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.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Some cookbook authors are decidedly domestic, writing about common ingredients with an eye to easing weeknight pressures of the kitchen. Others are professional: They attempt to translate commercial restaurant artistry to the lay masses. Then there are those writers who aim to bring another culture to life through recipes and observations. These authors are the cooking world's equivalent of Alan Lomax, who ventured to the farmsteads and hollers of rural America, microphone in hand, collecting a nation's folksongs before interstates and television blurred our regional cultures into a homogenous mass. Whether writing about a childhood home, an ancestral haunt, or a land discovered in full-grown adulthood, these ethno-culinarians try to convey, along with recipes, a sense of how history and geography affect the shifting habits of what we eat every day. They interview grandmothers and street cart vendors to understand the technique and gestalt of vernacular food (and to give the readers a wood-fired whiff of authenticity—a knotty but essential concept). They provide guidance in buying unfamiliar ingredients, be it Greek mastic or Vietnamese culantro.

It's true that such cookbooks may not become our everyday cooking bibles. Long ingredient lists from specialty stores and unfamiliar techniques make lots of these recipes special projects. But that doesn't mean they are not a welcome exercise. Such recipes shine light on flavors we never taste in restaurants (with their standardized menus), and more crucially, they help readers like me tap into the admittedly thin but potent cultural connection that comes from preparing and eating the food someone else prepares and eats halfway across the world. Even if I cook from them only fitfully, my imagination is sparked by the long, slow pace of a tagine, which in Morocco might be cooked in the local baker's oven; by the heat-slaking qualities of a cucumber salad from desert China; or by the arduous work involved in pounding out a Thai chili paste with a mortar and pestle. Cooking is too sentimental a craft to tell the whole story of a culture, but it does open doors.

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My doors were first opened by the sainted ladies of the field: Claudia Roden on the Middle East; Paula Wolfert on Morocco, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Southwest France; and Diana Kennedy on Mexico. But here are a few more intrepid authors whose books hover between anthropology, linguistics, and home ec, only yummier.

Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, and well beyond)

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, authors of Beyond the Great Wall, Hot Salty Sour Sweet, Flatbreads and Flavors, and more.

As Nicholas Day pointed out in Slate last year, photographer/writers Duguid and Alford are passionate about documenting the cultures and places that get overlooked in politics as well as cookery. Following rivers (the Mekong), foodstuffs (rice, flatbreads), and people rather than national boundaries, the pair are intrepid travelers in a way few food writers, or people—excepting Rory Stewart, perhaps—are, and their recipe headnotes are full of ravishing detail, as in this description of one of Southeast Asia's little luxuries: iced coffee with condensed milk.

In Thailand, you can get it sai tung (meaning "in a bag"): It comes in a plastic bag tied at the top with an elastic band, with a straw stuck in one corner. You slip a loop of the elastic band over a finger, letting the bag hang down: as you walk along, you can take small sips, savoring each intensely flavored mouthful, trying to extend the pleasure as long as possible as the ice slowly melts.

China

Fuchsia Dunlop, Land of Plenty, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and more.

I'm in awe of Dunlop who studied at a Chengdu, Sichuan Province, cooking school. There's a wonderful specificity to her writing, both in describing kitchen technique and in relaying history. In writing about Sichuan's tea-smoked duck, she quotes a Chinese culinary historian: "[T]he cooking method, he says, was invented by a man called Huang Jinlin, one-time manager of the Dowager Empres Cixi's kitchens in Beijing, who brought the dish to Sichuan when he opened a restaurant in Chengdu." But cooks shouldn't be discouraged by Dunlop's erudition—she has a great eye for the simpler dishes, too, like the spicy noodles of Sichuan and red-braised stews of Hunan.

Iran

Najmieh Batmanglij, The New Food of Life and more.

Filled with culinary baubles like fruit, nuts, spices, and even flowers, Persian food has an intrinsically lyric quality, and Batmanglij is enchanted by the cuisine's symbolic worth, peppering the heavily illustrated New Food of Life with Persian poetry, folktales, and explications of seasonal rituals. You might go crazy trying to locate dried rose petals or powdered angelica, but you'll have a hard time forgetting the seductive food combinations once you do find them. Beyond the recipes, Batmanglij deploys skillful nostalgia to show just how central food is to her culture. The Ramadans of her youth were made all the more difficult by her family's fixation on how to break the days' fasts: "Our housekeeper, my mother and other members of our family were busily preparing the meals of eftari and sahari. The smells of the fried onion, garlic and mint, the cutlets, eggplants and the kuku and the kababs were floating through the house, driving us all crazy."

Thailand

Su-mei Yu, Cracking the Coconutand more.

Thai food is served nearly exclusively in restaurants here in the States, but Su-mei Yu's Cracking the Coconut eloquently unpacks the basic elements of a food that has mesmerized Americans, all while letting us know where the "Thai food" we experience here is falling short. Be warned—Yu's recipes are nearly short-cut free: "Using canned coconut cream and milk is like using canned milk and should be reserved for an emergency." But like all good teachers, Yu makes the work seem fun, whether it is sleuthing out ingredients at an Asian grocery or the physical labor of pounding the spice paste or squeezing the coconut milk "at least eighty-nine times." Make the sweet green curry with meatballs and you will be left with the slightly sweaty sheen of virtue you might get in a good yoga class. And then you get to eat.

Vietnam

Andrea Nguyen, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.

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.

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