A Baker’s Dozen of My Favorite Cookbooks

Meg, one of the chefs at Too Many Chefs, asked me a couple of posts back to suggest a few cookbooks to her, as she felt that she needed more.

As one who lives in a house littered with thousands of books, hundreds of them cookbooks, I am happy to oblige her request, though I must point out that my list of favorite cookbooks is eclectic in the extreme, and features very few books that are from traditions related to either regional European or American cuisine. And there is not a general cookbook among the lot.

Make of that what you will.

These titles are in no particular order, other than the order in which they were taken from their cosy shelves in the kitchen carried forth into my office and dumped unceremoniously upon my desk. Where, as you can see, they became objects of immediate interest to the resident felines.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan: This book comprises both The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Classic Italian Cooking in one volume. This is one of the few, the proud, the European cookbooks in my collection that can boast food stains on more than one or two pages. When I want to make Italian food that tastes Italian and not Italian-American, or American-Italian, this is the book I reach for. Marcella writes like she is standing next to you in the kitchen, with a wooden spoon at the ready: she’s bossy. I like that about a cookbook writer. She tells you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, why to do it AND she does it all in such an authoritative voice that you cannot help but obey. And, in obeying, you end up with really tasty food. Marcella is one cook I love, honor and obey, at least, most of the time. I will admit to going against a few of her rules over the course of the years, and these days, I can mostly get away with it. I know which rules to bend, you see. But for a good lesson in real Italian cookery, you cannot beat following Marcella’s orders–she will pull you through every time.

It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking by Kasma Loha Unchit: This book, which is sadly out of print, has been read more times than I can remember. You see, I like cookbooks that you can read, in addition to cook from. In fact, I would say that I read cookbooks more than I actually follow the recipes from them–especially if you only count “following” recipes as meaning “following them to the letter.” Because, I seldom follow any recipe to the letter, but that is another story. We are talking about It Rains Fishes here. Kasma is a heck of a storyteller, in addition to being a damned fine cooking teacher. Her words combine with really delightful water color illustrations by Margaret DeJong and a great collection of Thai recipes to make a cookbook that entertains, educates and entices the reader all at once. If I lived in the Bay Area, I would take Kasma’s Thai cooking classes; since I do not, I have used her recipes to teach myself how to cook excellent Thai food, starting with fresh curry pastes and ending with finished dishes full of fragrance and flavor. This is definately a book to seek out.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cooking: Do I need to mention this is by Madhur Jaffrey if her name is in the title? Okay, I won’t then, but I have to admit that I have used probably more recipes from this book than from any other cookbook, without a shadow of a doubt.It is probably the most stained cookbook in my collection that got its stains from my kitchen; I have some antique ones that are more disreputable looking than this one, but the slopping wasn’t done my my own hand, so it doesn’t count. I have already said that Madhur is a Devi of the kitchen, and I reiterate it here–she is divine. Her recipes have never failed to work, to taste wonderful, to satisfy myself, my family, my guests, and my clients–many of whom were Pakistani. Her recipes are just plain old good, simple and they work as written, though, they are always amenable to the cook’s own flourishes and ornaments. This is also the cookbook that pushed me towards getting my first pressure cooker, and caused me to utterly fall in love with that method of cooking.It is wonderful. You get an amazing depth of flavor in a very short period of time, with a minimum of effort. In today’s hurried world, this book, and a pressure cooker are the answer for rushed families who want to cook and eat Indian food and have no clue how to start.

Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni: This is probably my second best all-time favorite Indian cookbook that shows its status as a “best beloved” volume by the number of ingredient stains on its pages.Julie has taught Indian cookery out of her home and through other venues in New York City for decades, and her careful prose and explanation shows this. She is one of those writers whose clear explanations tell the reader what a patient teacher she is; it is obvious that she has led many Westerners through the mysteries of Indian cuisine many times. She knows the path very well, and is ready for every twist, turn and question that can come up. She also writes with a very infectious enthusiasm that is very hard to ignore; I cannot imagine anyone reading it and not wanting to jump right up, run to the kitchen and whip up a batch of Shajahani biryani, even if that means they have to make a batch of lamb korma first. My favorite chapter is the one on breads; Julie is the first author who made me brave enough to attempt parathas.

Tandoor: The Great Indian Barbeque by Ranjit Rai: Okay, if you look at the authors of all the other books, you will notice that most of them are women. I am not sure why that is, exactly, except that I tend to prefer books that are not written by chefs, most of whom are men. Why? Well, even when I was in culinary school, I tended to prefer chefs who made real food, not art food, and a lot of chef’s cookbooks are all about art food that no home cook is really going to be able to recreate, so who wants to read that? I mean, I have plenty of books by male authors, but not one them are as well loved as the ones by these talented women. Except this one. Ranjit, a successful businessman and philanthropist, made it his life work to document the history, lore and recipes surrounding the wood-fired clay tandoor ovens of India. And his book, which is filled with luscious photographs, delicious recipes for tandoor dishes one never sees on menus here in the US, and the tale of the tandoor, really jumpstarts my creativity. He writes with clear wit, and his recipes are simple and easy to follow. Look for some tests of his dishes this summer when it is time to fire up the grill again.

A Taste of Persia by Najmieh K. Batmanglij: This little volume has become a favorite not only because I am very fond of the flavors of modern Persian (Iranian) food, but because it has helped establish a hypothesis in my mind. My hypothesis is that Persian cuisine is probably one of the most unsung, yet quietly influential cuisines in history, even if most Americans wouldn’t know a Persian dish if one bonked them upside the head. (Don’t worry–I will write about this one day–I keep meaning to and keep forgetting.) Najmieh is another great teacher and writer who tells stories about every one of the recipes she presents in the book. She quite successfully places Persian food in the context of culture and history, which I appreciate a great deal, because I am a firm believer that food is one of the main modes by which culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. My favorite recipes in the cookbook are the ones for eggplant and for pillau, the bestest of which is the cherry pillau recipe I blogged about last summer.

Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urrutia Randleman and Joan Schwartz: I love me some Cuban food. Zak’s parents live in Miami, Florida, and whenever we visit them, we go eat Cuban food at least three or four times. Neuvo Cuban at the tony upscale restaurants is great, but we are more likely to jump into the traditional stuff at little Mom and Pop neighborhood places where very few people speak English, because the homestyle food is where it is at. Black beans and rice, soft, ripe plantains fried crispy on the outside and melty-sweet on the inside, platters of vaca frita (fried cow–beef that is braised until tender then crisp fried) with fresh sweet onion and sour lime, and lemony-sauteed chicken–my mouth is watering just thinking about it. With the help of this cookbook and the new availability of plaintains up north that are just ripe enough to sit on the counter to finish ripening before they mold (when they are stark green, often they would go bad before ripening all the way), I have been able to reproduce our favorite Cuban foods even up here in Ohio. On top of everything, Mary wrote a cookbook full of personal stories of life on her grandparents’ cattle ranch in Cuba, which makes for utterly fascinating reading. If you like Cuban food, this is a must-get book. If you don’t think you like Cuban food, read this book, try a recipe and then realize that you do indeed like Cuban food. (I cannot imagine anyone not liking Cuban food that has tastebuds and a pulse, really.)

The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy: Once again, here is a writer who is so thorough, so enthusiastic, so knowlegeable, that a reader cannot help but learn from her. Diana is an Englishwoman who has lived in Mexico for decades, where she dedicated herself to learning as much as she could about the regional cuisines of that often derided country and then presenting what she learned in a series of exhaustively-written cookbooks. It is hard to pick just one as a favorite, but I think this is it. The only thing that keeps it from perfection is the underutilization of illustration; when learning technique-heavy cuisines, I have found that good illustration, whether in line drawings or clear photographs, are invaluable to the student. They can take the place of paragraphs of explanation, though, truly, I wouldn’t want to excise a single word of Diana’s lucid, exacting prose. It would be a shame.

Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes by Fuchsia Dunlop: I have sung Fuchsia’s praises in this blog before, and I probably will again, especially when her book on Hunan cuisine comes out–whenever that will be. This is the single most important book on Sichuanese food published in the English language. Period. End. Of. Story. Fuchsia speaks the language, and while she was in Sichuan province, she attended the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. You can’t get anymore authoritative than that and be a Westerner, unless you were born in China, and grew up there. Not only does Fuchsia know her stuff, but she is really good at telling stories, which by now, one should know is an important qualification for a cookbook writer in my universe. But Fuchsia isn’t just engaging and witty, and has the cooking chops, but she is able to describe in detail the cooking techniques, ingredients and flavor combinations that make Sichuanese food completely unique. Unlike the way it is often presented in US restaurants, as “Cantonese” food with a slop of chile garlic paste, the cuisine of Sichuan is very different from other Chinese regional cuisines and Fuchsia is the first author to really bring this point across in a way that is accessible to the average Westerner. I also appreciate that she doesn’t shy from including recipes that might never be cooked by the average American or British cook, such as “fire-exploded kidney flowers.” I have featured two of her recipes here:Rabbit with Sichuan Pepper and Red-Cooked Beef with Turnips.

The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo: Another out-of-print classic (though it is easy to find for a good price at Amazon, Bookfinder or ebay), Irene’s weighty tome is a worthy introduction to the techniques, ingredients and flavors of good Chinese cooking. Again, there are very few illustrations, which is a problem when students are learning a technique-heavy unfamiliar cuisine, but the explanations are so clear and concise that the lack is minor. Important techniques such as holding a cleaver and the many cuts it is used for are adequately illustrated with very good line drawings, so the quibble is a minor one. A member of an old aristocratic family in China, Kuo’s marriage to a general and a diplomat brought her and her culinary knowledge to the United States and Europe, where she hosted many banquets showcasing Chinese cuisines. Later, she opened two very successful restaurants in New York City, and she taught Chinese cookery extensively there and in other places around the country. It is obvious that she had taught Westerners Chinese cuisine for years before she wrote her book, because, like Julie Sahni’s ability to anticipate questions and answer them before they arise, she is very thorough in her explanation of the mechanics of every technique she introduces. Working from this book is like having a Chinese auntie at your elbow, guiding you along as you learn to cut vegetables, cook rice and stir fry.

Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook by Yan-Kit So: This is one of those cookbooks you give to someone who learns visually. It is just loaded with photoraphs, from the first page, to the last, all of them clear with natural coloring and food styling that doesn’t look overly styled. Every finished dish is pictured, garnished and made beautiful by loving hands, and the first forty-five pages of the book are taken up with step-by-step photoessays illustrating the all-important techniques of Chinese cookery, from cleaver work to stir-frying in a wok. Ingredients that may be unfamiliar to the novice are photographed and described, and on every page, the text is just as illustrative as the pictures. I assume that the lady in all the photographs is the author (who just recently passed away, alas), who demonstrates every technique with ease and grace; while her writing is generally devoid of stories, her description of the hows and whys of Chinese food more than make up for the lack. Besides, her personality comes through in the photographs, if, indeed the lady in the pictures is the author. All of that aside, the recipes I have used from this book, (one of which I just presented here: Beef with Mangoes), have all worked quite well for me and for Morganna. This is one of the books I gave her for Yule before she came to live with me when she wanted to learn to cook Chinese food. She started working through it alone and did quite well, cooking several dinners for herself and relatives with just the book and a few phone calls to me to guide her.

The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young with photographs by Alan Richardson: This has got to be one of my favorite cookbooks ever. For one thing, it is not just a collection of recipes, but is a work of food anthropology and history, with striking photography documenting the history, development and culture of the wok in Chinese cookery. It is a remarkable work, spanning thousands of years and miles, with beautiful recipes gathered from home cooks and chefs from China and all around the world. Grace is a consummate storyteller, and she is just as adept at writing recipes as she is at writing history. She is a dear, funny lady, who has deft hands with a wok, too–I was priviledged to meet her and assist her in teaching a class last year in Columbus, Ohio where she prepared a Chinese New Year menu built from recipes from this book. She was a very good teacher, and went out of her way to teach the symbolism and history of each dish along with the ingredients and technique. It was very obvious to me that she she felt that culture and cuisine went hand-in-hand. For a taste of one of her dishes from this book, try her Stir Fried Lettuce with Garlic; I know it sounds odd, but I had it that night in Columbus, and it is utterly divine. The one difference between this recipe and the way she cooked it then was instead of iceburg lettuce, she used romaine, which was amazing.

Jerk: Barbeque From Jamaica by Helen Willinsky: I have never been to Jamaica, but I know that I will be eating if I ever make it there. Jerk. Jerk pork, jerk chicken, jerk beef, fish–I don’t care what critter is is, put that jerk rub on it and grill it over a smoky fire and I am so there. Jerk is fine stuff, make no mistake, fiery with chiles, bright with allspice, tingling with ginger and bursting with garlic, thyme, peppercorns and other good stuff. It is just plain old good eatin’. I think that this cookbook has to be the most disreputable looking one in my collection, now that I get a good look at it. It also smells–like jerk of course, as it has had jerk-rub sticky fingers perusing it more times than I can count. It is out of print, but you can get plenty of copies used at Amazon for a good price. But what you want to know is how are the recipes? Well, the fact is–they are great. I have made a bunch of them, and in fact, jerk is a summer standby around here, much to the great joy of all. The recipes are all fantastic. Just great. I have made the barbequed meats, the beans and rice (with coconut milk–yum!), meat patties, which are like Cornish pasties that taste good because they are all spicy and tasty with flaky turmeric-colored pastry, and the jerk meatloaf, which is the -only- way Zak will eat meatloaf and like it. As is the case with most of my favorite cookbooks, I have gone off and riffed a few of the recipes, taking them places that Helen maybe didnt forsee or intend. Like the Asian-Jamaican fusion jerked pork tenderloin with teriyaki sauce and sesame oil in addition to the standard jerk rub that I served with a salsa of mango, papaya, pineapple and pickled ginger. Yeah, that was tasty. I should make it again and blog about it, now that I think on it….

There we are. Thirteen of my favorite cookbooks, in no particular order, with hopefully helpful, and entertaining commentary, and illustrations that include my constant companions and erstwhile assistants, the lovely and talented Lennier and Tatterdemalion.


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  1. Thanks Barbara! I’ll write these down (except maybe Hazan as I already have such excellent cookbooks on Italian cooking)and keep the list handy when I enter a bookshop selling English language books here!

    Comment by ilva — March 10, 2006 #

  2. Well at least there’s a photo of an “American” source, the BHG classic! Fascinating list, several new to me. (And loved the kitty appreciation too.)

    You’ll laugh: I’ve printed your soy sauce/miso posts, they’re in the car to take into my wonderful little international grocery where posts in hand I will stand in front of 50 choices and instead of walking away frustrated and empty-handed like so many times before, I’ll know which one(s) to get!

    So — many thanks, as always! AK

    Comment by Alanna — March 10, 2006 #

  3. That’s why I included the pictures in the post, Alanna–so you could see what the bottles/jars looked like.

    Miso Master’s misos are easily found in natural foods stores, btw.

    The rest of the goodies you will find in the Asian market.

    Good luck!

    (I was going to write about the BGH–but I decided to do a separate post for it, and probably elsewhere than on Tigers and Strawberrries..I’ll keep folks here posted, though. Anyway, the BGH one of the three or four cookbooks my Mom had when I was a kid and I used to sit and look at it and read recipes for hours when I was small. It is one of my earliest memories of me being interested in reading cookbooks.)

    Ilva! I am glad you found the list useful. Unfortunately, many on the list are out of print, but most of them can be found on Amazon, Bookfinder or ebay for decent prices. The most expensive one is It Rains Fishes because it is in such demand. I think it should go back into print, myself, but that is just me….

    Comment by Barbara — March 10, 2006 #

  4. Funny – I’ve got every single Chinese Cookbook you listed; and they are all fine books as well. Though Yan Kit’s recipes seem to always need a bit more “adjusting” then the rest – but the just the primer on cutting in the beginning of the book makes it worth purchasing.

    Comment by Kirk — March 10, 2006 #

  5. Yes, Kirk–I always suggest Yan-Kit’s cookbook in conjunction with other books–the most useful part are the photographs of the techniques. They are really necessary for visual learners.

    Comment by Barbara — March 10, 2006 #

  6. This is just a fantastic reference…my $$ is burning a hole in my pocket to get some of these. As an SF Bay Area person I can attest that Kasma’s classes are just amazing. I have taken everything she has offered, and she and her wonderful perpsective on food, culture and life have become an important part of my life. It was she who taught me the concept of balancing flavors, which markedly improved not only my Thai cooking, but all my cooking.

    She has week-long intensive classes every summer. I have not taken them, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone from out of town. They are quite reasonable. If one has a friend or aquaintance to stay with here it would even be a reasonably cheap week (hotels are a bit dear in the bay area). I cannot recommend Kasma highly enough. She is a local gem.

    Comment by Diane — March 10, 2006 #

  7. Thanks a million! The only one I already have (and I love it too) is the Hazan book. Now the dilemma is: do I treat myself or update the Amazon wish list? Or a combination of the two? I especially appreciate the tips on Chinese (about which I know next to nothing aside from what I read on your pages) and the origin of the query – where to start with the Madhur Jaffrey collection!

    As for your comment on BHG – I have the same memories, except for me it was the well-worn Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It’s not actually a great source for flavorful recipes, but I’ll always have a soft spot for it!

    Comment by Meg — March 11, 2006 #

  8. Barbara, this is a fantastic list! Several of these are in my own library, but I’m going to add A Taste of Persia on your recommendation. Thanks.

    Comment by Lydia — March 11, 2006 #

  9. Barbara, this is a fantastic list! I’m creating menus for a new World Cuisines Cooking Group, and always looking for inspiration. Several of your favorite cookbooks are in my own library, but I’m going to try A Taste of Persia on your recommendation. Thanks.

    Comment by Lydia — March 11, 2006 #

  10. Diane–thank you for telling me about Kasma’s weeklong intensive. We were planning on doing a trip to California in August–we have a family wedding in Nevada at that time, but I think we will actually do two trips. That means, we will likely be in northern California in June for at least a week, and then in Southern California for the same amount of time to visit my brother-in-law in LA.

    I might look into Kasma’s class schedule and see if I can register. That would be very cool!

    Meg–I am glad I helped! Chinese cookbooks–at this point, I have over two hundred–maybe more, now that I think of it. Most of them are out of print–some of them are quite excellent, and some of them are just sort of there, and then some of them have historical significance that is greater than their usefulness in the kitchen, and some are both historically significant and good cookbooks. So, if you ever have specific questions, ask away–I will be happy to answer or refer you to someone who can answer.

    Lydia–Glad to hear I helped! Welcome and I hope you like A Taste of Persia. It is a lovely book.

    Comment by Barbara — March 11, 2006 #

  11. Excellent choices in cookbooks. I own Land of Plenty and have access to most of the others at work (the library).

    Comment by Barbara (Biscuit Girl) — March 11, 2006 #

  12. I apologize for sounding ignorant, but what is BHG? Better Homes and Garden?

    The only cookbook I remember that we had in our home was The Joy of Cooking, but my mom never really used it because she felt the reciepes were too complicated for her as a non-native reader of english. Instead, she cooked on intution and from her experiences growing up in asia.

    I seriously have to get Dunlop’s book. Oh, and Jaffrey’s!

    Comment by Rose — March 12, 2006 #

  13. I’ve been very interested in Kasma’s classes as well as Her trips/tours for a while now. This just makes me more motivated to try a free up time and money for them.

    Comment by Kirk — March 12, 2006 #

  14. Thanks, other Barbara!

    You got it, Rose. Better Homes and Garden. That is the cookbook of my childhood.

    You would love Dunlop and Jaffrey’s books, Rose, seriously.

    Kirk–if you get to them before me–let me know what you think.

    Comment by Barbara — March 12, 2006 #

  15. I’m thrilled…been wanting an Indian cookbook and the other day saw Julie Sahni on some show…so looked up her book, but wanted some feedback. I’m happy you mentioned the book here and I am confident enough to move forward with ordering it from Amazon!

    Comment by scotte — July 24, 2006 #

  16. I am glad to be of service Scotte. I think you will be well served by Julie Sahni’s books.

    Comment by Barbara — July 26, 2006 #

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