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Culinary Arts: A Guide to the Literature (April 2016): International Cuisines

By Jeffrey P. Miller and Jonathan Deutsch

International Cuisines

“International cuisines,” per se, is a vast topic to cover, but two titles with this broad ambition stand out.  In Food around the World, Margaret McWilliams presents world cuisines in cultural context.  She organizes the material by continent, then delves deeper into specific countries and areas—examining history and culture, food consumption patterns, holidays, and other cultural markers.  Representative recipes are included.  Chapters on the foods of the world’s major religions flesh out this valuable volume, and maps and photos help the reader visualize the world’s food regions.  Patricia Heyman’s International Cooking: A Culinary Journey also takes a continental approach.  Heyman covers more countries than McWilliams does, and she includes more recipes but less cultural material.  Madhur Jaffrey offers a broad, comprehensive international perspective on vegetarian cuisine in Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian.  She devotes sections to food groups, examining unfamiliar ingredients and providing details on food storage.  Including more than six hundred recipes from five continents, this title is a must for cooks wanting to stay relevant in a health- and culture-conscious market.

Other volumes tackle particular countries and/or regions.  Ken Albala’s Three World Cuisines focuses on Italy, Mexico, and China.  Albala offers a comparative examination of each country’s culinary history and food culture, looking at commonalities in usage and highlighting factors that account for difference.  He begins by explicating a theory of cuisine and then uses recipes and other artifacts of material culture to examine how cuisine evolved in the wake of trade, travel, and transmission of ideas.  Regional cuisines are of interest to a wide audience, from culinarians and researchers to lay readers.  Clifford Wright’s meticulous A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs embraces all those readers.  Wright explores the history and culture of the Mediterranean and provides some five hundred thoughtful recipes that represent the culture.  Wright’s grasp of both time and geography is impressive.  Recipes cover nearly two thousand years and an area stretching eastward from the Pillars of Hercules to the Levant and south from Venice to the shores of the Red Sea.  Extremely practical and thorough—with a glossary and pantry lists—this volume particularly shines in its investigations of how food and culture shape each other.  Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published in 1968 as The Book of Middle Eastern Food, has a similarly extensive span.  Roden was born in Cairo, and she documents the food of the entire Middle East magnificently.  The book’s eight hundred recipes represent all the major types of Middle Eastern cuisine, from that emanating from the refined Persian and Ottoman kitchens to street foods of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa.  The tales of Middle Eastern culture, history,  politics, and society that accompany the recipes explain the evolution and current state of Middle Eastern foods.  A cookbook that reflects the latest in Middle Eastern cuisine is Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s beautifully illustrated Ottolenghi.  This collaboration by a Palestinian and a Jewish chef shows how the flavors and traditions of the Middle East fuse to create flavorful, colorful food suited to modern tastes.  For Persian food, which can vary significantly from Arabic foods, the recommended source is Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen.  Blending classic Persian ingredients—and offering comments about taste and culture—this book is devoted to a cuisine that is both ancient and modern.

The cuisine of Italy is of central interest to readers in the United States.  Marcella Hazan, a native of Venice, wrote books on Italian cuisine that both inform and entertain.  Her two most famous cookbooks are The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating and More Classic Italian Cooking.  In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Hazan combines the two earlier works, offering some of the original content plus new material.  Many Italian dishes now beloved in the United States first came to light in the works of Hazan.  The combined volume adds information regarding herbs, spices, and cheeses.  Hazan’s writing style is direct and uncomplicated, and she adapts the recipes for American ingredients.  Elizabeth David’s Italian Food—now a “Penguin Classic”—deserves a place on the culinary bookshelf.  David was the one of the first writers to attempt to explain Italian food to Anglophone readers, and her style is both scholarly and literary.  When this book was published in 1954, The Times Literary Supplement celebrated it as “more than a collection of recipes ... in effect a readable and discerning dissertation on Italian food and regional dishes.”

The cuisine of France may have lost popular ground to that of Italy in the imagination of readers and eaters in the United States, but most culinarians today are trained using methodology firmly rooted in the French tradition.  Mastering the Art of French Cooking, discussed earlier in this essay, is often mentioned in the same breath with two other classics of the 1960-70s, Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking and Richard Olney’s Simple French FoodFrench Provincial Cooking is a literary gem as well as a superb cookbook.  Available in the “Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics” series, the book includes stories that provide cultural context and invaluable commentary on the theory and practice of French cookery.  Olney’s Simple French Food is often cited as the book that sparked the California cuisine movement led by Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower at Chez Panisse.  Olney’s approach to recipe writing—simple ingredient lists with few hard measurements—may intimidate the inexperienced, but the aspiring professional will find the explanations and excursions describing ingredients and techniques inspiring.  The most recent edition of this book includes, in the addition to the original foreword by James Beard, a new foreword by Mark Bittman and an introduction by Patricia Wells.  Today’s culinary arts students will, of course, want more modern culinary texts that include the most up-to-date recipes and photographs of luscious dishes.  For them, Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan’s Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook will fit the bill.  This illustrated book brought classic cuisine française into the modern era.  The authors divide the book into four sections: “La Tradition” comprises recipes of traditional French classics for the American kitchen; “La Saison” is devoted to using fresh seasonal ingredients; “Le Voyage” includes Boulud’s recipes for world cuisines; and “Le Potager” covers vegetarian dishes.  Pantry items and culinary tools are treated at the end of the book.

Latin American cuisine is of increasing interest in North America.  Books on Mexican food were first; now, one can find titles covering the cuisine of countries all the way south to the tip of South America.  Honored as the “Julia Child of Mexico,” Diana Kennedy spent many years living in Mexico and researching Mexican cuisine.  Her trilogy of Mexican cookbooks—The Cuisines of Mexico, The Tortilla Book, and Mexican Regional Cooking, all published in the 1970s—have yet to be surpassed in terms of depth, breadth, and usefulness.  Those looking for a broad treatment will find it in Maricel Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.  The 2013 James Beard Cookbook of the Year, this meticulous account of the foods of Latin America takes cooks from Mexico to Argentina.  Offering rich cultural commentary, Presilla brings her training as a food historian to bear on the more than five hundred recipes, from appetizers to desserts; she includes notes on equipment that will be unfamiliar to most readers in the United States.

Many Asian cuisines are popular in the United States today, and the origins of this phenomenon are rooted in restaurants started by Chinese immigrants who came to work on the expanding railroads to the American West and in the gold fields of California during the gold rush.  These first immigrants were Cantonese, so most early Chinese restaurants in the United States were firmly based in Cantonese cuisine.  Though one can find many useful books on Chinese cookery, one that stands out is Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking.  Tropp bases her recipes in an understanding of the philosophy of Chinese cookery, especially the harmony created by blending opposites, for example, sweet and hot, in a single dish.  This yin-yang approach yields one of the most useful English-language titles in Chinese cookery, not least because the author devotes significant attention to adapting these dishes to the Western kitchen in terms of both ingredients and kitchen equipment.  Ken Hom is often referred to as the “Julia Child of Chinese cooking.”  Born in Tucson, Arizona, Hom gained fame in Europe thanks to his long-running program on the BBC, Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery.  His reputation flourished in the United States with his hosting of the first two seasons of PBS’s Great Foods program.  Hom’s Complete Chinese Cookbook surveys the cuisines of China and Hong Kong.  This volume is approachable and practical: recipes—many illustrated with photographs—are based in Chinese regional cuisine but skillfully adapted to American pantries and kitchens.

President Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972 increased interest in Chinese cuisines, and that interest quickly spread to other regions of Asia.  Today many Americans are familiar with the foods of Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea as well as that of China.  Japanese cookery is much more than just sushi.  A good place to start with Japanese food is Elizabeth Andohs’s Washoku.  The Japanese term washoku translates as traditional Japanese food, but beyond the literal translation it also encompasses the holistic approach that many traditional Japanese take to cooking.  A proper Japanese meal incorporates color, flavor, nutrition, aroma, and a positive dining experience.  Meeting these objectives entails careful selection of raw foods, careful cutting and other preparation techniques, proper cooking, and attention to presentation.  In Washoku, Andohs combines recipes, photos, and descriptions of the ethos of Japanese cuisine, resulting in a book rich in aesthetics and practical knowledge.  In their Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond, Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat focus on Japanese foods that have been widely accepted by American palates.  The result is an excellent primer on Japanese “comfort foods,” which—like American comfort foods—are rich, meaty, rib sticking, and often crunchy fare.  The volume features great recipes for gyoza, tonkatsu, the more familiar ramen and tempura, and many other Japanese foods that have become hits in the United States.  Japanese Soul Cooking is organized by food type, starting with the ubiquitous ramen bowl and ending with yoshoku, i.e., Japanese-adapted foods of the West originating in Meiji Japan.  Ono and Salat include practical technique tips and tidbits about the food culture of Japan.

Beyond the cuisine of China and Japan, the food of Thailand and, to a lesser degree, of Korea are making significant inroads into the restaurant scene in the United States.  Unfortunately, Korean and Thai cookbooks are tricky because many are written from a “cooking for dummies” angle, possibly because the authors believe Americans cannot handle the complexities of these cuisines.  That said, David Thompson, an Australian who lives much of the year in Thailand, did not fall into that trap in writing Thai Food and Thai Street FoodThai Food is both an excellent primer on the cuisine and an in-depth exploration of a culinary culture.  Thai noodle dishes and Thai curries figure prominently, and though the detail can be daunting, there is no doubting the quality and exactitude of the content.  The recipe for pad thai is exceptional.  In Thai Street Food, Thompson surveys the legendary market food of Thailand.  Like the earlier volume, this one includes much useful cultural material, and the vivid pictures of Thai food, markets, and scenery are well served by the coffee-table format.  As to Korean food, fortunately the growing interest in this expressive cuisine has inspired a few good English-language titles.  One in particular deserves mention: Maangchi’s Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking: Authentic Dishes for the Home Cook, written with Lauren Chattman.  Maangchi is one of the culinary stars of YouTube, and her eponymous channel reflects her passion and skill in the kitchen.  Her experience as an Internet teacher and the feedback those lessons provided have served this book well.  Maangchi’s photographs show side dishes as well as entrees, thus enhancing the usefulness of the volume.  The book includes recipes for fermented Korean classics such as kimchi and the less familiar gochujang.

The prolific Madhur Jaffrey, mentioned above in conjunction with her vegetarian cookbook, has written more than twenty books on Indian cooking, among them An Invitation to Indian Cooking and From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail.  Though written for the American kitchen, the recipes in Invitation to Indian Cooking do not sacrifice flavor or sensory appeal.  Jaffrey focuses on the cooking of northern India, the style of Indian food most familiar in the United States.  Because it includes many dishes beloved in Indian restaurants in the United States, this volume is particularly useful to the professional chef.  From Curries to Kebabs is the curry bible.  Covering not only Indian curries, but also those of Sumatra, Thailand, and even Japan, this is an excellent survey of the art of curry.  Julie Sahni writes exemplary Indian cookbooks with a heavy emphasis on vegetable and grain ingredients.  Classic Indian Cooking is an excellent introduction to the Moghul cuisine of India.  Adjusting Indian methods to familiar American techniques, this volume includes numerous recipes for classic Indian breads—naan, roti, and chapati—as well as recipes for appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, and so on.  Sanhi’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking is equally valuable; in addition to main dishes it includes many recipes for chutney, pickles, raitas, dals, and yogurt salads and a large section devoted to the myriad sweets of India.

Though continent-wide cookbooks are rarely detailed enough to be useful to the food scholar or culinarian, one exception is Jennifer Brennan’s The Cuisines of Asia: Nine Great Oriental Cuisines by Technique.  At more than five hundred pages and nearly two pounds, this book can rightly be called encyclopedic.  Though a bit old school—in the sense of relying on line drawings instead of photographs—this compendium more than makes up for lack of glitz with its emphasis on the techniques used across Asian cultures.  The techniques in this book help readers utilize various ingredients and flavor profiles to make many of the dishes coming not only from some of the countries discussed above but also from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Works Cited