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Here are the three food books I am reading

I am not necessarily a fan of cookbooks.

But I love books about food in general: Something like 40% of the books I buy each month are food-related.


Some are travelogues, some are collections of journalism, some are memoirs, some are about the history of food, and some are about particular ingredients or dishes.


   For a cookbook to catch my interest, it has to be unusual or extraordinary. And anyway, when I do cook (which is not very often) I never use recipe books.


   Here are the three food books I am reading now. Two are new. One is a classic from decades ago.


An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David


If you are interested in food, then you have probably heard of Elizabeth David. She was the most influential British food writer of the 20th century and her work (books, cookbooks and journalistic columns) has stood the test of time.


   David wrote in a country that had no understanding of food. The Brits had won an empire but had lost their palates (assuming they ever had them).


   Even the best restaurants in London were generally a) not run by Brits and b) were pretty dire.


   David’s own reference points were France and Italy and she travelled extensively throughout Europe to record what she found. To read her work now is to realise how different a world she lived in: You could not buy good cheese in much of England (except for a few regional variations), and pasta was a mystery to most Brits. Their view of ‘foreign food’ was that it was dull: for instance, it was believed that the Spanish had the worst and most repetitive cuisine in the world which suggested the Brits had rather missed the point, given that Spain nearly supplanted France as the world’s leading culinary nation in the early 21st century.


   Judging by David’s account, even Italian restaurant food in Italy has got much better now than it was then. And though we think of pre-Nouvelle Cuisine France as being full of stodgy, boring food with flour-thickened sauces, David writes with feeling and affection about little, regional, family-run restaurants where the food was fresh and light.


   An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is a collection of her journalism and is probably not for the general readers. But if you are a foodie or in the food business, then it is an important and useful book to read.


Slow Food, Fast Cars by Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore


Massimo Bottura is Italy’s greatest chef and Lara Gilmore is his gifted American wife. This is a beautifully put together book about passions. Massimo is obsessed with cars and with speed and they get (nearly) equal billing with food and hospitality in this book. But there are also excellent recipes from Jessica Rosval, the Canadian-born chef of Casa Maria Luigia, the small hotel that Massimo and Lara run in Modena, the northern Italian town where their three Michelin star Osteria Francescana is located. It is somehow fitting that just after this book came out, Michelin started awarding ‘keys’ (like stars) to hotels and in its very first list of Italian hotels, Casa Mario Luigia got three keys (the hotel equivalent of three stars).


"One of the ironies of the complicated India-Nepal relationship is that most of us know so little about the food of our closest neighbour."

  It helps to know all this to understand the book better because it is intensely personal for the Botturas and the contents reflect their stories and memories. Gilmore writes about decorating the building and travelling to the grounds of what would become the Casa Maria Luigia hotel. She remembers her grandfather’s camp in Rhode Island and discusses such personal obsessions as Elvis Presley. Bottura writes about cars and how he fell in love with them.


   And then there are the recipes. You won’t find the iconic Osteria Francescana recipes here --- there are other books for that. These recipes are for everyday food, elevated by the touch of great chefs. Rosval contributes a wonderful and perhaps definitive recipe for tiramisu and there are recipes for everything from crackers to pesto in the style of Modena (with pork).


   The book has been a huge bestseller around the world which is particularly creditable because it makes no allowances for readers’ interests or moderates its intensely personal tone.


The Nepal Cookbook by Rohini Rana


One of the ironies of the complicated India-Nepal relationship is that most of us know so little about the food of our closest neighbour. With typical Indian arrogance, we imagine that they eat Indian food in Nepal.


   Actually, the food of Nepal is varied and diverse. In this wonderful book Rohini Rana divides her 108 recipes between Nepal’s many tribes and communities (Madeshis, Sherpas, Newars, Gurungs etc.) and tells us how to cook many Nepalese dishes that most of us are not even aware of. Did you know, for instance, that the Tharus, an indigenous community that may have originally come from Rajasthan, make a delicious snail curry?


   The one Nepalese dish most of us do know is the momo and even there, controversy follows. Is the momo really Nepalese? Or did it come with the Tibetans who fled to Nepal after the Chinese over-ran their country?


   Rana, naturally enough, rejects the “it is a Tibetan dish” theory and states categorically that “there are two versions of the origin of momos, both start and end in Nepal.”


   She concedes though that there were medieval Tibetan origins. Her first origin story says that in the 14th century, a Nepalese princess married a Tibetan king. She took Nepalese art, architecture, religion and culture with her. “The tiny momo travelled with her,” says Rana.


   A second theory admits that Tibetans ate a primitive version of the momo. She says that Nepali tradesmen travelled to Tibet and ate some dumplings called mog mog stuffed with yak meat. The tradesmen brought the dish back to Nepal, sophisticated it, substituted buffalo meat for the original yak and served it with a spicy tomato-sesame chutney. They renamed it ‘ma neu’ (which means easily steamed). Later, the dish was called momocha which eventually became ‘momo’.


   I guess the Tibetans and the Nepalese will argue forever about the origins of the momo, but Rana’s book is full of delicious momo recipes with a whole section devoted to ‘fusion momos’ including chocolate momo and momo sizzlers. She does draw the line, however, at 'tandoori momos.'



Posted On: 14 May 2024 04:45 PM
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