My grand-mum, my grand-dad, my mum, my dad... all fabulous cooks, so I've always been surrounded by delicious cuisine with varying influences. The plus, I was gifted with a layered palate that came from being exposed to such high skill levels, food is always a joy. The negative, I rarely attempted to cook, so didn't learn much skills for myself. I assumed that wherever I went, I would be able to source great food.
Luckily, as travels of youth beckoned, I landed in sunny Dubai with some great food outlets. But, truth be told, after a while, eating out can lose its charm. You crave that homecooked meal, that familiar taste of comfort. Off I went to Union Co-Op, picked myself some pots and pans, bought an oven, picked fresh produce from Spinneys and got ready to cook up a storm.
I had seen Mum in action often enough, seemed a breeze. Just to be sure, I picked up a recipe book and was good to go. Only once I began did I realise how little I truly knew, how much of learning was needed. My first fruitcake looked splendid, perfectly browned and shaped but so hard that it could easily be used as a weapon! Mortified, I double bagged it and was unceremoniouly discarded in the community dumpster without much ado. Okay, time to re-think the game plan. Perhaps baking was too advanced, maybe I could try a curry. A red curry looked a muddy brown by the time I was done. I honestly tasted grit, not sure to date, where it had come from!
It was time to eat humble pie. I was paying a price for taking things for granted. Miserable and hungry, I called up home. Mum being mum burst out laughing and guided me through some quick fixes. I paid attention and my culinary attempts became edible. Then she gave me an incredible piece of advice: "Cook what you love... cook because you enjoy cooking." That defined my relationship with cooking. I looked for recipes that I enjoyed, taste tested and experimented, understood spices and herbs, most importantly watched, heard, read and learnt. Today I create recipes, write and experiment.
Along the way I met many young people who were at the same starting point as me. I hope I helped them re-discover the joy of cooking and one of the key tools I shared are the cookbooks that have been my friends for many years. Here are a few of those much-loved guides:
50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi
The book helps newbies get a clear understanding of spices, basic curry bases, hacks to sort out errors like adding too much salt, and recipes from across India that include classics such as the Goan vindaloo to Hyderabadi dalcha.
It has sold over half a million copies worldwide and a book I would say is essential for any kitchen library.
You can pick up a copy at the online Gulf News store. Here's a link.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
This classic from 1961 still holds true, every recipe is helpful. She teaches you technique and gives detailed measurements, no dash of this and pinch of that. From her I learnt a very important tip in baking - the actual weight that should be a large egg - 60 grams+ Why does this matter? Well, it makes all the difference between a crumbly cake and a cake that feels more like bread. Egg is so important, it helps the gluten create those pockets of air and hold, rather than sink to the bottom of the pan. I would say, an absolute must for anyone teaching themselves to bake. It might not have fancy pictures, just line drawings but the knowledge being imparted - invaluable.
Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
The book blurb says it all - it teaches recipes, techniques and even the strategy involved in cooking a dish. It is classic French bistro cuisine that takes you to the very heart of a system that works magic with butter, herbs and fresh produce. Of course, the book brings with it the acerbic insight and humour of Bourdain, which is on full display in Kitchen Confidential, a must read I would say. One of the best lemon tart recipes can be found in this cookbook but it definitely needs patience. There are no quick fixes, side hustles or hacks on offer.
The Bangala Table: Flavours and Recipes from Chettinad by Sumeet Nair, Meenakshi Meyyappan with Jill Donenfeld
This is a relatively new acquisition but has proven to be an extremely well done cookbook. The recipes are accurate, detailed and clear. It takes an in-depth look into the famed cuisine of a very specific South Indian community - the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, accompanied by sumptuous photographs and handy cook's notes. I also like the fact that they have provided ample space for any notes a homecook might like to add. One of my favourites in it is the Chicken Chettinad Pepper Masala - highly spiced and delicious. There are several recipes for vegetarians including varieties of sambars, sambols, avial and chutneys.
Vietnamese Food by Bobby Chinn
Anthony Bourdain writes in the foreword: "What Bobby doesn't know about Southeast Asian food is not worth knowing." Dramatic but in a great measure true. The book teaches you everything from the basics of the different kinds of stocks that are the heart of Eastern cuisine to the elevated foie gras wrapped in rice paper. This 15-year-old book offers a lifetime of learning that's a must if you like and love Southeast Asian food.
After writing the list, I feel compelled to add that each of these books is focused on the art of cooking, balancing flavours, understanding textures and the joyous journey of creating a great meal.
Tell us about your favourite cookbooks at email@example.com