Of Food Books, Cookbooks, And Recipe Books

| Updated: January 15, 2022 11:26 am

In this column, I often fulminate against recipes. I believe that recipes have as much of a charm as a doctor’s prescription, minus the bad handwriting. Recipes instruct you to add one teaspoon of this, and two cups of that, and fry this for five minutes, and voila you have an exact replica of what the recipe writer wanted. And as much excitement as watching paint dry.

If following a recipe is so dull, so uninspiring, imagine following a whole recipe book. Page after page of do this, do that – and make the dish look like the airbrushed picture of my recipe on page 9, or you have failed. Why? Following a recipe book is like reading a textbook; passing an exam. All so creative and fun. Not.

Recipe books is a genre that should not exist. They just tell you the ‘what’, they don’t tell you the ‘why’ – do exactly what I tell you to do; don’t question; don’t try to understand the underlying principles. A recipe book will tell you how to cook that specific dish. It will not teach you how to cook. So, when you need to cook something else, you go to another recipe and then mindlessly start from scratch and follow another set of my-way-or-the-highway instructions.

Recipe books serve no purpose other than to create a whole generation of stressed home cooks; and fill several square metres of bookstore shelves. Recipe books are only a notch above self-help books in the extent to which they help anyone – other than the authors and publishers. As we all know, the ‘self’ in self-help books is the author – no one else is helped.

Having so handsomely trashed recipe books doesn’t mean I don’t like books about food. I like books that tell a story around food, and inspire, just not the ones that give line-by-line stern instructions.

A step up from recipe books are Cookbooks. Definitions vary, but I define cookbooks as books that do have recipes, but around the recipes they also have stories about that dish, the context, the science, the history, the culture, the personal stories, the family memories, and the nostalgia. Cookbooks construct an ambience, a milieu, around the recipe. When you cook that dish, you as the reader are drawn into the wider cultural context. Not slavishly add one teaspoon of this and two tablespoons of that.

Cookbooks have tips, and hacks, and the science behind why an ingredient behaves in a certain way when treated in such a manner or mixed with that other ingredient. Here are just two examples of cookbooks that have this perfect combination of lots of context and science and stories and recipes:

Salt Fat Acid Heat – by Samin Nosrat. The book has delicious recipes. But, it has far more than that. It has distilled the art and science of cooking down to four cardinal elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat. The kind and amount of salt, at the specific stages of the cooking process; the type and quantity of fat to amplify flavour and texture; the kind of acid to balance the salt; and level and duration of heat to bring all the elements together. Samin Nosrat promises and delivers the holy grail – if you master these four elements, you can mix and match any ingredients and conjure up a delicious meal without poring over the dense instructions of a recipe. It tells you how to improvise and adjust as you go along. This is exactly like when that teacher in school, instead of telling you to follow the step-by-step instructions, taught you the principles behind them. With these principles you could solve not just that specific maths problem but all such problems. You are armed with the knowledge, and need not cling to a recipe like a lifeboat. You are free to swim the ocean. Samin Nosrat’s book is a guide to mastering those first principles.

Indian-ish – by Priya Krishna. This is an American take on Indian food. It helps demystify cooking. It explains how sometimes looking at a cuisine from the outside helps you peel away the layers of complexity and find the core ethos of Indian food. It is an American desi’s reinterpretation of Indian food, with family stories – tales of discrimination, exclusion, and blending in; stories of identity and the migrant’s woes. Stories of how Priya and her family simplified Indian food to make it (and them) fit in better in their adopted country. The stories give a context to the recipes in the book. You understand how that dish came to become a family favourite, and how it had to fight prejudice to get accepted in a culture where most recipe books sell a whitewashed version of so-called American food. Most importantly, the book is not bossy or didactic. It doesn’t say that this is the one right way – it encourages improvisation.

This brings me to the most exalted form of food writing – Food Books. The genre that completely eschews recipes. These books talk about food history, food culture, food science, food memories; they inspire you to rush to the kitchen and experiment. These books do not instruct. They evoke feelings. They take you down rabbit holes. Just a couple of examples of such books:

Masala Lab – by Krish Ashok. This book is billed as ‘the science of Indian cooking’. But it is far more than science. It is tips, tricks, hacks, and folklore. It explains the why behind the what. It creates metamodels and converts the most common steps into algorithms, so they can be replicated in another dish. It teaches transferable skills. Once you understand why a particular sequence of steps is needed, you can combine a sequence of algorithms and create ever new dishes, without having to follow overbearing recipe writers. This book is that maths teacher, who teaches you the first principles, and allows you to experiment with confidence.

Gastrophysics – by Charles Spence. This book takes you on a whirlwind tour of the concept of multisensory perception of food. It provides scientific evidence for what we all know intuitively – that our enjoyment of food has very little to do with taste; it has much more to do with the other four senses – smell, sight, sound, and touch. The aroma of the food, the appearance of the food (eat with our eyes), the sizzle, the texture – many of these foretell what the dish will be like, before it even touches our taste buds.

Armed with the arsenal of insights on what books help you learn how to cook, not how to cook one specific dish – go out into the culinary world with confidence. Read a few of these cookbooks and food books, and you will never again need a recipe book. Once you learn the basic principles, you do not need the instruction manual. You steer the ship, not cling to the lifeboat.

This Professor Cooks. And talks about food ideas, food science, food culture, food hacks, and food history. Watch this space for some food, and a lot more food for thought.

Ravi Miglani is a home cook and consumer insights professional. Following a corporate career spanning eight countries and three decades, he is now a professor at Ahmedabad University (when he is not cooking).

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