August is a month that celebrates food. Yes, one has to go back to school but there’s no harm dreaming about ice cream sandwiches while learning math, is there? Just a simple search will tell you that August seemingly makes it a point to dedicate almost each day to some sort of food or drink. Not to mention that the entire month also celebrates paninis, peaches, and sandwiches. Lovers of watermelon, eat the fruit to your heart’s content on the third day of the month; bakers, get out the chocolate chips to make cookies the day after. How about setting up a backyard camp fire to make s’mores on a day that celebrates the toasted marshmallow and cracker combination? For health buffs, rejoice with trail mix at the end of the month. Also, let’s not forget bratwursts or lemon meringue pies, filet mignons or banana splits, whiskey sours or beer — no matter your taste buds, there is a day to celebrate your favorites.
In the spirit of things, let us celebrate food. Not just books with recipes, but ones that delve deeper into what we eat and why we eat, through the lens of history, sociology, and science. And, nostalgia.
Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham
Collingham follows the journey of ‘curry’ as the title suggests. The book focuses on conquests, the impact of trade, and colonization on the subcontinent; how new ingredients that were introduced soon assimilated into the repertoire of Indian food along with techniques; the social fabric of the region; the very British interpretation and adaptation of curry; dispersion and immigration during British rule; and the existing aftermath around the world thereafter. This book is not just about curry, but rather a look at the multicultural changes that have taken place in India, and also provides some historical recipes. Reading each chapter is a delectable well-researched discourse on history, culture and adaptation.
The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking by Nik Sharma
Sharma’s second book, published last year, has been making noise for all the right reasons—it intersects science and dissects the anatomy of flavor to create an atmosphere of appreciation as you leaf through each page, the spectacular visuals drawing you in. A molecular biologist, Sharma delves into components that create flavor—emotions when cooking and eating, the perception of sight and sound, how aromas work in the kitchen, the importance of textures, and the five basic tastes with the additions of richness and fieriness. Before trying recipes, mostly drawing from Sharma’s Indian heritage, you first need to understand what flavor is. As Christopher Kimball says in the foreword: “This is a book about how to turn out food that optimizes flavor.”
Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji
If you have always been keen to learn about Bengali food, this book by historian Chitrita Banerji showcases the region’s relationship with literature and culture, religious and foreign influences, seasonality and natural resources, and, of course, food. This food book is a recollection of a journey through the author’s memories going far beyond the description that Bengali food is all about rice and fish. Each chapter is an ode to the seasons, and it explains the dishes associated with periodic changes. The narrative draws upon the land’s folklore, bears interesting anecdotes from historical publications, talks of societal restrictions of the past, and provides a glimpse into the author’s life and family. There are some recipes to try like the chitol kopta and mochar ghonto — dishes you won’t usually find in a restaurant.
Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia by Claire Chambers
Reading a food book on an empty stomach is never a good idea. Especially one that consists of an anthology of essays, short stories, and recipes from Muslim South Asian kitchens. The books stem from the purpose to record food heritage and culinary memories. As you read further, the more delectable the anthology gets. Why did a samosa come to be paired with chai? What are the origins of a qorma? What is jootha and its complexities? Each essay and story, varied from one another, come with a connected recipe.’
Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid
There is a description about Duguid in Roads and Kingdoms that languidly credits her with inventing a “deeply popular genre of book: the wandering, anthropological journalistic cookbook.” When the book came out in 2012, it coincided with a democratic turn in the Southeast Asian country (much has changed since early 2021), and it shone a spotlight on the history, geography, religion, ethnography, and cuisine of the relatively-underrepresented nation in the West. Having spent years trying to understand the nitty-gritty of the country’s kitchens and cuisines, Duguid has provided an easy way to understand Myanmar’s food.
Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes by Colette Rossant
If you wondered what life in Egypt was in the 1940s, pick up this rather slim book to peek into a world that no longer exists. Rossant, a James Beard nominated food writer and columnist, takes the readers to a vintage Cairo having moved there to live with her father’s extended family from France at age five. Having found solace in the big, rustic kitchen in the house, Rossant recollects her childhood filled with spices, feasts, and aromas till she is whisked away to Paris at the age of 15, only to return after a gap of 30 years. This memoir is charming and laced with nostalgia, and invokes stomach rumbles with evocative descriptions of simple pleasures like baguettes dipped in garlic and oil.
How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fischer
Published in 1942 amid World War 2 shortages, reading it today amid the pandemic is, as Eater puts it, “What it can provide is comfort: to read a voice across the years and realize that some things, like spirit, rise up in any crisis.”
Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking by Krish Ashok
Ashok goes into great lengths to demystify Indian cooking. Read it to learn food science, cooking processes, and biryani (there’s an entire chapter dedicated to it)!
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
If you’ve seen the Netflix series, this is a must-read. A starting point for basic elements, flavors and the ways ingredients are used around the world.
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin
A wonderful resource of historical compilations of more than 150 African American cookbooks, from the 19th century to the present.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
If you’ve never read or heard of the late chef, this will be your introduction.