Let's Talk About Cookbooks!

In my first ever visit to New York early this year, I came across Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in the East Village, a bookstore entirely dedicated to cookbooks. When I went back to New York again a few months later for the SAVEUR Blog Awards, my new friend Suchi took me to Kitchen Arts & Letters in Uptown, another bookstore filled to the brim with cookbooks and food-related reads (pictured above and below).

I met the owner Nach Waxman, who, upon finding out that I was from Malaysia, swiftly referred me to one enterprising Malaysian woman by the name of Esther Dairiam who started a culinary bookstore called Read It & Eat in Chicago. 

Isn't it amazing how the shared love of food, and, in this case, cookbooks leads to amazing and wonderful discoveries and connections? It seems cookbook season arrives alongside the holiday season, and I've been keeping busy getting myself acquainted with cookbooks both old and new. Here are some highlights: 


A Literary Feast by Les Dames d'Escoffier
When I found out that some of my favorite cookbook authors were gathering under the roof of the San Francisco Ferry Building to sign books and share delicious samples from their recipes, I knew I had to be there. 


I had the great pleasure of meeting the affable Carolyn Phillips, author of All Under Heaven, an impressive tome of a cookbook that covers 35 cuisines of China, a feat that she told me took 10 years to research. Being third generation Cantonese growing up in Malaysia, my diet encompassed the diverse offerings of Malay, Chinese, and Indian foods interspersed with the traditions of my family, and many of the recipes in this book speak directly to my culinary roots. 

At the event organised by Les Dames d'Escoffier (LDEI), which according to its website is a society of professional women involved in food, wine, and hospitality, I also discovered The Hakka Cookbook by Linda Lau Anusasananan, a former president of the San Francisco chapter of LDEI. I have many Hakka friends back in Malaysia but Hakka cuisine is unfortunately one that I've taken for granted and never fully examined beyond Lei Cha or pounded tea rice that I occasionally order at a food court. This cookbook has really sparked a renewed interest. 

Not to be dramatic but the farmers market saved my life when I moved to the US. At the farmers market, I discovered new vegetables and fruits and from the farmers and vendors I learned how to cook and eat them. Naturally, The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook by the co-founder of the Davis Farmers Market and former Davis mayor Ann Evans appealed to me with its seasonal recipes and strong focus on food growers. 

I'm an amateur baker to say the least but there are three new baking cookbooks that make me eager to fire up the oven (and get a bread machine!). The inimitable Dorie Greenspan has a giant cookbook all about cookies simply titled Dorie's Cookies. To be honest, I did not grow up eating cookies and my relationship with those handheld pleasure-givers only started after I met my American husband. Suffice it to say, my exploration of this disc-shaped territory still has plenty of room to grow.

I do however enjoy baking with alternative flours and was greatly impressed with the gluten-free treats made by Alanna Taylor-Tobin from her Alternative Baker cookbook. Speaking of gluten-free, finding a good gluten-free bread recipe is like stumbling on a miracle (at least in my experience), but based on the samples I tried from The Gluten-Free Bread Machine Cookbook by Jane Bonacci and Shannon Kinsella, we now have 175 recipes that can be conveniently made with a bread machine! 


Anthony Bourdain's Appetites Cookbook and The Hunger Tour

I've read almost all of Anthony Bourdain's books and while I was excited about a new cookbook by him, I wasn't sure I would cook from it. That is until I got my hands on Appetites and saw his recipe for Kuching-style Laksa. The recipes in the book, like the shows that made him a household name, are geographically diverse and delivered in his famous no-holds-barred style with bold design and photography. 

The man has been on tour and I was lucky enough to live in one of his stops, where he beguiled us with his thoughts on travel, food, and, well, craft beer. "Be a good guest," he implored, when asked by someone in the audience for travel tips. "Do not be afraid to make mistakes." 


Marbled, Swirled, and Layered in Books Inc Santa Clara

Irvin Lin recently dropped in on Books Inc Santa Clara (where you can often find me matching t-shirts to the books in my hand) with the cover cake of his fantastic first book Marbled, Swirled, and Layered. Psst, you can find the recipe for the Chocolate Marshmallow Cake on his blog, but believe me when I say you'll want the book for all the creative recipes and clever flavor combinations, like these irresistible Malted Chocolate Chip and Reverse Chip Cookies. Just in time for holiday baking!

Finally, pledge to give books this holiday season. For every pledge, Chronicle Books will donate a book to a child in need. And shop at your local bookstores

I delight in any opportunity to talk about books. Do you know what I do when I visit someone's house for the first time? If I spot a bookshelf, I get lost in there, checking out the titles on display, looking for conversation starters. By visiting my blog, you're a guest in my virtual home, so please, feel free to browse my bookshelves. Here's a glimpse of my cookbook section. 

My Culinary Roots
When I'm homesick, I cook food that I grew up with, which explains the growing number of Asian and Southeast Asian cookbooks on my shelf. A cookbook solely on Malaysian food is as difficult to come by here as it is to put a finger on what fully encapsulates the cuisine.

Malaysia is a multicultural country with a cuisine that draws not only from its multi-ethnic population of Malay, Chinese, and Indian, but is also influenced by neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia. Often overlooked is the food from East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which possesses unique characteristics that are perhaps not as well documented. My own culinary roots are informed by my Cantonese heritage, adding another dimension to my rich and complex diet, one that is steeped in long-held traditions as well as open to the delicious diversity of the country and its surrounding regions.

Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore by James Oseland, the revered former editor of SAVEUR magazine, came highly recommended. For more Southeast Asian recipes, I use Savoring Southeast Asia by Joyce Jue, and for a broad range of Asian recipes including those from Korea, Japan, and India, I refer to The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon, a credible authority on Asian cooking with more than 30 cookbooks under her belt. 

With publication dates for some of these books going as far back as a decade ago, I'm incredibly lucky to have found them at my local used bookstores. However, I've just been informed that a 40th anniversary edition of Solomon's book will be released next year (hurray!), but if you can't wait that long, you can get your hands on the book in a series of six geographical regions that can be collected as a set. Here's the one on Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

This is one section of my cookbook collection that will undoubtedly grow, and I assure you of updates here on my blog as my journey as a student of Asian food continues. 

The Big China
As a third generation Chinese in Malaysia, my culinary roots can also be traced back to China and it is through this history-rich cuisine that I learned about cooking when I helped out at my dad's restaurant. I was very excited when three heavyweights on Chinese food appeared in the past few months.

Of these, I own two: All Under Heaven by Carolyn Phillips is a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated cookbook featuring recipes from all 35 cuisines of China while Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop zooms in on the food from Jiangnan or Lower Yangtze Region in Eastern China. I feel that I cannot mention these two without also bringing up China: The Cookbook by husband-and-wife team Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fung Chan. It's definitely a worthy reference on Chinese cuisine with more than 650 recipes in its treasured gilded pages that I think make for an exceptional gift. 

Eating to Heal
The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook by Kate O'Donnell is currently the cookbook I use the most to help my body get through the changing seasons and prepare for the colder months. While Indian cooking is not new to me, the concept of eating according to one's doshas (biological energies of the body and mind) and achieving balance through the Ayurvedic principles of food combinations has been a very beneficial lesson. I also turn to The Tastes of Ayurveda by Amritha Sodhi and the classic Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad and Dr Vasant Lad for more ideas. 

For the Love of Vegetables
The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini is my bible for cooking vegetables, its pages filled with detailed instructions and step-by-step photos on how to select, prep, store, and cook over 50 vegetables. Dandelion & Quince by Michelle McKenzie opens my eyes to unusual produce with inspiring recipes that make them instant friends in my kitchen.

Cookbooks to Read
Yes, I read cookbooks and am drawn to cookbooks with insightful information like Cal Peternell's Twelve Recipes (also check out his latest, A Recipe for Cooking), Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year and The Crown Maple Guide to Maple Syrup. I'm especially fond of Nigel Slater's writings and really enjoy the personality of his cookbooks, and I'm currently taking my time savoring the pages of The Kitchen Diaries

What's on your bookshelves? Leave me a comment!

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