The Reading Life: Cooking and Travel

Travel and cookbooks go hand in hand for me.  I do most of my travel by reading, and having a book that can give you a sense of the food culture provides insight into other daily habits that make each locale different and can make even a fictional place real.  As I read, I find that food even casually mentioned in the story becomes something I crave, and if I am reading about a region that I am not familiar with, I turn to cookbooks from the area to help me picture the places and people.  Some of these cookbooks can be read simply as travelogues in their own right, but it’s well worth trying the recipes too.

My China by Kylie Kwong

Kwong chronicles her trip through China and Tibet with stunning pictures and her impressions as she spends time in her family’s ancestral village and moves through the regions of country. She makes friends over food and gives the reader a glimpse of some of the complex cultures within China.  I especially like the breadth of her interactions — everyone from street vendors and villagers to the inhabitants of the largest cities and finest restaurants play a part.  It’s an enjoyable version of home travel movies — the author’s clear sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm, her descriptions and the region-by-region progression give a personal sense of the journey.

Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

This is a love story about rice.  Everything you need to know about how to prepare it at home, how it is planted, harvested, milled, graded, and used in the cuisines of Asian, India, the Mediterranean countries, West Africa, and North America.  The recipes are often so simple, so basic and elegant, that you wonder why you haven’t been making them all your life.  The vignettes from their travels are well written and evocative, but I was won over by a single page showing thirty-six beautifully different rices…and the recipes.  I feel better knowing just knowing that I have a batch of their Egg Fried Rice in the refrigerator — but wish there were still some of the delicious Quick and Easy Chinese Greens left to go with it.

Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

This book is a culinary journal of their travels through Southeast Asia.  This time the couple is exploring and eating their way along the Mekong River.  As they note in their preface, it is:

a cookbook, a photo essay, a journey down a river, and an introduction to one of the world’s greatest culinary regions.  It is also, because so much of the research and travel and recipe work was done with our two sons, Dominic and Tashi, a family tale, a diary.

Noodles, as well as rice, vegetables and sauces tempt the reader.  Unlike their earlier work that focused on each region, the organization is by category: simple soups, salads, noodles and noodle dishes, snacks and street food, etc.  Even with the map in the front and the region of origin by each recipe within a category, I still wish the book followed the flow along the river rather than the conventions of most cookbooks.  The glossary of ingredients in the back is very handy.  I always find the photos instill a sense of calm.

Feast from the Mideast by Faye Levy

Here is the sunny warmth of the Middle East on even the dreariest winter day.  Faye Levy interweaves stories with the recipes — often recounting where she first had it, who provided the recipe, or the advice she received from her mother-in-law.  As someone who transplanted herself to the Middle East, she uses her stories to clarify instructions and give you a window into a Middle Eastern kitchen.  Try any of her eggplant dishes — her baba ganoush recipe is best I’ve ever tried.  I turned to this cook book and Claudia Roden’s Arabesque when the descriptions of marketing and cooking in the Janissary Tree wove themselves into my dreams.

Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun

Sensibly, this book is organized by spice.  This shows the range of uses for a particular spice or herb and gives the reader a sense of the historical uses of particular spices.  Sortun uses the sections to build on each other and to build your confidence in using and combining your own spice blends.  Checking out the this cookbook from the library sparked my interest in the history of the spice trade and lead me to Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (Giles Milton) and Tom Standage’s Edible History of Humanity, but there are many more books that incorporate history with food — enough to keep me happily reading for years.

Kaffeehaus by Rick Rodgers

When I am feeling really ambitions or craving something sweet, I reach for this exquisite book.  My attempts at the decadent pastries from Vienna, Budapest, and Prague featured in the book have never quite looked like the pictures (it must be that they lack the lovely art deco embellishments that frame them in the book), but have tasted wonderful.  This is a small but dense book full of the history of Kaffeehausen in Europe, detailed instructions and tips, and side notes to put the recipes in context, including the scandal over who really created the original Sachertorte and profiles of several of the historical coffeehouses still operating today.  The linzertorte, chocolate-cherry roulade and Viennese pound cake are well worth making — and savoring over coffee and a good book.


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