Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the complimentary copy of The Art of Escapism Cooking by Mandy Lee. I'm excited to share my honest review of this gorgeous new cookbook.
A note from the publisher About The Art of Escapism Cooking
In this inventive and intensely personal cookbook, the blogger behind the award-winning ladyandpups.com reveals how she cooked her way out of an untenable living situation, with more than eighty delicious Asian-inspired dishes with influences from around the world.
For Mandy Lee, moving from New York to Beijing for her husband’s work wasn’t an exotic adventure—it was an ordeal. Growing increasingly exasperated with China’s stifling political climate, its infuriating bureaucracy, and its choking pollution, she began “an unapologetically angry food blog,” LadyandPups.com, to keep herself from going mad.
Mandy cooked because it channeled her focus, helping her cope with the difficult circumstances of her new life. She filled her kitchen with warming spices and sticky sauces while she shared recipes and observations about life, food, and cooking in her blog posts. Born in Taiwan and raised in Vancouver, she came of age food-wise in New York City and now lives in Hong Kong; her food reflects the many places she’s lived. This entertaining and unusual cookbook is the story of how “escapism cooking”—using the kitchen as a refuge and ultimately creating delicious and satisfying meals—helped her crawl out of her expat limbo.
Illustrated with her own gorgeous photography, The Art of Escapism Cooking provides that comforting feeling a good meal provides. Here are dozens of innovative and often Asian-influenced recipes, divided into categories by mood and occasion, such as:
For Getting Out of Bed
Poached Eggs with Miso-Browned Butter Hollandaise
Crackling Pancake with Caramel-Clustered Blueberries and Balsamic Honey
Buffalo Fried Chicken Ramen
Crab Bisque Tsukemen
For a Crowd
Cumin Lamb Rib Burger
Italian Meatballs in Taiwanese Rouzao Sauce
Wontons with Shrimp and Chili Coconut Oil and Herbed Yogurt
Spicy Chickpea Poppers
Mochi with Peanut Brown Sugar and Ice Cream
Recycled Nuts and Caramel Apple Cake
Every dish is sublimely delicious and worth the time and attention required. Mandy also demystifies unfamiliar ingredients and where to find them, shares her favorite tools, and provides instructions for essential condiments for the pantry and fridge, such as Ramen Seasoning, Fried Chili Verde Sauce, Caramelized Onion Powder Paste, and her Ultimate Sichuan Chile Oil.
• Hardcover: 400 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Cookbooks (October 15, 2019)
My thoughts about The Art of Escapism Cooking
Mandy Lee's work at Lady and Pups is something I've enjoyed following for the past couple of years, but I didn't know the whole story until I picked this book up. I devoured The Art of Escapism Cooking early one morning when the house was still quiet, save, rather fittingly, my own pup snoring at my feet. As I sat there reading the forward to each section and recipe, I understood exactly how cooking became Lee's drug of choice in her environment, how Beijing or "Richard" as she calls it became a hellscape of inspiration for her "unapologetically angry food blog" and, ultimately, this gorgeous cookbook.
Every page is bursting with flavor, and though the pages are filled with gorgeous photography and mouthwatering recipes, it's clear from the get-go that this isn't a love story. From the moment you open the first pages that this book tells the story of Lee's escape from an untenably bad living situation and into the kitchen.
The recipes include a nice balance of very technical fare fit for savoring and smaller dishes made to soothe late-night whims. There's even a section at the end offering recipes For Pups, standing as an homage to Lee's own pups. Though I wouldn't wish her experience on anyone, I am thankful for her journey because it led to some truly delicious things.
Right now, my copy of the book is flagged with ample bookmarks (receipts, business cards, bills - really anything that was within arms' reach) to mark everything that jumped out at me on my first pass through. It was hard to narrow down one recipe I wanted to try first, but I finally landed on one from her cleverly titled section, Shit I Eat When I'm By Myself.
"At a certain point in your life, you'll find yourself wavering on one particularly low night when you feel as though the meaning of life is dribbling away from your grasp. Try mixing it with smashed Spam drenched in My Ultimate Chili Oil with a spritz of soy sauce, a few drops of vinegar, a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, and a good amount of diced scallions served over soft, gently steamy sushi rice, then feel the jolt of resurgence throbbing through your veins once again. It is the encrypted message from the universe showing you why it is still good to be alive, the very thing that we are put on this planet to feel, the unmistakable sign that tells you to keep living on. But any other day, add a healthy avocado to it and make it a toast. Because, after all, we are still responsible human beings." - Mandy Lee, pg. 313
The second I bit into this recipe, I knew I would be making it again. The spiciness from the chili oil and saltiness from the spam pairs perfectly with cool and creamy smashed avocado. A large slice of country bread, drizzled in olive oil and pan-toasted makes this dish feel pleasantly rich. It's the perfect balance of hearty carbs + spice + umami + salt to cure any midnight hunger brought on by insomnia or ample libations.
I made this for lunch one afternoon and then repeated it that night for the fella, who was so smitten with the dish he has literally found a way to bring it up in conversation every day since. Though this recipe is clearly a winner for both of us, I can't wait to move my well-fed attentions on to other dishes, namely the Wontons with Shrimp and Chili Coconut Oil and Herbed Yogurt (pg 257) and the Kare Risotto (pg 305).
Who this book is a good fit for
The Art of Escapism Cooking is a fantastic addition to the kitchen shelves of anyone who appreciates a deep dive into technical recipes and doesn't bother with too many shortcuts. Lee explains in her introduction that "If you need to know how to cook a chicken breast with one hand while you hold a baby in the other, sorry, but I'm not about solving your problems. But I can show you how I cooked mine." (pg 3). Though not every recipe will require hours of prep, one should appreciate that the specificity of methods and ingredients can elevate a dish into something well worth your effort.
Though the photography, taken by Lee, makes this book coffee table-worthy, if it only ever sat collecting dust on a table it would be a true shame. The pages are filled with words and recipes that seek to offer more than a casual recipe for chicken. They offer a lifeline for those needing a culinary escape.
Buy this book for that friend who is constantly seeking to satisfy a new technical whim in the kitchen and will nerd out on the method. Buy it for a friend who is interested in Asian-influenced comfort food. Buy it for someone who will make doe eyes at the photography, but then fall in love with a late-night meal of spam on toast.
About Mandy Lee
Mandy Lee founded her award-winning "angry food blog," Lady and Pups, in 2012 out of sheer frustration after moving from New York City to Beijing. She and her blog have been featured in numerous publications and sites, including Saveur, FoodandWine.com, CNN.com, Yahoo, Food52, and WashingtonPost.com. She currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and pups.