Cookbooks are a great way to travel and know more deeply about the food and culinary culture of a country.
All Under Heaven
Author: Carolyn Phillips
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Any book that tries to explain the incredibly complex and varied cuisines of China is heroic and this book does it “heavenly” well, with what is possibly a new blueprint.
In the world of Chinese cookbooks, this new tome marks a new milestone. It is hailed as the first cookbook to explore all 35 cuisines of China. According to Phillips, the famed “eight great cuisines” of China classification is “far too humble” and left out more of China’s foods than it included.
By her count, the country boasts at least five major gastronomic regions and 35 unique cuisines, a cuisine being a food tradition with its own distinctive dishes, ingredients, and cooking styles.
How do you draw the lines in this vast country with over 50 ethnic groups? Surprisingly, by what comes out of the mouth.
“My biggest discovery was this: You eat what you speak,” she writes. The food of Hainan for instance, bears similarities to Chaozhou’s as the islanders speak a Chaozhou dialect – she can be proven wrong here as you can argue that the two dialects are quite different but she is right in general. There is more after the ethnolinguistic map is overlaid with climate and topography maps: “new delineations become clear”.
The over 300 recipes are just a selection of her personal favourites from around China. Being part of the Chinese diaspora, Malaysians will be fascinated by the book’s Meaty Bone Soup – surely the precursor to the Bak Kut Teh that Malaysians like to claim as our own.
Be entertained by quirkily named dishes like Ignored by the Dog Filled Buns, Rolling Donkeys and Laughing Doughnut Holes.
If I have a bone to pick with the author, it’s her calling rice dumplings (chang) “tamales” and flatbread, “tortilla” to pander to American readers.
There are no pictures in this black, red and white book but delightful ink drawings by the author illustrate the stories and recipes that are written in exacting detail.
The author got smitten with Chinese food while living in Taipei in the mid 70s and early 80s. She is married to author J.H Huang and first learned how to cook Chinese from her father-in-law. – Julie Wong
Spain: From The Source
Author: Sally Davies
Publisher: Lonely Planet
If you’ve ever wondered why Spain’s famed black pigs taste so succulently good or how paella got its name – this will be just the book to satiate your gastronomic curiosity.
Like much of Lonely Planet’s well-researched travel guidebooks, this book takes you on a culinary journey across Spain – from north to south, east to west and all the spaces in between, traversing culinary folklore and myths and thoughtfully cataloguing historical nuggets of information.
And there are plenty of recipes, all provided by highly-ranked Spanish chefs, like Manuel Marques (who has fed Woody Allen and Bon Jovi), Fina Puigdevall (who runs the two-Michelin starred Les Cols), Candido Lopez (whose family-run restaurant has been in existence since 1884) and Andreu Genestra (I HAD to include him because he’s just so ridiculously good-looking!).
The best thing about this book is the detailed information that prefaces each recipe – encompassing in-depth interviews, research and anecdotes about the places, people and historical figures that have influenced and shaped iconic Spanish dishes like churros, suckling pig, salt cod salad with buckwheat bread, Rioja style potatoes and Galician style scallops.
The only downside is that some of the rich, varied Spanish produce featured in the book might be incredibly difficult to track down here, like partridge, Torta La Serena cheese and Asturian fabes beans, which are all native to the Spanish regions highlighted in the book. Thankfully, the book offers plenty of suggestions for alternatives, in the event the produce is unavailable in your neck of the woods.
Overall, it’s a great introduction to the regional specialties available in Spain, and perhaps to a larger extent, the personalities that epitomise the best versions of these dishes. If you want to take a vicarious, virtual trip through Spain’s hallowed gastronomy, this book offers a delightful journey of discovery. – Abirami Durai
Japan: From The Source
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Another inspiring Lonely Planet guide for gourmet travelling – whether actual or from the armchair to kitchen. Like the other books in this series, Japan makes both a great coffee table book, with its brilliant photography and captivating short stories, and a book to cook out from with its careful recipes.
It’s fun to flip this book that takes you across Japan to suss out the best local dishes. It takes you direct to the kitchen where the recipe has been perfected so you’d be learning how to cook the dish from the best.
The country – where food is part of its living culture – is carved into five regions and your pit stops are mapped out at the start of each chapter.
Have a braised whole fish wrapped in kombu in Rausu, a small fishing town in remote eastern Hokkaido, or marvel the soybean fields in Sendai and try the curious local way of enjoying green soybean (endamame) – crushed into a paste, spiked with sugar and spread over mochi.
In Tokyo and the central region it gets really interesting. Tempura Kondo has two Michelin stars for frying up fritters using just two ingredients. Chef Fumio Kondo shares his recipe for corn tempura, a summer speciality.
Tonkatsu is big city food and the porkiest pork cutlet imaginable is at Tonki. The recipe says to deep fry in vegetable oil but the secret at Tonki is frying in lard. Silky smooth chawanmushi that melts on the tongue into pure umami? At the temple of fusion food L’Effervescence where it’s done with a French twist.
Don’t leave this region without stopping by Tochigi prefecture for strawberry shaved ice. The ice is made by collecting pools of mountain snowmelt and letting them freeze – at a rate of 1cm a day and harvested three times a year by cutting and hauling blocks.
The diversity of food presented in this book makes your mouth water and you will never again just think sushi and sashimi when you think Japanese food. – JW
Super Food Family Classics
Author: Jamie Oliver
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Healthy food has a pretty bad reputation for being nasty-tasting. Quinoa, kale and cous cous are all well and good, but they don’t rank very highly in the taste department.
So how to jazz up mundane ingredients that are actually really good for you? In Super Food Family Classics, Jamie Oliver, the superfood messiah continues his unwavering mission to spread the gospel of healthy living in the form of delicious food. And he’s done quite well with this cookbook, which touts breakfast meals like doughnuts and pancakes at under 400 calories and main meals like grilled beef kebabs and chicken korma, all under the 600 calorie mark.
The calorie-indicator for each recipe is especially useful, as you’ll get a clearer idea of what you’re consuming and how to balance this with your exercise routine. The recipes are generally both practical as well as delicious-looking, like the chicken jalfrezi, cheat’s pizzetta, chicken tacos and jerk aubergine and peppers.
As befitting Oliver’s global appeal, the recipes are gleaned from all over the world, and you’ll find plenty of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian and British food on the cards. There’s even a whole lot of useful information at the back about balancing your plate, caloric intake, the importance of chewing and generally living well. And rest assured, Oliver knows what he’s talking about – he was studying for his nutrition diploma while writing the book!
The bottom line is, if you’re a big believer in healthy, delicious food, this will be a must-have in your arsenal. If on the other hand, you live by the bible of comfort food and guilty indulgence, don’t even bother picking this up. – AD