside.

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