These cookbook authors bring foreign food cultures to life.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 3 2009 7:23 AM

The Recipe Detectives

These cookbook authors bring foreign food cultures to life.

Read more from Slate's Food issue.

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Vietnam

Andrea Nguyen, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.

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With Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States as a child, unearths Vietnamese traditions and describes how they changed in the immigrant community here among the supermarkets and food processors of the States. She spends ample time demystifying the Viet pantry with practical advice—"Premium fish sauce is reddish brown and clear. Avoid dark inky liquids that are overly salty and flat tasting"—but not without true sentimental moments:

One of my most vivid memories is of our cook, Old Sister Thien, squatting and fanning the small charcoal brazier on which she grilled corn on the cob. As the corn cooked to a charred chewy sweetness, she brushed on a scallion oil made with home-rendered lard. The aroma and taste were heavenly.

Texas

Guerra, who also runs a Mexican imports company, put together a rich book on a sparse land—the rugged Southern Texas/Northern Mexico desert area that spawned what we know as Tex-Mex cuisine:

The landscape was so bare that cowboys carried special loop-ended steel augers that screwed into the ground, giving them a secure place to tie their horses in the evenings, as there were no trees. Over time, wild and domestic cows and horses seeded the plains with cactus and mesquites, bringing in their bellies the plant life from distant, verdant areas. The wild horses and livestock changed the landscape.

Recipes range from iconic chili con carne and posole to the less familiar—like the horseman's staple, dried beef known as machacado. Guerra's eye for detail extends to cooking techniques, with the niftiest directions for cooking tortillas I've read: "A tortilla has three sides," she begins, before explaining at length how the first side to hit the griddle becomes, after two flips, the "third" or "inflating" side—producing the loftiness ideal in the homemade corncake.

Russia and Georgia

Darra Goldstein, A Taste of Russia, The Georgian Feast, and more.

It is not suprising that Goldstein, a Williams College professor who later founded the food studies journal Gastronomica, is particularly literary in her books on Russian and Georgian food, placing zakuska (grand appetizer buffets) and dacha (summer house) picnics alike in the context of Russia's great writers. But cerebral as she can be, her prose is rooted in hands-on kitchen advice: "There are a few basic rules to follow in laying a zakuska table, not the least of which concerns the shape of the table itself. It should be oval or round and placed away from the wall, so that all foods are accessible to all guests at all times."

Japan

Andoh has been the American authority on Japanese food for years, but last year's Washuko brought a particularly fresh take on the country's cuisine by emphasizing simply prepared home food. She emphasizes how such food is always prepared with balance—of color, senses, cooking methods—in mind. Technique seems inextricable from philosophy—there is a mini-chapter on methods for drawing bitterness out of food, including the following bit of grace: "When cooking fish, meat, or poultry, blanching is called shimo furi, or 'frost falling.' " Briefly exposing fish, meat, or poultry to scalding hot water keeps unwelcome odors at bay and prevents stocks, sauces, and soups from becoming marred with unattractive scum. In the process, the surface turns frosty white, which is how the activity got its name.