My friend Lalitha, a journalist in Bombay, recently started a food book journey. So when she asked me to recommend some stops on her route, I had fun putting together a reading list for her.
As I culled titles from my bookshelves and my memory, I recalled wonderful moments spent with MFK Fisher who was introduced to me a dozen years ago by my dear friend and one of the best [unfortunately unpublished] writers I know, Melissa Williamson.
Fisher still epitomizes the best in writing and particularly, food writing, thanks to her ability to tell a story, be poetic without being sentimental, make you hungry and satisfy you simply with the words on the pages of her books.
I thought also of recipes cooked over the years that have become favorites: Caesar salad from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook, one of the stalwarts in my kitchen; potato pancakes and ginger snaps from that classic, The Joy of Cooking; and countless recipes made with my daughter, Keya from children’s cookbooks like Mollie Katzen’s Honest Pretzels.
I reopened Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential which I had read when it was first published and that I have recently been contemplating exploring again, now I am in the “restaurant” business myself.
So, Lalitha, here are my picks for your food travels. Many are dear to my heart, some not so much but they all address different aspects of cooking, food, food writing, and the Indian context, which was important to you.
Readers, don’t ask me why some books are here and others not, this is a personal and ever-changing list, a sampling of what I have enjoyed on my food travels. Send in your recommendations instead and we’ll post those too!
Bon Appetit & Bon Voyage!
The Gastronomical Me
As a writer and a foodie, I think this the best literary book you will ever read about food and what it means to people. It is also a wonderful collection of “stories” where the main character is food but the story is really about life, love and hunger. I would argue that Fisher gave birth to the genre of food writing in the twentieth century. She certainly has inspired every American food writer who has come after her! To take one’s reality and turn it into such delectation is talent indeed.
Food in History
This is one of the first non-cookbooks I read when we moved to the USA. That is when I started researching food history at the University of Texas’ fabulous libraries and teaching myself how to cook cuisines from across the globe. Tannahill’s book is fascinating and it will change the way you perceive the world, food, and how we live. It shatters common myths and misconceptions about ingredients and brings a realization that nothing is as it seems, that food is intricately and inextricably linked to the history of the world! It’s also just a great story too... Great beach reading!
Indian Food: A Historical Companion
Alas, there is a paucity in academic or literary food writing about one of the greatest food cultures of the world -- that of the Indian sub continent. Achaya’s various books, including A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food are the only academic texts worth looking at and they barely skim the surface of the subject. But I have all his books on my shelves because they make great reference guides.
On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen
If you love science or want to know why certain ingredients taste, smell, and cook up as they do, this is the book for you. I hungered for it for a long time before finding it in the bargain bin at Borders. No one wanted this? I snatched it up and browse whenever I have a few minutes to spare!
Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World
Need I say more? A good piece of journalism. Yes, who needs to be horrified more than we already are? But if you, for some reason, missed this one, you’ve got to get it. You won’t put it down till you’ve reached the last page.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
One of the world’s greatest contemporary authors moved to a place where she can grow or buy within a few miles everything she needs to cook substantial and healthy meals for her family. This is the story of her journey.
Check out these other interesting reads too!
Omnivore's Dilemma -- Michael Pollan
The Raj at Table -- David Burton
Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices -- Andrew Dalby
Masters of American Cookery -- Betty Fussell
My friends know that I read cookbooks the way I read novels -- for the story and the writing and the images they evoke as well as what I learn along the way. Recipes are almost beside the point initially. Once the story is done and the images are drooled over, I can go back and pick out the dishes I want to try making. Here are some books I enjoy, in no particular order!
Memories with Food At Gipsy House
Felicity & Roald Dahl
My favorite cookbook of all time is one that Lalitha has already seen. But I mention it here because it is so beautifully produced, still so current two decades later, in its look, its photographs and its attitude to food. It evokes lifestyle, nostalgia, home, in the most delightful ways. This is the way I have wanted my cookbooks to look. Can my publishers hear me?
The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York
Roden is the doyenne of Jewish & Middle Eastern cuisine in Europe and her books have that wonderful quality that I love of combining history and culture with delicious recipes. When I read her a decade ago, it was quite the right time. Having just moved to LA and settled in a largely Middle Eastern part of town, it was apropos to learn about the region, its cultures and its cuisines and I devoured her books one after another.
Cooking of the Maharajas
Shivaji Rao & Shalini Devi Holkar
I interviewed Sally (Shalini Devi) Holkar, a wonderfully warm Texan who was then still married to Shivaji Rao, years ago about work she was doing with the women of Indore (the capital of her husband’s “kingdom”) to revive their tradition of exquisite hand loomed textiles. From that point on, I wanted her cookbook but it was out of print.
About six years ago a Canadian family friend gifted me a large part of her cookbook collection (including some rare 18th & 19th century cookbooks. But that is another story!) and to my delight, Cooking of the Maharajas was among them! It is a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of the “Original Rich & Famous”, the erstwhile royal families of India. The stories are mind boggling, including Sally’s tales of settling into royal life as a new bride, and the recipes are worth trying.
Saraswat Mahila Samaj
My mother is a Saraswat so I had to acquire this book. It also helped with the research for my book, The Essential Marathi Cookbook (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009). It is a modest, unassuming and, to a student of food history, endlessly fascinating peek into an age long gone.
The Best Recipes in the World
A little bit of everything here but not everything, if you know what I mean. This is certainly not what my collection of the best recipes in the world would look like. That said, if you like to cook but don’t want too many cookbooks crowding your shelves, Bittman’s is great to explore and use, and works as a book end too, it’s that heavy!
The New York Times Cookbook
Sanjiv bought this for me when we first moved to the USA in 1996 so it was literally my first American cookbook. A happy accidental choice of the perfect text for me to start exploring American cuisine and ingredients with. Claiborne’s recipes for pork chops, Vichyssoise, and Caesar salad still appear on my table with regularity and I can always turn to this book, along with The Joy of Cooking, for answers to basic questions about ingredients or classic American fare.
Food with the Famous
A collation of articles that English food writer, Jane Grigson wrote for the Observer Colour Magazine, Food with the Famous takes us on journeys into the worlds, meals milieux of the likes of Jane Austen, John Evelyn, Emile Zola, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Marcel Proust.
In the recipes, Grigson includes those with a distinctly Indian origin like Martha Lloyd’s Curry in the Indian Manner; and Clear Mulligatawny Soup. Other recipes that caught my attention: Batter & Norfolk Puddings; Coffee Jelly & Cream; The Savoy Temple; Veal Risotto with Spinach. I’m hungry!
The Naked Chef
He had me hooked at ‘Pukka!’ Using the Hindi word for “permanent” that has come to mean “just right” or “just so” in England, the naked chef came into my living room every week like a breath of fresh air, bringing a whole new world of food to me in Bombay, peeling back the mystique of cooking and laying it bare in its true essence. His show was worlds apart from the fuddy-duddy studio cooking shows I had seen before. He spoke in his own unique way, had a casual, happy-go-lucky attitude, and made cooking really easy and fun, turning a generation of youngsters the world over into foodies and amateur chefs.
The photographs in his eponymously titled book were equally young and fun, the recipes were easy to master in a home kitchen and the feeling Jamie imparted was that life and cooking were a breeze. And he’s cute!
French Provincial Cooking
Long before England had Jamie Oliver, it had Elizabeth David. She introduced the English to warm and fragrant tables of French and Mediterranean cuisines through her writing from the 1960s on. She is just as interesting and definitely as relevant in this age of locavore, seasonal, simple family food, as these lines in her introduction to French Provincial Cooking illustrate: “With la haute cuisine I am not here concerned... The feeling of our time is for simpler food, simply presented; not that this is necessarily easier to achieve than haute cuisine; it demands less time and expense, but if anything a more genuine feeling for cookery and a truer taste.”
A Taste of India
Arguably the first real regional exploration of Indian cuisines in English, Jaffrey did us a favor by beginning to set the record straight on the culinary traditions of the subcontinent. The book seems dated now and in any case is rather cursory, more personal journey than documentation, with only a few recipes for each state or region, but it was a starting point from which younger chefs and writers could approach India.
Our friend John Heglin gave me this book the first time he came to dinner. I have enjoyed the London-based chef’s regional Indian recipes and the fact that they are presented in a style familiar and approachable to Westerners. My state, Maharashtra is still largely ignored or given short shrift in this and other regional Indian cookbooks but hey, that is why I focus on Marathi cuisine.
Cracking the Coconut
Su Mei Yu
The best introduction to Thai cooking that I have come across, Cracking the Coconut is lyrical at the same time as it is comprehensive, explanatory, easy to follow. The author has two restaurants down in San Diego I have been wanting to visit ever since I read the book. I hope to get there soon.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
I used the front of Hazan’s book as a model for how to approach explaining the elements of Indian cooking techniques in The Essential Marathi Cookbook (the title of my book had nothing to do with hers. Mine is one of The Essential Cookbook series as envisioned years ago by Penguin India). Hazan’s book is well-planned and structured and easy to use so readers can learn the foundations of Italian cuisine and move beyond pasta.
Chez Panisse Café Cookbook
For me, as a chef in California, this book is a must-have but anyone who enjoys good food produced with quality ingredients, good writing and lovely Art Nouveau illustrations will treasure it. Not only is Waters the pioneer of what is now known the world over as California cuisine, she has done a tremendous job educating American children on the importance of eating healthy. Her recipes are seasonal, fresh, and flavorful and David Lance Goines’ block prints accompany them with timeless appeal. I saw the same delightful motifs and patterns in Waters’ Berkeley restaurant interiors and menus when I finally made it to Chez Panisse this summer. It was quite the pilgrimage realized.
Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes
Alice Waters recounts the story of her daughter Fanny’s childhood adventures, growing up at Chez Panisse, with its resident characters and flavors. My daughter Keya loved reading about them and trying out some of the recipes from this book.
Climbing the Mango Trees
The doyenne of Indian cooking abroad, Jaffrey’s contribution to the world has been to introduce the idea that Indian cuisine was complex and varied. This book is her biography and makes for a good read for those interested in her, in India, and in a time gone by.
Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love & The Search for Home
Fellow journalist Allison Gee who was part of my original Shared Table dinner group recommended this book a few years back. Kim Sunée is a friend of hers and they met on a press junket in Korea. I enjoyed this interesting exploration of a woman’s search for her roots and empathized with the pain of her unsuccessful quest for her lost mother.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food & Drink
Editor: David Remnick
A collection of New Yorker articles about food and bev by writers ranging from AJ Liebling, MFK Fisher and Calvin Trillin to John McPhee, Nora Ephron, Alex Prud’homme and Malcolm Gladwell as well as fiction from acclaimed authors like Louise Erdrich, Italo Calvino, John Cheever and my favorite, Roald Dahl. A tasty book to bite into with a cup of hot chai by your side.
Tender at the Bone
Long time Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl wrote this funny, sweet memoir. I enjoyed it so much, especially the bits about the mother who wastes nothing that I gifted it to my own mother. I must say here that my wonderful mother is very different from Reichl’s. The only parallel is that it hurts her to throw food away too!
What can one say about Bourdain? I like the way he walks and I like the way he talks and his show No Reservations is one food program I enjoy watching. He speaks plainly, has an intellect and is not afraid to show it! That said, I still don’t get a sense of how well he can cook!
No matter, he knows his food. Kitchen Confidential was an eye-opener to me at a time when I knew little about the restaurant world but aspired to have my own restaurant someday. Suffice it to say, the book had its impact. To this day I won’t order swordfish in a restaurant. Oh well! As my friend and fellow food writer, Litty Mathew would say, “Swordfish is so 5 minutes ago!”
Epitaph for a A Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm
David May Masumoto
Having always wondered what farm life is like, this book by a 3rd generation Japanese American peach and grape farmer in California, called out to me. It was an interesting and poetic look at one of the toughest and possibly most satisfying and fruitful professions in the world.
Rude Food: The Collected Food Writings of Vir Sanghvi
My best friend, Sameera gave me this book some time ago and I read it because I was interested to know what people were writing about food back home. It is not one of my favorites but it is definitely interesting for the Indian context.
Novels & Short Stories
Just as food shows up three times a day in many of our lives, it frequently appears in fiction, either by-the-way or as the setting for important scenes and dialogue, and is increasingly becoming central to the plots and themes of many contemporary writers. I was raised on a diet of good food and good literature so my eyes were devouring food on the pages of my books long before I was cooking in the kitchen. Here are some of my favorite picks from over the years....
Like Water for Chocolate
The first book that I read -- on a beach in Goa, umm -- in which food played a key role. I have not seen the film, I have no desire to see the film, the book was so earthy and sensual and visually evocative for a young 20-something, it was a revelation not only into the cuisine and culture of Mexico but into uninhibitedness, lustiness, magic.
Velma Still Cooks in Leeway
Vinita Hampton Wright
I truly believe that there is a right moment to read a book. For some reason, I picked this book up at the public library. I was captivated by it and it was just what I needed to read. Published at a time before the trend in novels with recipes really took off, it was ahead of the curve and therefore both new and appealing. But Wright is also a great story teller and keeps the mystery of her plot successfully to the very end.
Set in middle America, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway was a peek into lives very different from my own, the story of a woman in a different phase of life than I was as a young mother. The book also stayed with me in a delicious way. I tried several of the recipes. The one that stuck was Scones for Friends. I bake these easy, tender treats often when friends are coming to Sunday breakfast and they never fail to please.
Short Stories & Novels
My father introduced my brother and I to Bates when we were 5 and 10, with a story about a real “character” named Uncle Silas whose shenanigans had us rolling off our beds with laughter. One of the moments Dad read to us captivated me -- a simple, nostalgic mention of potatoes roasting in their jackets in the embers of a fire. Listening, I became hungry, not just for those buttery potatoes with the crisped skins but for more HE Bates. Since then I have read everything of his I can find, including his wonderful three-part autobiography, The Vanished World, The Blossoming World, and The World in Ripeness.
Bates’ descriptions of food, while not focussing on food for food’s sake, are so sensual, evocative and exquisite that they leave you wanting more and yearning for the English orchards, Italian trattorias and French vineyards described in his books. No one describes the peeling of a peach better. But I am not doing him justice here. You just have to discover him for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. Start with Love for Lydia or the Larkin family hi-jinks in A Breath of French Air, if humor is more your style.
Sons & Lovers
Although this is not really a novel where food is key, what I remember about Sons & Lovers 20 years after my first reading of it are the scenes of family meals, fires burning, cold tea in flasks that the miners carried down with them into the mines.... It is Lawrence, after all. If you have not read him, this is the book to start with!
Anne of Green Gables
Growing up in Canada, Anne was required reading for me and I fell in love with her as generations of readers had before. If you have not read Anne, do give her a try. The mentions of food will satisfy and Montgomery’s descriptions of her native Prince Edward Island will leave you hungering to visit that lovely eastern shore.
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Long before I set foot in North America at the age of 9, I had discovered it through the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are no more evocative descriptions of the entire food cycle -- growing, harvesting, hunting, preparing, eating, and preserving food -- anywhere in literature. Can I ever forget the Christmas in the little house in Wisconsin, the games Laura and her sister played in an attic scented by the aromas of hanging herbs, onions, pumpkins, and the making of maple candy by pouring maple syrup in freshly fallen snow to set? Don’t we all yearn sometimes for the beauty of such simple (but tough) lives?
Ingalls lived and wrote when the world was on the cusp of changing forever from an agrarian to an industrial state of mind, which gave her an enviable perspective from which to tell her stories. Her books are great for children and adults alike and not only have I read and reread them all, I have discovered her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane through them too.
Fast Food, Gulp, Gulp
Just for fun, I include a kids’ picture book. There are plenty of other great children’s stories about food but they will have to wait for another time. My friend Ruta Kahate, who until recently worked as a chef and ran her own cooking school up in Berkeley, gave Fast Food, Gulp, Gulp to Keya when she was little. It is a great book about eating right that is fun for little ones to hear and chime along with, the message does get through.