The Top 10 Everyday Cookbooks on my Shelf
Most of the recipes on my blog are focused on what I call "American diasporic cuisine," mainly Jewish, with a nice smattering of Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes. But I only post my own recipes, typically based in my personal experiences of Eastern European and American Jewish foods. These foods are great, but they aren't representative of how I usually eat, and they don't always reveal how I learned how to cook or where I found my favorite methods and ingredients.
I want to take a post to share some of the cookbooks on my bookshelf that I use on a weekly basis. Stay tuned for the next installment of books about food/foodways.
1. Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop did not just teach me how to cook Chinese food—her books have so much about the history of different regional Chinese cuisines, where she learned and tasted many foods, how to buy Chinese ingredients. Every Grain of Rice is a workhorse of a book with a little bit of everything, even some Chinese American favorites like General Tso's Chicken. These recipes are vegetable-heavy and vegetarian friendly. A lot of them can be made easily even if you do not have access to a Chinese grocery store. Most of the recipes have an active cooking time of under an hour; Every Grain of Rice is full of perfect weeknight meals. Some of my favorite recipes are the Cumin Beef (I use this for Cumin Lamb too), Water Spinach/Asian greens with garlic, Mapo Tofu, and Peapods with Chinese Wind Sausage. The Food of Szechuan and Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China are also really excellent and include a lot more history and geography, delving deeply into regional cuisines.
2. 7000 Islands: Cherished Recipes and Stories from the Philippines by Yasmin Newman
I was barely familiar with Filipino Cuisine when I bought Yasmin Newman's book. I had had some really tasty food from local Round Rock restaurant Little Mama's Filipino Kitchen. Most of the recipes I tried from online sources/blogs were total flops. I just did not know what flavors for, what brands of ingredients I should be buying, what I should serve with the different dishes. This book is really great for people who may not have much context for Filipino food—there are not many Filipino restaurants outside of major urban centers, but it is 100% worth trying for yourself if you can't get access to a restaurant. Newman walks you through historical and geographical context, painting a vivid picture of how Filipino foods would be eaten in the Philippines and the diaspora. The barbecue marinades are impeccable and major crowd pleasers. The sawsawans (dipping sauces) make all the difference for foods that could seem to one-note or bland, and Newman gives recommendations for what sauces to have with each dish. I also love the two pancit recipes and the entire salad/vegetable section.
3. Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I think Ottolenghi's cookbooks may be the Silver Palate Cookbook equivalent for millennials—every home cook I know between the ages of 25 and 40 seems to own one of his books. Jerusalem is my favorite; it is versatile and has a Jewish spirit without being a "Jewish cookbook." In fact, as a Jerusalem cookbook, it is as much Palestinian as it is Israeli. It also feels very applicable to the modern home cook, unlike many restaurant chef's cookbooks, which have recipes that can be very complicated and time consuming. The sheet pan chickens and salads are some of my favorites for Shabbat/guests. I also really like Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley's Falastin, even if I find myself reaching for it less.
4. 50 Greatest Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi
Admittedly, I don't reach for this cookbook as much as the others from my list. It's not because I crave these recipes any less—they just tend to be time consuming and often require me to break out the mortar and pestle. But if you want to make some excellent Indian curries that go beyond Punjabi restaurant fare, this is the book for you. If you did not grow up making Indian curries, you probably do not have a sense for how to layer ingredients, or when the onions are done cooking, or what the finished texture should be like. Panjabi explains every step, making it very possible for non-Indian (or second/third generation immigrant) home cooks to get their curries just right.
5. Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan
Charles Phan is another professional chef who has successfully written a very home cook-friendly cookbook. After moving to Austin from Argyle/Uptown area of Chicago (the Vietnamese neighborhood), I was really bummed out by how hard it was to find restaurants that served foods that I used to eat every week. Charles Phan saved me. When I want to make Vietnamese food at home, this is the book I always reach for. There is a nice mix of recipes you can throw together quickly and ones that are more involved. The Pork broth/Bun Bo Hue and Beef Pho broth recipes make perfect broths that you can make in large quantities then freeze and defrost later for simple meals. I find myself using the lemongrass grill marinades a lot, and the Indo-French lemongrass beef stew is one of my favorite things to make in the winter. I also love The Little Viet Kitchen: Over 100 authentic and delicious Vietnamese recipes by Thuy Diem Pham, but I find her recipes can require a lot of planning ahead with marinades, so I use them less. I actually like Pham's original/experimental recipes even better than her traditional ones. Both books are worth getting if you want to make Vietnamese food at home.
6. The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island by Cathy Erway
I found out about The Food of Taiwan from Cathy Erway's brother Chris, who I knew from way back when in my teenage years in Providence, and now however many years later, I have the biggest food writing crush on Cathy Erway. I did not expect this book to become part of my regular rotation—it is fairly short and has a lot of recipes that call for wheat ingredients, which I can't eat. But I make the beef noodle soup all winter long and just substitute gluten free noodles. The 3 Cup Chicken is also a weeknight favorite. Erway weaves Taiwanese cultural history into the recipes perfectly, so you can cook and learn all at once.
7. Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe by Olia Hercules
For as much as I post about Eastern European food, it is not really something I cook in my home very often. When I do make it, it tends to be more of the Caucuses or the Balkans, or Ukrainian and Russian summer foods. Hercules presents foods of the former Soviet republics holistically, opting for lots of vegetable and fruit dishes as opposed to pages upon pages of dumplings and meat stews (though those are here too). What's more, the Ukrainian recipes are often closer to the way my family ate than what I see in Russian cookbooks. If you want an introduction to Eastern European recipes that is very home cook friendly, Mamushka is for you. This is my favorite Ukrainian borsch recipe. And I love all the easy salads.
8. True Thai: Real Flavors for Every Table by Hong Thaimee
Cooking Thai food at home has been one of my most frustrating home cooking endeavors. The recipes tend to be the same ones that you can find at most American Thai restaurants, and they always just come out like a less delicious version. Hong Thaimee's True Thai is different; she incorporates unique recipes from four different regions (one of them being New York City, which I love the addition of as an Americanist!). I have been able to cook recipes I have never seen on a menu before, like a really lovely peppery shrimp and banana blossom curry. Some of the recipes are a bit involved or require difficult-to-find ingredients, like wild boar, but most of them are pretty easy and can be made in under an hour, especially if you make the spice pastes in advance. The recipe for boat noodles is my favorite!
9. Chicano Eats: Recipes from My Mexican-American Kitchen by Esteban Castillo
Call me a traitor to my current home...but Cal-Mex beats Tex-Mex any day. The rich flavors of Mexican food meld with all the fresh produce and local seafood as well as the many other immigrant communities in the Los Angeles area, where Castillo is from. This is a fairly short book of recipes, but every page is inscribed with really relatable immigrant kid experiences that bring me into Castillo's world. These are the diaspora stories I want to see and eat, people from my generation claiming and sharing heritage foods that emerge from living in the United States. The carnitas are labor intensive but perfect. The shrimp sambal tacos are super easy to make and really tasty. The creamy poblano pasta was a major surprise favorite for me.
This is a major workhorse of a cookbook, with a version of almost every Korean recipe I would want to make. It is huge. Maangchi came to prominence as a youtuber making Korean cooking tutorial videos. The New York Times named her the Korean Youtube Julia Child, which seems apt. I can often get really overwhelmed by all the steps/planning ahead that Korean food involves—long marinading times, pickling, etc—and Maangchi is amazing at walking you through all the different steps. And she warns you at the beginning of the recipe how long it will take. As a home/heritage chef, Maangchi's recipes are accessible to people who don't have restaurant know-how or equipment. She explains how to do everything, from making kimchis and dashis to cooking rice and chopping vegetables. Her recipes are traditional, thorough, and easy to follow and range from fast-cooking everyday foods to very involved special occasion meals.