catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 4 :: 2008.02.22 — 2008.03.07


The cultural cook

I'm not sure exactly when I became a foodie. When I was ten or eleven, I drafted my best friend to help me make an anniversary dinner for my parents of Rock Cornish Hen with various side dishes and made-from-scratch lemon sorbet for dessert. It never occurred to me at that age that roasting Cornish hens might be a little ambitious. I don't really remember my parents' reaction to the meal (they tell me now that they remember it being very good) but I do remember the thrill of coming up with a menu, shopping for the ingredients by myself and putting it all together like a sort of alchemy.

Another early cooking experience involved checking out a French cookbook from the town library and making a complete French meal (crepes!) with my mother and sister. Over the years, neither my ambition nor my interest in the food of other cultures has lessened, and my love of all good things related to food has only intensified. In particular, I love poring over cookbooks.

I can spend hours paging through them recipe-by-recipe, imagining the smell and taste of each concoction. Although these days I get many of my cooking ideas from websites like Epicurious and The Splendid Table, there’s still something to be said about a good tangible book, especially one with the sort of vivid food photography that makes your mouth start to water. Not only is there a delight in turning the pages of a book and discovering the recipes in the particular order in which the author has arranged them, I’d frankly much rather get splatters on an easily-replaceable book than on my much pricier laptop!

Cookbooks been not only a way to expand my kitchen vocabulary; since that French cookbook from the library, they have been a window to other worlds and a way to experience other cultures without leaving my hometown. They have also been a way to connect to various aspects of my own culture, such as the delights of seasonal and locally produced food, and a way to learn about treading more lightly on the earth.

Herewith, an annotated list of cookbooks that have transported and linked me to various cultures, both exotic and familiar:


A Taste of Persia
by Najmieh K. Batmanglij (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003)

Ever since I first met my husband James, I’ve been fascinated by his Iranian heritage—his mother was born in Iran to an Iranian father and British mother and lived in Iran for the first eighteen years of her life. His extended family still gathers in late March every year to celebrate Noruz, the Persian New Year. As an engagement present, James’ parents gave us A Taste of Persia, and ever since then, I’ve been enjoying discovering Persian food: cucumber yogurt salad flavored with dill, mint, oregano, thyme, dried rose petals, raisins, radish and walnuts; garlic and Seville orange baked fish; and especially different varieties of khoreshes, which are the Persian version of a Midwestern American casserole or an Indian curry—a staple dish with a common essence but many variations. My favorite khoreshes are those that centre on a fruit such as apple, peach or pomegranate combined with chicken, herbs and spices and served over saffron rice. Batmanglij’s cookbook includes history lessons and a dictionary of ingredients found in Persian cooking such as barberries, advieh and sumac.


Extending the Table
by Joetta Handrich Schlabach (Herald Press, 1991)

From the Mennonite Central Committee, the folks who brought us the More With Less cookbook in the 1970s, came this wonderful cookbook of food from almost 100 countries. It comprises mostly ethnic classics such as Thai Fried Noodles (Pad Thai), Vietnamese Pho (noodle soup), Irish Colcannon, Dutch Stoompot, Spanish Tortilla, Philippine Chicken Adobo, Malaysian Chicken Rendang, Creole Jambalaya and Ghanaian Groundnut Stew. These recipes are interspersed with stories of the different countries and cultures where the dishes originated, many of the vignettes testifying to the value of community when it comes to growing, harvesting, preparing and eating food. These are dishes that are meant to be shared and celebrated.


Jamie at Home
by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph, 2007)

Shortly after moving to London, England last summer, I realized that I was going to have to start adjusting my cooking to the difference in the range of ingredients available here. Most of the differences are subtle. For example, ingredients typically found in Central and South American dishes such as tomatillos and chipotle chilis in adobo sauce—items you can find in just about any American grocery store—are much more difficult to come by the UK. And although ingredients for Indian and Thai cooking are much easier to find, I decided to focus on becoming more familiar with British cooking. North Americans who associate British food with “bland and overcooked” might be surprised to hear that British cuisine in the true sense of the word is alive and thriving, and this book—along with the corresponding TV show—is a great example. Jamie at Home, the latest cookbook from the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver, chronicles Oliver’s recent love affair with his garden. It’s organized by seasons—Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter—and in addition to seasonal produce, features recipes based on seasonal meat and game. It includes helpful planting and growing tips, and advice on selecting various cuts of meat. You can’t get much more British—or more delicious—than Smashed Peas and Broad Beans on Toast; Pan-fried Partridge with Delicate Pearl Barley, Pea and Lettuce Stew; Steak, Guinness, and Cheese Pie; or Creamy Rice Pudding with Strawberry Jam.


River Café Cookbook Green
by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Ebury Press, 2001)

The River Café in London has been operating on the bank of the Thames since 1987 serving up Italian food with an emphasis on quality seasonal ingredients. In addition to its founders Gray and Rogers, in twenty years, it’s has spawned a number of celebrated cooks such as the aforementioned Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage Cafe. It has also produced more than ten cookbooks. This one is a recent addition to my collection and is one of a spate of recent releases that focus on the seasonality of ingredients and cooking. In River Café Cookbook Green, Rogers and Gray don’t just stick to the four seasons of the year, though. They give each month its own section, listing for each six or seven vegetables, fruits, pulses or seasonings that are in season that month and giving one to four recipes for each featured ingredient. Typical recipes include Savoy Cabbage, Pancetta and Fontina Risotto; Sea Kale with Pecorino Romano and Lemon; and Pasta with Asparagus, Peas, Prosciutto and Cream.


Moosewood New Classics
by the Moosewood Collective (Random House, 2001)

Moosewood was really my introduction to vegetarian culture. Thirty-seven different delicious ways to use tofu—including as a béchamel substitute in vegan lasagna? Bring it on! There are many different “variations on a theme” features here for such dishes as risotto, frittata and polenta. In addition to the recipes, the book helpfully includes a pantry list, guide to ingredients and indices of recipes that are vegan, low-fat or low-carbohydrate. I especially like using this cookbook when I have a refrigerator full of vegetables from our weekly organic box delivery and want to find a recipe that uses a lot of them in one dish. My favorites include Caribbean Sweet Potato Gratin and Spanish Frittata.


Super Natural Cooking
by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, 2007)

If Moosewood was my introduction to vegetarian culture, Swanson (of has provided me with the next step along. Her book is subtitled Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients Into Your Cooking and features recipes like Seed-Crusted Amaranth Biscuits, Quinoa and Cornflower Crepes, and Sticky Teff-Kissed Spice Loaves. In addition to the recipes and fantastic food photography (most of it by Swanson herself), each of the five sections also encompass lists of healthy ingredients to stock in your pantry and suggestions of ways to incorporated them in your cooking and baking. It’s the answer to my persistent question, “What would I do with those foods sold in bulk at health food stores that are probably really good for me but I don’t have a clue how to use?” Just looking through this cookbook makes me want to be more healthy!


Even though I have quite a collection, there are always lots of cookbooks on my wish list. Some that are at the top right now include The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen by Nigel Slater, Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson and Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian Cookbook. I look forward to the ways that I will delve even deeper into British, vegan, Indian and many other cultures through these and other cookbooks for years to come.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus