In case anyone is looking for holiday gift ideas, for oneself or others, I have assembled a brief rundown of my very favorite food literature. (When writing it up I realized that about five of my all-time favorite works of food writing were in the Time-Life Food of the World series; I’ll do a separate post on those later.) Every one can be read strictly for pleasure, even if it’s technically a cookbook.

Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, by Jonathan Gold, the only food writer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. If you like reading this blog, you’ll love this book – he’s like a more talented, or at least more polished and experienced, version of me. This guide to hole-in-the-wall, eccentric, wonderful, old-fashioned, cutting-edge, and quirky Los Angeles restaurants can be read with great pleasure as a travelogue even if you’ve never been to LA and never plan to go.

A Taste of India, by Madhur Jaffrey. Atmospheric, beautifully written and photographed guide to Indian regional cuisine, nostalgic, personal, and lovely.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.), by Anthony Bourdain. Gonzo chef turned food journalist Bourdain’s funny, scabrous, macho, politically incorrect memoir of a (frequently high, drunk, and/or stoned) life in the kitchen.

A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, also by Bourdain. While still preserving his jackass, testosterone-overdose charm, this book, about his world travels shooting a show for the Food Network, is better-written and more thoughtful and atmospheric, at times even poignant. The warning for political incorrectness stands, but I appreciate Bourdain’s lack of condescension, genuine love and appreciation for a whole lot of places and cuisines, and recognition of the backbreaking hard work that goes into food production.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries) and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin. Very humane, sweet, gentle, and cozy essays on (mostly American) food and living, cooking for children and invalids and the jetlagged and homeless shelters – the written equivalent of comfort food. The recipes are extremely simple and come out well.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. I like a lot of Michael Ruhlman’s books but this is my favorite, three long essays on the CIA Master’s exam, an inventive Cleveland chef, and Thomas Keller. Great journalism, especially the first essay, which contains an account of terrine preparation that had me literally biting my nails in suspense. Fans of Top Chef would enjoy this.

Feast: Food to Celebrate Life, by Nigella Lawson. Mostly a recipe book but with excellent essays, multicultural (though primarily British) without pretending to insider knowledge, sensual and often funny. I especially liked the touching, practical essay on cooking for funerals and for people in mourning.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (Vintage). A solid, well-written, often funny account that reads like a good, albeit lightly plotted, novel.

Before everyone leaps up to inquire – I like M. F. K. Fisher but not enough to put her on an all-time favorites list. Ditto Ruth Reichl.
A food-centric memoir of growing up in a huge Indian family in and around Delhi. Jaffrey became a teenager when India got its independence - a time of joy and horror, as the country gained its freedom and then tore itself apart in the violence that came with Partition.

But Jaffrey's childhood was more happy than not, despite the presence of a low-key but appalling family rift caused by an uncle's emotional abuse of his own children and favoritism of some of his nieces and nephews. There's not a lot of drama but a great deal of humor, well-observed family dynamics, and a wonderful sense of place and time.

Jaffrey grew up to a famous food writer, and her memories are full of the scents and tastes and family rituals surrounding food. It's impossible to read without getting hungry. And by relating the food to its role in culture, family history, and personality, the food itself becomes the story.

Though she mentions some horrifying accidents and tragedies, albeit in an understated way, the overall mood of the story is one of nostalgia for a flavorful and largely fondly-recalled childhood. Though Jaffrey was something of a misfit, by the end of the book she's beginning to find her own voice and destiny. Amusingly, she never cooks anything good in the entire book - but she eats well, and remembers well. The rest, we know, is history.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (Vintage)
Bengali food writer Banerji begins with the promise to investigate whether the foods she thinks are traditional really are of ancient origin, or whether they are more modern developments from the originals. This fascinating premise unfortunately soon falls by the wayside, and the book becomes a more conventional survey of Indian regional cuisine, with notes on its associated history and culture.

Some chapters have an emotional depth and intimacy that makes them rise above the level of a simple food narrative: the one where she visits and dines at the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, and later has dinner with her friend (and famous writer, and Sikh historian) Khushwant Singh; her comparison of the detailed rules and rituals concerning permissible food in Indian Judaism and the Brahmin kitchen of Banerji's childhood; and the early and joyously nostalgic chapters set in her native Bengal, which is famous for sweets, fish, and food in general.

The rest of the book is mostly an entertaining reference book on regional cuisine, nostalgic and charming if you're already familiar with Indian food but I would guess overly dense if you're not. The chapter on the food of India's indigenous tribes should have been omitted: it's the only one in which Banerji never tries the food herself, and it's written in a vaguely condescending manner familiar to me from writings on but not by Native Americans, in which they are a simple people filled with natural wisdom. It also could have used a bibliography,

Recommended if you're Indian, have lived in India or travel there a lot, or are otherwise already familiar with Indian regional cooking but would enjoy an in-depth survey of it.

If none of those apply but you'd like to begin exploring the subject, Madhur Jaffrey has a number of books covering similar ground but is less likely to toss fourteen different names of dishes at you on a single page. I also prefer Jaffrey's prose; plus, she has recipes. My favorite of Jaffrey's is A Taste of India, which I highly recommend to anyone, advanced, intermediate, or beginners.

Click here to purchase Banerji's Eating India from Amazon: Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices

Click here to purchase Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of India: A Taste of India


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