Exploring a community, a neighborhood, a whole region, even a country through the tastes of its food brings extra dimension to how you experience and come to know a place. It’s also fun to try your hand at cooking regional dishes in your own kitchen.
With that in mind, I am going to point you to four stories we’ve done about cookbooks.
If you’re thinking wait, I don’t cook, or I’m in a place where I can’t cook, or I don’t have lots of ingredients or even, I’m a terrible cook, have no worries. As to ingredients, there are many ideas for substitutions and alternate takes in these books, and of course thinking about how make suggested dishes with what you have on hand is a way to inspire your own creativity. The books I’ll be telling you about each have stories and photographs as interesting as the recipes the authors share. Even if you never step foot in a kitchen, they make good reading and offer interesting ways to explore places new and places familiar.
As many kids do, Chetna Makan liked to help her mother in the kitchen while she was growing up in Jabalpur in north central India, and kept up her interest in food when a career in deign took her to Mumbai. When she relocated to the UK, she found herself wanting to recreate some of those familiar tastes, and to share them with family and friends. Among other things that led to appearances on the Great British Bake Off and a baking cookbook. Then, Makan wanted to explore more widely. The result is her book Chai, Chaat & Chutney in which she organizes the recipes and stories she offers in sections featuring the street foods of Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi.
Makan takes care to make recipes are accessible to western home cooks, and tells stories about the background of and her connections to each dish. There’s fine photography of both food and street scenes in this well designed book, too. Read more: Indian Street Food: Stories and Recipes.
History and story come into play in the Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook, and you’ll enjoy the photos as well. The recipes and stories come from the cooking of African American communities in the United States. The Sweet Home Cafe is at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. Recipes include those served in the cafe as well as others contribution from cafe chefs.
The cookbook is arranged by type of dish, though I found it most interesting to explore through an index that sorts them by region, from the Agricultural South to the Northern States to the Creole Coast and beyond. In addition to stories about the recipes and vignettes of history, stories behind ingredients liven things up too. Learn more at African American Foodways: Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook.
Have you ever given thought to what Saint Patrick’s favourite food was? Even if you are named after the Irish saint, that may not have come up in conversation. You may read an essay about that very thing in The Country Cooking of Ireland, though. There are plenty of good recipes, some from modern day chefs and others sourced from older cookbooks.
These are interspersed with short profiles of chefs, information on ingredients, stories of particular places, and the like.
You will learn ways to prepare classic Irish dishes and likely encounter some dishes you’ve never heard about. As author Colman Andrews points out, one of the hallmarks of food in Ireland is letting the quality of natural ingredients stand out, and that’s clear in the way the recipes are presented, too. You’ll also learn from Christopher Hirsheimer’s photographs of landscape, food, and food artisans. Read more at Country Cooking of Ireland.
American Imen McDonell hadn’t planned on learning her way around a farm kitchen in rural County Limerick, but then she married and Irish farmer. Life in rural Ireland was both familiar and strange, she found. To help ground her as she worked her way through this, she turned to cooking, and eventually, writing about, photographing, and creating and adapting recipes.
Planting a garden became part of this process, and one that, McDonnell found, brought her joy. “I saw how this could be my contribution to the family farm,” she writes. She dug in, learning about organic practices and tilling a plot for her garden. There she planted heirloom seeds as well as vegetables not often found in Ireland. Gardening, cooking, and other aspects of farm life didn’t always go as expected, but then, what does? All this led to The Farmette Cookbook. McDonnell fortunately has a lively sense of humor, which means her book will appeal both to Irish people who’ll have a chuckle at her struggles and armchair travelers who’ll enjoy learning of her experiences. Cooks will like her recipes for items familiar, such as blackcurrant jam, to inventive, such as Saint Patrick’s Day Bacon and Cabbage Potstickers. Read more about at Farm to Table: Ireland Meets America in The Farmette Cookbook.
Food, and cooking, are ways to travel that can offer experiences both adventurous and familiar. Those aspects can be found on the road and at home, too. These cookbooks, and the food and cooking stories in our archive, are ready for you to explore.
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