Cookbooks – Making sense of it all


I have to confess. I own more than 400 cookbooks and I continue to acquire new ones at a rate that makes my bank manager very nervous.

I ran out of shelf space a long time ago and as a result quite a few have made their way to the lavatory where they are used to spice-up what otherwise could be quite a dull experience.

Unlike many others who collect cookbooks for the sake of collecting, I actually do read mine. Over and over. Some from the back, some in bits and pieces and some cover to cover. I read them on the couch, at my writing desk, at the kitchen table, and yes, before I lie down to sleep. The only place I do not read my cookbooks is the bathtub. Why, you may wonder?

Because I do not have a bathtub.

I read cookbooks because I am curious. I want to know what others cook, how they cook it, and what it looks like when cooked. I find it quite a pity that no-one has yet found a way to add taste and smell to cookbooks.

If a recent experience is anything to go by, that is maybe a good thing. My attempt to duplicate a tamarind-based curry made me wish I’d rather spent the afternoon sucking lemons. Way to much tamarind. Agh! I am sure someone got their measurements wrong or was plain spiteful because the excessive (as suggested) use of tamarind resulted in a whole afternoon with locked jaw – which in itself is a very painful condition.

As I sit here I am contemplating which personal nemesis will receive a (slightly used) cookbook for Christmas this year.

Not all cookbooks are equal, but you knew that already, didn’t you? Cookbooks are big money these days and there are so many, that I am sure you’ve given up trying to pick the genuine dried figs from the horse droppings. So, to help, I have some suggestions.

Cooking is chemistry. Alchemy. Transforming what Mother Earth gives us to create food for the body and the mind. Even the most ordinary cook is an alchemist. A scientist, if you like. Unless you’re a rawist (Raw foodism (or rawism) is a lifestyle promoting the consumption of uncooked, unprocessed, and often organic foods), in which case I suggest you find something else to read right now.

A good place to start improving your cooking is to understand heat.

To cook is to use heat. Whether you steam, boil, braise, sear, grill or fry, you’re applying heat to raw ingredients in order to transform them. The key here is to know what type of heat to apply, for how long and how much.

Another is to understand what goes with what -and how much of each is needed to produce the desired perfect outcome. Thus you need to understand mixing and pairing. There is no denying – even the most basic kitchen is a laboratory.

I have two books that I consult religiously when trying new techniques or flavour pairings. First, is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and second, the Culinary Institute of America’s handbook, The Professional Chef.professional These two books, more than all others, help me understand where I want to go and how to get there. But be warned, this is not light reading and requires serious attention … and muscle power to lift.

I also own a large number of cookbooks from yesteryear. I just love reading these as they provide insight into where our cooking and dishes come from. How much things have changed (or not), and as such provide us with a starting point from where to trace our culinary evolution. These are proper books and their authors are proper writers as they explain, recall and record with words, not images. My favourites are the first two cookbooks I ever bought.

Some twenty-odd years ago I walked into a small second-hand bookshop in Mellville, Johannesburg. About an hour later I walked out again with Hilda Gerber’s Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays, and Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. I paid R12.50 and R11.00 for the two books respectively. Best money ever spent on books with drawings rather than photographs.

More than anything, it is travel that opened my mind to food. It opens the mind and loosens the bowls, as someone once remarked … and it fills bookshelves in no time, I wish to add. I have bought cookbooks in every country I ever visited (ok, not Germany – we all have our limits).

on food and cooking

Some I bought because they are simply beautiful. Filled with large photographs of places, people and food, and I flip through these with the greatest, purest sense of nostalgia. Makes me want to pack my bags and fly, right there and then, to lunch or dinner somewhere is Spain, or China, or France or India. The sad reality is that if I saved the money I used to buy these expensive books, I’d be able to afford a lunch or dinner trip to these far-off beautiful places. If you are keen to try this, the Culinaria series is a good place to start.

Madhur Jaffery’s Ultimate Curry Bible, is a must-have if you like curries. Take my word for it: it is the only ticket into curry heaven. And I feel the same way about Rosemary Brissenden’s South East Asian Food. Both these books are packed with recipes, hundreds of them, so if you’re in for the long haul, they should keep you busy for a long time.

If you’d like to learn more about the technical elements of authentic Southeast Asian cooking, and can’t afford to attend the Silom Cooking School, try Robert Danhi’s Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Superb.

ultimate curry bible

Quite of a few of my cookbooks display a number of profanities between the recipes. None are better than David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku and Zakary Pelaccio’s Eat with Your Hands. We have a lot in common, me and these boys. We like to cook with fat, eat lots of noodles and call our whole rib-roasts ‘motherfuckers’. Bones, we agree, have to be smashed with a heavy cleaver, and I will let you know, I never read these recipes when I am completely sober or trying to pleat pastry. Can’t be done, just like taking a truck driver’s exam in Joe’s Beergarten.

If I had to select only one cook book from my entire collection that stands out for it uniqueness, or it’s ability to challenge me, stretch me and entertain me, it would be the one called Cambodian Cooking.


It was the only book on Cambodian cooking available in English. I grabbed it without much scrutiny from a crummy bookstore in Siem Reap and carried it for the remainder of my journey through Thailand and beyond. I never read it until I got home. This book scores points for nostalgic and irritation value.

But it is the contents that put a special mark on my heart. Not the recipes – I don’t think I have cooked from it once. But the linguistic idiosyncrasies …

Here are a few excerpts reproduced word for precious word, I swear.

To make a cucumber salad, follow these instructions: “Tear smoked fish into small flakes and set it to one place. Wash and cut tip and end of cucumber off then cut it into two parts or three parts if it is a long one. Peel cucumber in circle until reach seed or inner part stop, and the seed are discarded. Then roll it up and slice thinly and horizontally.”

To make lobster and white sugar try doing this: “Shell lobster and remove moustache off, then pinch salt and marinate it well, allow it to sit for a while. Pick up the orange fat into a small bowl. Place oil in a pan over a mediun [sic] heat, then add chopped garlic and brown until crunchy, and remove, set aside. Then add lobster into the same pan having the rest oil and fry until golden, set aside. Next add orange fat in another pan with oil over medium heat and fry then follow sugar soybean sauce, salt, m’sow soup and black pepper, stir well. Then place lobster into it and ½ cup of water, simmer until almost thick. Finally, remove in a serving plate and sprinkle fried garlic”.

eat with your hands

You see, I do not believe one should read cook books to learn or harvest recipes. Learn to master the techniques, study flavour pairings, and trust your own palate. Be free from recipes. Make mistakes and fix them. Tweak them, make fun of them. Understand heat, and learn how to use it. And for God sakes, get your self a copy of Cambodian Cooking!

This week’s recipe requires some physical effort. Deep down there is something quite satisfying in grabbling a heavy stone and pounding flavour into some meat. Pound till it disturbs your neighbor and makes the dog crawl into a cool corner. Swear out loud for this is pounded-beef Burmese style. In-your-face flavour all the way. Wack, wack, wack! Happy pounding!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    Absolutely! And, I must add: I’m afraid to count how many cookbooks I have. Not to mention how many I’ve gotten rid of. I was an English major in college. But I love my cookbooks more than almost any novel I’ve ever read.

    1. Michelle, getting good cookbooks in our part of the world is really, really difficult. We have to order online, mostly. This is a rather tedious process, and rather expensive (mainly due to the postage). But what bothers me mostly is the hit-and-miss that goes with exploring new material on-line. Thus, I’d appreciate if you guys at Gourmandistan can help by recommending a few of your favourites. Those you deem worth having – the extra special ones. I’d appreciate it very much. As always, I am so grateful for your inputs here. Have a lovely day in Gourmandistan.

      1. Michelle says:

        I agree totally about the online thing. If there’s any kind of book one needs to flip through in the store, it’s a cookbook! I have to turn to the Internet more and more though, as our bookstores dwindle and the big chains focus more and more of crappy TV “chefs.” Do you have Judge Rodgers’ Zuni Café Cookbook? Now, there’s a real chef who can write. I love all the Alford/Duguid books (though the postage on those coffee table sized ones would be prohibitive). Anything by Fuchsia Dunlop for Chinese. I’ve probably cooked through the old Patricia Wells Bistro Cooking a hundred times. Any of the Alice Waters and/or Chez Panisse books. Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Anything by Alice Medrich (desserts). This is a rather prosaic list, so I’ll keep thinking!

  2. Nicole says:

    Yes! I too bought a copy of Cambodian Cooking in Siem Reap. It is one of my favourites. In my opinion the best line is from page 152: hole chicken at he below its tail and remove something inner part.
    It’s just so mysterious. What’s not to love about that book? Heh. I still don’t know what m’sow! soup is…I don’t think anyone ever will…

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