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Cook books and food writing to read in bed

May 15, 2014

Cook books and food writing to read in bed - www.mycustardpie.comDo cook books end up in more than one place in your home? In my house their permanent place is on some very sturdy bookcases made from old railway sleepers. The teens pull off a tome or two while sitting at the kitchen counter to browse through while snacking; I was a cereal packet reader myself so understand the inability to sit still without my nose in something. A few more are littered around my very messy study/spare room as reference for food writing. Another pile totters beside my bed interleaved with fiction; I try to give my book club title priority but if I’m super dog tired non-fiction soothes me and takes my mind off the day. I dip in and out of food and wine related reading before turfing that selection back downstairs to be replaced with another lot.  Here are a few of the latest ones to preoccupy me. Do you read cook books in bed or for more than cooking? Are there any you’d recommend? We could come up with the ultimate cook book reading list….

Authentic Egyptian Cooking – From the Table of Abou El Sid by Nehal Leheta

The food and drink section in Kinokunya Book World in Dubai Mall is a cook book lovers’ paradise and they have an extensive Middle East selection. Many authors lump the whole of the Middle East into one. Also they often write about a cuisine they have not grown up with – not always a bad thing but it’s the really authentic detail that appeals to me. This is the first book about Egyptian food I’ve seen in there and its author hails from Cairo. With beautiful, dark, moody photography, the image on the cover is, however, of my most detested dishes ever – one of the (if not the) national dishes of Egypt. I’ve spoken about my dislike of slimy vegetables before and this is the king of the gelatinous offenders…. molokheya. The name is a derivative of the mulukiya which means ‘of the kings’ and uses a leaf that’s a bit like spinach (sometimes called Jew’s mallow) but it oozes when cooked (shiver). Part of the recipe gives me hope; it instructs that you heat oil with spices and garlic while you boil the molokheya in chicken stock then “Toss in the hot molokheya, and you will hear “tshhh.” This is known as tasha in Arabic.” I must stress that this dislike is personal preference and many people have raved to me, over the years, about how delicious this is. If I ever visit Cairo again I must try it at Abou El Sid.

Egypt has its own distinct cuisine (many much more appealing to me) as well as variations on dishes common to the Middle East.   Abou El Sid is a famous restaurant in Cairo, established in 2000 but harking back to a golden age with a renowned traditional Egyptian menu and decor. There are over fifty recipes including mahshi (stuffed vegetables), koshari – one of Egypt’s most famous staple dishes –  Circassian chicken with walnut sauce, fuul (fava beans) with tahina sauce, a simple recipe for lentils and a sumptuous one for Om Ali (a type of milk pudding).

At first I thought there were no head notes or introductions at all, but they are written as footnotes under the ingredients list. It’s a rich resource of recipes from a renowned kitchen; I haven’t cooked from it yet but the recipes appear clear, quite short and to the point. I would have liked to read more about the staff, the history of the restaurant and the background to the dishes that are covered here to make it a truly interesting read but it’s a very nice addition to my collection of cook books from the Middle East.

The world’s best spicy food  – Lonely Planet

We’ve discussed reading cook books before traveling to other countries and here is a book that combines both elements. It combines descriptions and recipes for 100 spicy specialities from 52 different countries and regions. There is Lonely Planet style information about the ingredients and origins of the dish as well as traditions behind it and a suggestion about where to eat it. China and the USA have the most recipes attributed to them and the Far East and Asia is well represented.

Machbous (a spicy stew) is mentioned for the Arabian Gulf and states ‘Machbous is a staple anywhere along the coast from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates’ and mentions the Palace Cafe in Dubai as a place to try it.  Having rarely tasted Machboos (as it is known in the UAE) as I can think of less than a handful of places here where you might be able to try it, this is a generalisation. However, I suppose that’s the flaw in this sort of compendium.

For Yemen they’ve chosen shawayuh or spicy grilled meat cooked over a fire (Bedouin style). I would have thought zhoug – a spicy pepper sauce – should also be mentioned; but I guess this could have been a spicy sauce book as there are so many different varieties. There are three recipes for England – mustard, piccalilli and tikka masala.

This book does have the effect of making me want to cook some the recipes at home while longing to eat them in their country of origin. Things I’m tempted by include: Fabada – a Spanish stew with chorizo, Lutenica – a fiery pepper dip from the Balkans, Pica pau which literally means woodpecker but is actually a spicy, pickled pork stew from Portugal, and Sichuan Crescent Dumplings. All of these sound a lot nicer than pig trotter curry from India and a Chinese dish called saliva chicken.

Consider the fork by Bee Wilson

The fact that I read this book from cover to cover, eager to reach the next chapter (be it grind, eat, fire or measure) says a bit about my slight nerdiness about cooking, my fascination with the origins of food and cookery and a lot about Bee Wilson’s ability to write in fascinating detail without a hint of dryness or superfluity. I will never again be able to look at a single implement or piece of kitchenware in the same way after reading it. Why was the fork invented? Why do we need forks? When did it become commonplace in our kitchen drawers? Why don’t some cultures use forks? What impact does the use of a fork have on the foods we cook and eat? This sort of investigative thinking is applied by Bea Wilson to all sorts of items and processes in the kitchen from egg beaters, to the use of ice, to the kitchen itself (and the evolution of the modern cooker). Just why is the spoon shaped the way it is and who came up with the size of a teaspoon? Did you know that Cromwell helped influence the look of our modern spoon?

The byline reads ‘A History of How We Cook and Eat’ – essential reading for anyone remotely interested in either of those topics.


A history of food in 100 recipes by William Sitwell

This has taken over from the book above, providing my nightly chapter of food history, painting a vivid picture of how our cooking and eating habits have evolved. William Sitwell knits together various documentary evidence starting with a painting of bread making from the wall of Senet’s tomb in Egypt and ending with ‘meat fruit’ from the menu of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, laced together with an easy narrative style and a heavy serving of wit. He poses such questions as “The Vikings might have bullied their illiterate way around northern Europe, but without them would you be able to seek respite in a plate of smoked herring in an IKEA food court today?

This book helped me see Ancient Rome in a new light, not just the feasting of the rich, but the existence of ingredients inspectors as extravagance in food was frowned upon (although bribery from the wealthy put paid to that), the ingenuity of keen cooks such as Apicus to transform produce that might not have been in the freshest state to something worthy of a banquet, and the role of honey in the cooking of Greece and Rome (partly from a fifteen volume account of dinner party conversations by Athenaeus). We move from Ancient China, how the Normans changed bread in England, the influence of the Crusades on Egyptian cuisine which eventually had a great impact on the court of Henry VIII, French gastronomy, early cook book (cooke booke) pioneers, the British Empire to the growing influence of American innovations on British and world cuisine, the rise of the Michelin starred chef, molecular gastronomy and TV cooking competitions (William is on the tasting panel of Masterchef). I should add that this is a book of quality production, with beautiful end papers, a weighty, linen-textured cover and a wealth of illustrations. A Kindle can’t compete.

I can vouch that William is as entertaining in real life as he is on the page; I bought this book at the Emirates Literature Festival after attending his session where the entire audience were enthralled. As my family are so addicted to watching Masterchef they re-enact it every night when I put dinner on the table, I asked for the following inscription.

For Sally – who – for a fact – cooks better than anyone on Masterchef!!

That should silence them eh?


Skin Contact by Alice Feiring

Less a full book, more a short story with chapters, I received this volume by wine writer and natural wine advocate Alice Feiring in Georgia. Reading it was like extending my trip, so many of the characters, terroir, conundrums, delights and cuisine were included. However Alice supplied a more personal and extensive view than was possible from my single visit with an organised group trip. The narrative is simple, she asks questions of the wine, wine makers and Georgia itself along the way. She accrues snippets of tastes, textures, history, traditions, family life and culture and assembles these jigsaw pieces into one whole picture – natural wine making in qvevris is at the heart of Georgian life and vital for its future.

I’ve Googled extensively but I’m not sure where you can obtain this book (apart from the Georgian Wine Agency) however you can read more of Alice Feiring’s wonderfully pithy writing where she goes head to head with convention, on her website and she has two other books you can order (like I have).

Disclosure: Authentic Egyptian Cooking and Spicy Food were both sent to me as review copies – however, my review contains my own thoughts and neither book will be leaving my shelves anytime soon.

What’s on your kitchen counter or bedside table right now?

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  1. May 15, 2014 10:40 am

    I am always learning from you Sally. Your post is like a treasure trove in a library, maybe a kitchen library. I am reading a beautiful cookbook called ‘Summer Cooking’ by Elizabeth David. Also I am browsing through a Bengali cookbook which has been actually converted from a very popular Bengali blog called ‘bong Mom’s Cookbook’. I really want the Lonely Planet book.

    • May 15, 2014 5:10 pm

      You are welcome to borrow the LP book Ishita. An Omelette and a glass of wine by Elizabeth David is a permanent fixture in my bedroom and I dip in and out of it. I’d love to see that Bengali cook book.

      • May 15, 2014 8:24 pm

        I just re-read my last line – ‘I want that LP book’… phew so demanding. I meant I want to read that book lol! I will give you the Bengali cook book. An example of how a successful blog can be transformed into a book. Nice perspective, specially relevant for Bengalis living outside Bengal or non-Bengalis.

      • May 17, 2014 2:30 pm

        Sounds great – not demanding !!

  2. May 15, 2014 10:45 am

    Great selection. It’s always great to know what other cookbooks and food books others find useful and good reads.

    • May 15, 2014 5:13 pm

      Agreed – I’m a book shelf snooper in any house I visit.

  3. May 15, 2014 10:51 am

    Nice selection, Sally! I adored Bee Wilson’s book, so I guess that makes me a nerd too. I’ve also been dipping in and out of William Sitwell’s book – he tells a good yarn.

    • May 15, 2014 5:12 pm

      He does indeed – glad you agree on Bee….I think it’s terrrific.

  4. May 15, 2014 10:52 am

    Cookbooks to recommend? Phew – where to start! Here’s a favoured selection:
    1 – Elizabeth David. Titles doesn’t matter as they’re all a wonderful nostalgic read of a simpler time when David shone a light on post-war austerity and inched open the door to real food for so many people. Beautifully written.
    2 – Early books by Rick Stein. Before he became a TV personality, Stein’s books were a model of how to excite and inform. Almost unimaginable now that his classic English Seafood Cookery doesn’t contain a single image of food!
    3 – The two glorious books from Locatelli, part food and part travel. Amazing work from someone who could barely speak English a few years back.
    4 – Russell Norman’s Polpo. Not only do I love the food but the book’s design is stunning.
    5 – Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food Made Simple. Always a pleasure.

    • May 15, 2014 5:14 pm

      Couldn’t agree more about the Locatelli books – they are treasure troves of information, recipes while getting under the skin of an entire way of life.
      4 and 5 now on my wish list.

  5. May 15, 2014 11:01 am

    I just wrote you a long comment that got lost cause I couldn’t remember my password:(!
    V interesting account of Egyptian food Sally. Most middle eastern dishes are circulated around the levant especially, adapted and nationalized. Molokhia is a staple in the Jordanian kitchen. I just got a comment on my blog post on it, the woman called it slimy… She’s right.. If not cooked with tons of garlic, lemon and corriander plus( ripe tomatoes to remove the slime) it won’t be the experience it is to people who call it delicious.. I drown mine with lemon and salt.. I love your love of books!

    • May 15, 2014 12:59 pm

      That’s fascinating. I did cook this once and it was too slimy for my tastes. I may pluck up the courage to try it again with your advice. Lots of lemon, garlic and tomato is right up my street.

    • May 15, 2014 5:15 pm

      Oh and so sorry your comment got lost – thanks for persevering.

  6. May 15, 2014 11:27 am

    That History of Cooking in 100 Recipes looks well worth a read! Great post!

  7. ramblingtart permalink
    May 15, 2014 12:46 pm

    So many fascinating books! “Consider the fork” sounds particularly interesting to me. 🙂

    • May 15, 2014 5:19 pm

      Thanks – I loved it. It makes you think so much deeper about cooking and eating.

  8. May 15, 2014 1:15 pm

    Lovely books! I am particularly interested in the “Authentic Egyptian Cooking” cookbook…



    • May 15, 2014 5:19 pm

      Thanks Rosa – must make something from it soon.

  9. May 15, 2014 1:24 pm

    Hi Sally great post. I love books by Madhur Jaffrey and Nadine Abensur, who both really emphasise the importance of good food to family life.

    • May 15, 2014 5:21 pm

      That’s why I love Tamasin Day Lewis too. I don’t know Nadine’s writing – must look it up.

  10. May 15, 2014 2:19 pm

    Your post excited me Sally, I sat down from reading it whilst picking toys up and eating granola and decided that I need that book about the spicy foods from around the world. X

    • May 15, 2014 5:20 pm

      It’s a bit of an unusual one isn’t it? And who can resist spice? Not me.

  11. May 15, 2014 5:04 pm

    Great post, thank you, Sally, the Egyptian book is straight on my wish list!!
    I love Claudia Roden’s Arabesque, and The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage, and of course, Ottolenghi’s Jersusalem 🙂 all my favourites are middle eastern basically!!

    • May 15, 2014 5:22 pm

      Good choice Elaine. Must look up the Lebanese book (my go to authors for Lebanese cuisine are Anissa Helou and the first book by Bethany Kehdy).

  12. May 15, 2014 6:20 pm

    What a fabulous collection! Thank you for sharing them.

  13. May 15, 2014 11:07 pm

    You have a really impressive-sounding cookbook collection. Have you read ‘Family Life’ by Elizabeth Luard? Part memoir/part cookbook… I have trouble reading cookbooks in bed because they make me hungry and then my greediness is forced to compete with my laziness 😉

    • May 17, 2014 2:29 pm

      So interesting you mention this book. I do have it and was thinking about doing a review. Such a heartbreaking and life affirming story. Have you read the follow up? So much unsaid before….

  14. andreamynard permalink
    May 16, 2014 1:22 am

    Fascinating selection Sally. I have a pile (actually more heap) of books by my bed too, novels mixed with cookbooks and I totally agree about the soothing power at the end of the day. Lots of cookbooks are often read by me in the bath too – which doesn’t make me the ideal person to lend a book to!

    • May 17, 2014 2:31 pm

      I miss baths and reading in the bath. The lure of a good soak is not the same when you live in a hot country.

  15. May 16, 2014 2:49 am

    I am always on the lookout for new reading material! I am excited to check out “consider the fork”! Sounds up my ally! Thanks for sharing!

  16. May 16, 2014 6:51 am

    “Do cook books end up in more than one place in your home?” Yes, everywhere! Thanks for some great recommendations. But, I’ll have to identify some to give away in order to find space for these new ones…

  17. May 16, 2014 1:23 pm

    Oh, my favourite cookbooks, and food anthropology books, are also scattered around. Mainly under the bed but I’ve also spied one on the stairs, waiting to go up under my bed! I have Consider the Fork, but have yet to read it. I can’t get beyond the twee title (sorry), but I am admiring the splendid cover of the American version right now as I type. I should get over my prejudice on that one (my sis gave it to me). I do fancy the Spicy one and the Egyptian one you mention, so I may just send you a bill for my next Amazon/Waterstones purchases! Btw, I am currently dipping in and out of The Edible Atlas, by Mina Holland. It isn’t ‘weighty’ but it is lovely if you like a skimming of food history with your recipes. And lastly, one of my favourite books is Hattie Ellis’s “What To Eat?” (different from Joanna Blythman’s one of the same name and without the question mark). I think you would really enjoy it. Her writing is sublime as she covers 10 “Chewy questions about food” (e.g. what is a green kitchen? What is the best breakfast? Is eating local parochial). She wins awards for her food writing and I feel she should be more widely known and read.

    • May 17, 2014 2:32 pm

      No need to send a bill Kellie – you have got your own back with the new things just added to MY Amazon order. Love your recommendations. I’m a big fan of Joanna but need to read more by her and love the sound of Hattie Ellis.

  18. May 16, 2014 4:12 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have an obsession with cookbooks. My husband makes fun of me because I often just leaf through them while I’m watching TV. I’m always looking for new ones to collect and read. These look like they could be great additions!

  19. May 17, 2014 10:11 am

    I wish I could post a photo in the comments to show you the pile of books next to my bed. One true story, 7 novels and 1 cook book 🙂

  20. May 18, 2014 11:58 am

    You are not alone, I could’t bring myself to eat molokheya after the first time I tried it. Not because of the taste, but because of the slimy texture. I used to hate watching people eating it when I lived in Egypt – it sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. I don’t have an Egyptian cookbook and I really ought to as it’s the land of my fathers and I loved the food when I was there – most of it anyway!

    I have William Sitwell’s book, but haven’t come across any of the others. I’d recommend Diana Henry’s books (although I only have Crazy Water Pickled Lemons) for an interesting and evocative read.

    I too have a tottering pile of cook books by my bed – I thought it was normal 😉

  21. May 18, 2014 8:54 pm

    Great set of books you got there! I have piles and piles as well, my husband is always clearing them behind me because I like them hanging around everywhere in piles and piles. I just flew to Tuscany, with two big books because I couldn’t decide. Don’t get me started on the pile next to my bed…

  22. May 19, 2014 1:25 am

    I do read cookbooks but not in bed at sleep time. I love cookbook reading on Sunday mornings with a cuppa tea and light banter while hubby reads the paper and the girls pootle in and out with their books

  23. May 19, 2014 5:48 pm

    This is a bloody good post and im now inspired to do my own version. i’ve recently bought a few foodie books from kinokoniya, so il probably get to it when im done reading them all.
    I detested Molokhiya as a kid (which btw is Jute Mallow) according to Susan Husseini’s book. One day my mom ordered frozen spinach from the grocer downstairs, but he ended up delivering molkhiya, so she asked her friend how to make it, and it was basically making chicken soup, adding the molokhiya and the tasha on top. It smelled divine and tasted like Heaven, despite my fear of the sliminess, im glad i tried because im an addict now.
    My baby brother who loves spinach (from watch popeye) is now also a molokhiya lover because we told him it was spinach soup 😉

    • May 20, 2014 8:11 am

      Looking forward to reading your version. Interesting to hear of your molokhiya conversion – not able to imagine this happening to me but you never know!!

  24. May 20, 2014 2:12 pm

    I tend to only read cookbooks in bed when they’ve not got pictures… not sure why!

    If you’ve not read her stuff before I highly recommend Rose Prince for very down to earth family cooking with no fussiness or pretence whatsoever.

    • May 21, 2014 9:08 am

      I was really interested to read about Rose Prince and how her son developed a bread business which stopped him from dropping out. I’ve met her a couple of times here in the UAE but don’t have any of her writing. Thanks for recommended….one more thing on the wish list! Her sister is one half of the Sams from Moro – did you know that?

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