Tag Archives: food

Green Chili and Other Impostors

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

Part travel memoir, part personal memoir, and part food history; it’s an intriguing combination. Furstenau discusses her own history – born of Bengali parents, in Thailand, and then growing up in the US. Throughout the book are comments about how hard it was to demonstrate that her visa to India ought to reflect that heritage, but given a lack of paperwork for her parents, it wasn’t to be. This sense of questioning where she belongs is woven through her discussion of “Indian” food, as she looks into the histories of both ingredients and dishes. “Indian” because some of what is discussed is about how now-common ingredients in Indian food actually came to India (green peas, chillis, potato… cheese…); and also some things you might think of as Indian are not, and some things appropriated by others are, of course, from India.

The author travels around India, sometimes visiting relatives and sometimes finding food-connected people, who talk about history and share recipes and teach her to cook some of the dishes. And these recipes are included, of course – Sandesh and Nolen Gur Cheesecake; Kedgeree (which is Indian, not Scottish, and the story of it becoming a breakfast staple is fascinating and I have never eaten it!); Koraishutir Kochuri (puffed bread with green pea filling, and goodness I really want to make this)… and so many others.

This book is very readable; it’s enjoyable to journey around India, it’s varied in what ingredients and ideas it discusses, and the recipes seem easy to follow.

Sicilia: A love letter to the food of Sicily

I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury Absolute, at no cost. RRP $52.99; it’s out now.

Firstly, LOOK at that cover. This is a beautiful book just to look at, from the cover through to the internal images. So if you’re a person who buys cookbooks to ogle – and more power to you – this is a good one.

Secondly, the text: it’s engagingly written. The intro gives a very potted history of the island, focusing on what different cultures brought with them; then also an overview of the geography, including what I didn’t know which is that ‘Sicily’ also includes all the little islands around it. The stories at the start of each recipe – I know there’s a proper name, but I can’t remember it – aren’t too long, are generally relevant, and (if you’re in a hurry) can be safely ignored with regard to the actual cooking.

Thirdly, of course, the recipes. Chapters include Bread, Fritti (fried things), Pasta and rice, Vegetables, Fish, Meat, Sweets, Granita and ice creams, and Sauces and Basics. I’ve cooked a few things…

  • I started with some things I was already familiar with, because it’s pandemic time – in fact I think I cooked some during a lockdown – and my emotional energy for adventure was low. So:
    • Grilled Bavette (I think I used rump steak) with braised courgettes, mint, chilli and gremolata – a delicious way to do zucchini, and a tasty sauce for the meat;
    • Whole Roast Chicken with fennel [I don’t think Australia has the wild variety he specifies], lemon leaves, garlic and bay – the chicken is placed on top of fennel and shallots, which was delicious;
    • Sfincione – that is, Sicilian-style pizza – which in my lexicon is more like focaccia, being more like bread (quite thick and fluffy) rather than thin and crusty. We didn’t follow the instructions for the toppings. The base itself was very tasty; I can imagine serving it more like bread than like pizza;
    • Pork, Chilli and Marjoram Polpette cooked with lemon and lemon leaves – they’re meatballs. After the meatballs are browned they’re braised in the oven with stock and lemon leaves, and it was totally delicious;
    • Strawberry, Almond and Rosewater Cake – I replaced the strawberries with cherries, because I had some in the freezer from summer. Also an absolutely delicious outcome.
  • AND THEN I decided to do something ridiculous, which was: Spiced Lamb Arancini with peas, broad beans and mint. This was ridiculous because I’ve never done anything deep-fried, and the number of steps in the process (make the risotto, cook the lamb, mix it together, flour / egg / bread crumbs and THEN fry). They were delicious. Just wonderful. And I don’t think I’ll ever make them again because I’m just not convinced it’s worth my time.

There are heaps more recipes here that I can imagine cooking, so I am very happy to have this in my life. The only potential issue for Australian cooks – and this is a problem with us, not the author – is the fish section. The recipes call for specific fish (cod, mackerel, sardines) and I don’t know whether they’re all a) easily available here, b) have the same names (I know those ones do), or c) whether other fish can be easily substituted. Still, highly recommended.

Bread & Water

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This is a set of essays, many published elsewhere previously, written by a woman who has been many things: a chef, a restaurant owner, a writer; mother, both married and single; a culinary student and a teacher; resident on farms and in cities and, as these essays are written, back on the farm that was originally set up by her grandparents. The essays are ruminations on life, reflections on choices both good and bad, an exploration of cause and consequence, and a meditation on – as the title suggests – food and water: the place of both in our lives, how they can impact on the way we live, the positives and negatives.

When I read a book like this I think, How can I find more books like this? What category do they come under? I’m not interested in reading just any essays on life; the focus on food and, I suspect, having a female author make these particularly appealing. I’m also not always interested in just reading about food for its own sake – the connection to life more generally, here, as well as the stories behind the growing and making of food, helps make these essays intensely readable and occasionally challenging.

Hobsbawn-Smith is writing these essays having moved back to the Canadian prairie. She reflects on many moments in her life, from horse riding as a teen to the area around her farm becoming a lake for seven years, with stories of her sons growing up in between. Sometimes she recounts stories for their own sake; more often she’s thinking about what they mean – how they reflect and connect to other moments in her life, what they show about the importance of family and feeding each other, how she has come to be the person she is today.

I didn’t always agree with the conclusions about life that Hobsbawn-Smith reaches; and I suspect that, given the differences between us (age, aspiration, location) she wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I do feel challenged – reminded, rather – to consider food more meaningfully, to remember the love that making and giving food can show; to try and take life just a little slower; and to be more aware of where food comes from. Trying to be intensely locavore is something that works if you’ve got the time and the money, which is something society as a whole needs to struggle with – and it’s not something that’s particularly doable for me right now. But I can, for example, be more mindful of seasonality.

These essays were deeply enjoyable to read, both on an intellectual-challenge and -stimulation level and also as prose in and of itself. Hobsbawn-Smith writes beautifully of food, and nature, and experience; she has an entire essay of her love for a temperamental oven, which is a delight. She made me remember that food is more than fuel, that life can be lived slowly, and that doing so is worthwhile.

Simply: Sabrina Ghayour

I received this as a review copy from the Australian publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $39.99.

I own all of Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbooks. Her first, Persiana, is one of my favourite cookbooks ever. Every book has been produced beautifully, and every recipe I have tried has been great. This new book is no exception.

Ghayour is Persian by background, and having grown up in Britain she brings a (ugh, buzz word) fusion to cuisines that really works. I recently started following her Instagram account, and the enthusiasm that appears in her descriptions of the recipes comes through there, too. She’s a delight.

The idea of a ‘simple’ cookbook is a perennial one; it’s come around again recently, it seems to me. I was a little surprised that Ghayour got into it – not that her other recipes have ever been that hard, but that it seemed an odd genre for her to get into. But actually, this does fit: she’s into encouraging everyone that they can cook, that doing so doesn’t need brand new, hard to get, and fresh-or-lose-it ingredients every time. She’s a big fan (from her Insta account) of using pantry essentials really well. Of course, her pantry isn’t necessarily mine; but once you’ve bought sumac or tahini (which, let’s be honest, actually are always in my pantry), you’ve got them and you can keep using them.

Anyway! The recipes are once again easy to follow, and every recipe I’ve tried has been a hit. Baked sweet potato chips with za’atar were great; beans with tahini and preserved lemon is inspired and I want to do beans like this forever. Carrot with pistachio, dill, and lime; baked butternut that’s then mashed with yoghurt and chilli and dill… and absolutely fantastic felafel. And that’s just the vegetables! Variations on chicken kebabs, and kofte, and the solution when my veg box has a full celery: lamb, celery and parsley stew (yes, when I ask for 100g of parsley, I meant it. It didn’t even make a dent in the parsley thicket). I haven’t had a chance to cook any dessert yet, but: white chocolate, pistachio, and raspberry tiramisu. Nuff said.

The book is divided into Effortless Eating; Traditions with a Twist; The Melting Pot; Something Special (sticky peach and halloumi skewers!!) and Cakes, Bakes, and Sweet Treats. I am keeping this book out on the counter to keep cooking from over the next … I dunno, six months?

Highly recommended. An excellent introduction to Ghayour’s style of cooking and recipe writing.

Cuisine and Empire

Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.

images.jpegRachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.

There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.

I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.

Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.

This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.

The Missing Ingredient

images.jpegI don’t remember how I came across this book – could have been through Gastropod? – but I thought it sounded like just my thing. Time as an ingredient makes a lot of sense, when you consider it! And overall, Linford does look at some interesting points in connecting food with time; I learned a few things and was encouraged in my love of cooking and food.

However, this book turned out to be not quite what I expected. On reflection, I think I was expecting something more like Michael Pollan’s Cooked, where he meditates on particular ways in which fire or air or whatever have an impact on cooking and food at length. This is not that. Instead, this is a long series of vignettes. Some of them do go over pages – there’s a good few pages on pickles, and on smoking, and the wonders of freezing., among others. But in general each topic within each timeframe (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years) is relatively short, addressing the connection between the topic and time – the seconds between different stages of caramel, the time it takes to make true traditional Modena balsamic vinegar – and usually not going into the depth that my heart really wanted. (And sometimes the topics chosen in each chapter seem to be tangential to the concept of time as an ingredient, but maybe I missed the point.)

If what you’re interested in is a series of short stories about time and cooking, that you can easily dip into and out of, that are sometimes amusing and sometimes poignant and that remind you that cooking and good food are good things, then you will probably enjoy this book.

The Seven Culinary Wonders of the World

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s out on 1 November; RRP $35.

I was intrigued by the idea of looking at culinary traditions and histories through seven key ingredients, and those chosen here seem quite appropriate. Not comprehensive, since you could argue for others (like corn, or potato, were my first thoughts) but nonetheless widely used in a variety of cultures over the world and with interesting histories attached. Linford’s chosen seven ‘wonders’ are: rice; salt; honey; pork; tomato; chilli; and cacao.

In each chapter, Linford talks a little about the chemistry or something scientific of each ingredient, but that’s not the focus. There’s more about the history, although it’s still very much an introduction – how something like the tomato moved from the Americas to the rest of the world (I love that tomatoes are, relatively speaking, new to Italy), as well as the development and cultivation over time of different types (the ambition to create inedibly hot chilli is completely foreign to me). There’s a fairly wide-ranging look at how different cultures use different ingredients; because this is a relatively short book (about 230 ish pages), this is by no means exhaustive, which may annoy some people if she hasn’t chosen a particular culture. Still, she does talk about the use of chilli, for instance, in Mexican and Indian and Thai and Malaysian and Korean and Chinese and Portuguese and Italian and American (esp Texan) and Hungarian and Spanish cookery. And finally, there are recipes. Again, these are not comprehensive, but there’s no way it could have been. For pork, she has everything from Chinese pork potstickers (dumplings) and char siu to sautéed chorizo with red wine  to glazed ham; for honey, it’s baclava to honey-glazed shallots and grilled goat’s cheese with honey. The recipes are set out nicely on the page, and each one only takes up a page (possibly a requirement in choosing?)

My one reservation with this book is that sometimes the language got repetitive. It’s as though Linford, or her editor, assumed that people would mostly not be reading this straight through (I did), and so they thought that repeating certain key phrases would be both a good and not noticed. I noticed. And while it wasn’t enormous clumps of text that were repeated, it was obvious enough that I got a bit impatient.

Overall this is a nicely-presented book: I love a good hardcover, although I love a cookbook with a ribbon even more! Each chapter has its own colour for the page numbers and the recipe text and the illustrations (there are some nice illustrations throughout – not photos), which is a nice touch. This is a nice book for someone like me who likes the background to ingredients as well as a variety of recipes.

Acts of Kitchen

AoK_logo_v2A while back I started a food blog, Acts of Kitchen. It then turned into a podcast of the same name, where I interview people and talk to them about food and cooking and such things.

Now, I have put it on Patreon. There’s rewards like challenging me to make things, the occasional food or postcard delivery, and recipes being emailed to you. Check it out!

Cooked, by Michael Pollan

images.jpegThis book was recommended to me by the sourdough baker whose course I took. It turned out that I had already one of Pollan’s books – The Botany of Desire, which was awesome and looked at various plants in light of the general idea of desire. (My biggest take away message: the Agricultural Revolution was the grasses using humanity to destroy the trees. Also that all edible apples are clones.)

This book is Pollan’s attempt to learn more about cooking, having looked at the gardening and the eating side for a long time. He divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Or, basically: barbecue, braise, bread, and fermenting. Continue reading →

Acts of Kitchen

aok_logo_v2.pngI have a new blog! and a new podcast! Acts of Kitchen is kinda just that. The blog is about whatever I’m cooking or reading about food or watching about food. The podcast (same name) is mostly about me interviewing people to get their food and cooking stories. It’s fortnightly, and I aim for it to be about 15-20 minutes in length – pretty easy-listening length, right? You can subscribe at iTunes or listen to it at the blog!