Cookbook Review: The Blue Tomato, by Alan Wong with Arnold Hiura
Chef Alan Wong
The Wong Way:
"I tell our cooks that the simpler the dish, the more precise it needs to be."
"I require that when our cooks call out an ingredient on the menu, you should be able to taste it. If the menu announces kaffir lime leaves, you should know they're there."
"Our staff's interaction is more important than whether that dish ever makes it onto the menu as a special."
Appetizers; 'ahi & Ceviches; Soups & Salads; Fish; Shellfish; Meats & Poultry; Next! (a celebration of his line cooks' own recipes).
A Few Select Recipes:
"Loco Moco": Foie Gras, Quail Egg, Soba Groats, and Rice Cream; Crab "Tofu"; Oyster Shaved Ice with Red Onion-Jalapeño Granité; Tomato, Tomato, Tomato; Coconut Butter-poached Lobster with Galangal and Kaffir
Alan Wong’s cookbook, The Blue Tomato, is essentially a search for the impossible. The title was inspired by a school visit Wong made during which a student asked, “is blue ketchup possible?” Perusing the book’s imagery, and Wong’s underlying imagination, it doesn’t seem so far fetched.
One of the founding members of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine and a godfather of sorts to the state’s current food boom, Wong approaches his cookbook with both an artist’s palette (he photographed most of the dishes himself) and a chef’s palate (he explains his in-kitchen “taste guidelines hand signal” system, which his staff uses to tell him if a dish succeeds or fails). But the book itself seems designed to minimize Wong’s importance, instead elevating the islands’ farmers and even Wong’s line cooks. In fact, the final chapter of the award-winning book is dedicated to the Alan Wong crew and includes select recipes from many of them. His slogan (which he coined after winning a James Beard award for the Best Chef in the Pacific) says it all: “If Alan Wong can, anybody can!”
Wong’s recipes come with a brief tour of his worldly travels and touch upon such topics as Japanese ōtoro tuna, the evolution of Peru’s leche de tigre, and the glory of the Singaporean East-West cooking. Broken up into the typical categories (meat and fish, salads and soups), the recipes are reflective of the mini melting pot that is Hawaii. And they run almost exclusively to the exotic, along the lines of what Wong serves in his restaurant. For those without access to Hawaii’s unbelievable array of product, it might have been helpful to mention an alternate to opakapaka, or to suggest which continental U.S. mushrooms might most resemble Hawaii’s native ali’i. Then again, Wong’s multi-hued plating style and his fusing of multiple ethnic influences should be inspiration enough for most readers to imitate and create with whatever product they choose to celebrate.
As long as it’s not a blue tomato, that is. In fact Wong says he hopes he never finds such a thing; doing so would mean the endless exploration of learning would cease—“I want to remain a lifelong student,” he writes.