What’s in a cookbook?
In the age of Google Search, readers and connoisseurs turn to it for compelling stories, great prose and cutting-edge food ideas
Last year, London-based restaurateur and food writer Prue Leith suggested the cookbook was way past its heyday. In an article in the Radio Times, the BBC’s listings magazine, she wrote: “In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if that would sell today. But those books were much used: they lived in the kitchen and got splattered with custard and gravy. Today, if we cook, we google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza.”
We would beg to differ. Old cookbooks, without pictures, have been downloaded by the thousands from Archive.org/details/cbk . They can still be bought (try Penguin’s Great Food series). And great new volumes continue to be brought out every year by publishers across the world. Perhaps more than any other genre, cookbooks have transformative powers: They turn us into hoarders, explorers, innovators and artists.
We asked chefs and connoisseurs to tell us what they look for in cookbooks—and what their most precious volumes are.
The thousand club
Some of the best cookbooks, she says, document cultures and histories, some are travelogues, still others, such as M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth and Elizabeth David’s An Omelette And A Glass Of Wine, are examples of great prose.
One of her favourite passages in Serve It Forth describes food being heated: “We watched as in a blissful dream the small fat hands moving like magic among bottles and small bowls and spoons and plates, stirring, pouring, turning the pan over the flame just so, just so, with the face bent keen and intent above.”
Among the books that tell the stories of a recipe—where the writer discovered it and how she made it her own—Ponnapa ranks Marcella Hazan’s books right on top. “She goes right into her traditions. Marcella would go to an obscure little restaurant in a market in Venice and get a recipe from the chef,” says Ponnapa. “And that would find its way into the family repertoire. That’s how it works…. I have cooked Marcella’s baked mackerel recipe so many times it feels like it’s my own.”
Ponnapa also has a bagful of stories about how she collected her cookbooks—she bought her 27-volume set of Time-Life series Foods Of The World second-hand, “battered, bruised and much-yellowed”, from the Kitchen Arts and Letters book store in New York.
Activating the subconscious
Kalra, founder and managing director of Massive Restaurants, owner of Farzi Café, Masala Library and Pa Pa Ya, says the books he reads become background research and the starting point for discussions with brand chef Saurabh Udinia (they read the same books). “They are for opening up our subconscious. We see something, we read something and it all comes together somehow with our experiences to create a new dish,” says Kalra.
Often, as soon as a book is delivered from an online retailer, Kalra flips through it. Instead of reading the books from start to finish, he picks what looks like the most beautiful photo or most interesting idea in the index and begins there. “If I am looking to reference a technique, I go back to classics like Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. If I am reading something by contemporary chefs, I am looking for the most cutting-edge ideas in food today,” he says. Kalra and Udinia recently read Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs—a recommendation by the world’s 10 best chefs, including Ferran Adrià and Alain Ducasse, on the 100 “emerging chefs” they like.
Among Kalra’s all-time favourites are Prashad: Cooking With Indian Masters, by his father, Jiggs Kalra; Modern Gastronomy: A To Z by Adrià; Susur: A Culinary Life by Canadian chef Susur Lee; and David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku. “Chang shows you what quirky Asian food looks like. How much playfulness you can put in Asian food,” says Kalra.
“A cookbook is like a work of art: You don’t see all the hard work that has gone into it,” says Mumbai-based Babso Kanwar, who is co-writing a book on the history of Delhi through its food with Pushpesh Pant, a retired professor and author of India: Cookbook.
For her cookbook, Kanwar is devouring history books, manuals, journals, anecdotes, memoirs and family histories, and travelling between Delhi and the UK. Late last year, she travelled to England on a special quest: the meals served at the elaborate Delhi Durbar of 1911, held to mark the coronation of king George V. “The English maintained records of everything, from the number of horses to what manner of tents the Indian princes put up. But, curiously, there was no record to be found of the food and drink,” says Kanwar. “I found them at Windsor Castle, tucked away in a scrapbook Queen Mary kept—one among several other menus from their visit to the subcontinent.”
Good cookbooks, Kanwar says, tell compelling stories; some are crazy travelogues, and the best ones can teach you to cook. She cites the example of an old classic: Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. “It was perhaps the first cookbook to give exact measurements for ingredients in a recipe,” she says. “It changed the way people cook.” Kanwar remembers seeing the volume in her grandparents’ kitchen when she was a pre-teen.
Books such as École LeNôtre: La Pâtisserie; École LeNôtre: Les Pains Et Viennoiseries; Petits Gâteaux Da École LeNôtre; and Larousse Gastronomique have grown on Sahil Mehta, brand chef of The Artful Baker. Mehta studied at the École LeNôtre culinary school in France. “Back then, these books didn’t make sense to me. Even when I started working, these books didn’t make sense to me,” says New Delhi-based Mehta. “It was only when I started my own bakery that they started to make sense.”
Mehta now finds himself going back to La Patisserie and Larousse to look for solutions to culinary problems. When he wanted a joconde or almond sponge base for the Monte Cristo chocolate mousse dessert at The Artful Baker, for instance, Mehta looked up Larousse to research the proportion of almond meal to refined flour. “Almonds can be quite mealy in texture. I wanted to see how I could make the base crunchy,” he says. “It’s not like a normal sponge. There’s a crunchy hazelnut top. When you are a chef, you start to appreciate what these books can tell you about proportions and how the ingredients interact with each other.”
Mehta is also a fan of Pierre Hermé’s macarons; he has styled his own Salty Caramel Macaron after the savoury ones in Hermé’s shops in Paris and Tokyo. He reads almost everything Hermé publishes. “Hermé makes his macarons with foie gras, truffles, olives; it’s really very creative,” he says.
The origins story
Sapra cooks and conducts food walks, but his interest in cookbooks lies more in the stories about the origin of dishes, and the anecdotes around them, than in the recipes. “I ask my mom if I want a recipe,” he says. The chefs of Old Delhi, which he visits practically every day, also sometimes share recipes with him.
Sapra remembers one story from K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, about why the cooks in the famed Paranthe Wali Gali in Old Delhi—“all of them pandits from Agra”—don’t use onions or garlic in their food. “The communities that live around the area are Jains. Even though most of their clientele are tourists, they avoid onion and garlic so as not to give offence to the local residents,” says Sapra.
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