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What We’re Reading: Food Writing & Cookbooks

Recipes, essays, cookbooks, poems, and more that have changed the way we approach food

In time to celebrate New York Times Staff Writer Eric Kim’s debut cookbook, Korean American, we asked our Margins and Open City Fellows, Contributing Editors to The Margins, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop staff to tell us about some of their favorite food writing—from cookbooks and essays to Instagram posts and poems.

“What should we do for Sunday dinner?” my partner asked. I’d been craving Filipino comfort food, rare in our two-person household inclined toward healthy, minimalist meals. “Chicken adobo,” I replied, adding, “Don’t worry—it’ll be a boneless, skinless, low-sodium version with brown rice.” I smiled at the sacrilege, especially considering the Duterte government had just extended its fascist grip onto the culinary realm by daring to “standardize” the Filipino recipe for adobo, a term rife with disambiguation. My Cuban partner and I joke that our relationship is predicated on being rice-eaters from island nations formerly colonized by the Spanish; but adobo has never meant the same thing across the empire. “Authenticity” in Filipino adobo derives from its versatility, with regional and family recipes highlighting local, available ingredients.

As the Delta variant was coursing through New York City—dashing hopes for family reunions after two years in pandemic isolation—I decided to make adobo. I had recalled a poem, Sarah Gambito’s “On How to Use this Book,” which struck me for its inclusion of an adobo recipe that uses coconut milk, as well as the exhortation to “Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small.” Self-doubt crept in as I puréed red and green bell peppers to mimic both the color of the soy sauce I was reducing and the consistency of simmered-down, bone-in, skin-on chicken adobo. Did I even remember how adobo should taste? But the smell of garlic sautéing and chicken stewing in a pot with peppercorns and bay leaves conjured memories of pre-pandemic times, gossiping with my aunts Jean and Rose while preparing meals for our extended family. Finding my way back to our recipes was a reminder that family and home were never far from me.

—Vina Orden, 2022 Open City Fellow

I often turn to cooking to unwind from a crowded inbox and pressing deadlines: the physicality of chopping, stirring, measuring, tasting, and plating draws a line beneath the workday. I get into a smooth, inspired headspace, one that I try to reflect in my social media feed, too. For years now, I’ve followed professional chefs and talented home cooks on Instagram, and I’ve started to follow accounts that share thinking and writing about food, allowing for narrative encounters with chefs, recipes, diaspora, and culture. 

I’m thinking in particular of chef Eric Huang, who worked at Eleven Madison Park in a previous life, and now runs the wildly popular fried-chicken delivery service, Pecking House. In early March, Eric posted a picture of a cutting board, a sharp knife, and a pile of perfectly cut chives, along with a caption thinking through the art of pure craft. He writes: “[…] in craftsmanship, there is usually an elemental product that shows you everything you need to know about the person and their quality of work. And in cooking, it’s chives.”

In the heat, noise, and daily chaos of a restaurant kitchen, prepping chives seems like a meditation, requiring a sharpened knife, a careful and speedy hand, and a mindful attention to the very smallest details. I like the pragmatism with which Eric thinks about cooking and the “detailed and professional execution of a necessary product,” but I also love the careful, aesthetic attention he pays to his work, from chives to chicken, infusing this “necessary product” with a tender care that will most likely go unnoticed. The lesson of attending to the art at the heart of your practical craft is, in my mind, a way to sustain yourself and your inspiration through daily life, and a lesson I try to take forward in my own work, from slicing vegetables for dinner to curating programs at the Workshop.

—Lily Philpott, Programs Manager

Illustration by Heedayah Lockman

I haven’t yet traveled to London, but I often dream of visiting. So many friends have described the city’s variety and quality of South Asian foods as unparalleled outside of the subcontinent, and so my fantasy brain got especially excited when I stumbled upon the London-based food newsletter Vittles and their three-part series titled “60 South Asian Dishes Every Londoner Should Know.”

I’m a late-comer to Vittles, which debuted in March 2020. In the past few months I’ve been making my way through its archives, which go way beyond listicle-style posts into a spirited mix of self-aware, politically sharp, lively, researched, often reported pieces written by food writers across the world. Although Vittles is technically a newsletter, it functions as a publication—Vittles’ founder and editor Jonathan Nunn, who’s a food critic, commissions new writing, reviews pitches, and edits each installment. Plus, writers get paid for their work (now as much as GBP 500 per piece), and the hope, from what I can gather, is that food writers will build their portfolios and grow an audience together. Nunn seems to make a point to more or less avoid U.S. food writing, which I find refreshing. The vision of London’s foodscape is a reflection of the city’s immigrant history and present, but Vittles doesn’t limit itself to London.

Reading Mary Fawzy’s piece about Cape Town’s wine farms and how “farm-to-table” establishments conveniently leave out questions of who owns the land reminded me of the ahistorical restoration of plantations as wedding venues in the U.S. South. This piece about the cultural production of mango pickle, or amba, across multiple geographies and diasporas was so satisfying. A conversation with Kurdish chef and writer Melek Erdal on “What Is Kurdish Food?” doubles as a must-read political and cultural history lesson.

This weekend marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a time for those who observe it when food and fasting take on extra, spiritual meanings. I had fun reading this delightful roundtable conversation published by Vittles, in which six Muslim teens who go to the same high school in London discuss their relationship to food and fasting during Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak to all those observing!

—Jyothi Natarajan, Editor in Chief

I sometimes forget that a recipe is a story, that food is language. Every family has its own recipe for a dish; I guarantee that my grandmother’s kimchi was made differently from your grandmother’s. Yet, though I’ve never met you, what kimchi communicates to us might be the same if we grew up in Korea or in a Korean family, understanding the cultural significance of it. Maybe a different recipe of the same dish is a different dialect of the same language. 

Reading Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry (University of Nebraska Press 2020), I was struck by the poems written in the form of recipes, with family and national history folded in. In “Recipe,” Yun lists the ingredients and then instructs how to make dakdoritang, a chicken stew. The voice of her grandmother appears, calling out some of the ingredients’ names in Japanese. Yun ponders the grandmother’s inability to “discard Japanese” alongside the question of whether “dori” comes from the Japanese tori to mean “bird.” She considers budae jjigae (literally “army stew”) in “War Soup” in the same manner, telling the dish’s birth as the result of the Korean War when people scrounged American army surplus such as spam and canned beans, or as the poem says, “boiled it all with weeds and scraped carcass” (original italics). Budae jjigae has remained a permanent fixture of Korean cuisine, just as the U.S. military presence persists in South Korea. 

For me, both English—the language the poems are written in—and food are languages that I share with Yun. The people of a bygone era may have passed but the foods they created allow us to remember their time. Though my grandmother’s experience of the colonial period and the Korean War are undoubtedly different from Yun’s grandmother’s, my grandmother, too, never forgot Japanese. In fact, she used it as a secret language with my grandfather when they fought, so her children could not understand them. Some scars do not fade. Sometimes we do not let them fade. 

—Emily Jungmin Yoon, Poetry Editor

Positioning itself as a hybrid between cookbook, city guide, memoir, and history book, Dishoom: From Bombay With Love may be the first cookbook I have read from cover to cover. The book, bound in a classic style with a simple robin’s egg blue cover, takes you through an imaginary day in the city of Mumbai with stops at famed restaurants and street stalls, filling you up with first, second, and third dinners. Dishoom shares the city’s history with you along the way, and presents a beautiful depiction of the ways Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian traditions come together through food. In pandemic times especially, this cookery book is a gift in the ways it transported this food lover back to a city I have been longing to return to. 

The restaurant Dishoom’s eight locations, sprinkled throughout London, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Birmingham, and styled after the classic Irani cafés of old Bombay, are known for their house black daal. Their menu tells you that it is cooked for over twenty-four hours “for extra harmony.” The cookbook offers a recipe for this famed signature dish that you can whip up in a fraction of the time they dedicate to it at the restaurant, fortunately. I’m saving the recipe for a rainy day when I need it most. 

—Vandana Pawa, Programs Coordinator

Patis! Glorious and pungent, patis. I was always partial to Rufina or Datu Puti until I found Red Boat. Non-arguably, the Cadillac of fish sauces. Founded by Cuong Pham in 2011, I plucked a tall 500ML bottle of their classic 40° North from the shelf some years ago at the Park Slope Food Coop and everything changed. I held it close to my body and knew there was something so special about it. Whether to round out a sharp vinegary dipping sauce, drizzled straight onto hot tortang talong, or added to a pot of monggo once the beans begin to split, Red Boat is the key.

On a recent trip to Greenlight Bookstore, I went to pick up Angela Dimayuga’s Filipinx: Heritage Cooking from the Diaspora (which I also highly recommend), and certainly not my happenstance, also picked up Cooking at Home by David Chang & Priya Krishna and the last copy of The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cook Book, a stout little book with a vibrant matte oceanic turquoise cover and glossy letters in red, yellow, and blue. I held it close to my body and knew there was something so special about it. The scene is set with pantry favorites, and moves swiftly into breakfast, then appetizers, then vegetables before being separated by protein, and finished with pickles. My hands are filled with landscape and memory. Marinate the pork. Truss the pork. Roast the pork. Make a sauce with the drippings and serve. I’m ready for this book to become a staple in my library.

—Devyn Mañibo, Digital Communications Manager

From bánh mimi bakes

Aruna D’Souza’s blog Kitchen Flanerie is a friendly, literary space for those of us intimidated bored by most cooking blogs. Some highlights: amazing sweet corn chicken soup and the even simpler simplest paella recipes; a canonical guide to ingredients or how to perfectly boil an egg. When D’Souza is not writing about Black protest within the white supremacist art world or about the Chinatown Art Brigade & Asian American activism, she shares her Sindhi grandfather’s Partition refugee story on her blog, a piece I discovered recently. She writes, “So many Sindhis came to Bombay, sleeping on their relatives’ floors or setting up temporary shelters in refugee camps and eventually starting businesses servicing the other refugees.”

A prolific and fantastic food writer who has a fabulous jalebi recipe and an essay on postpartum food traditions, Pooja Makhijani also writes about the Sindhi diaspora, Partition, and food businesses. A food that becomes homes, Makhijani describes Sindhi papad as a lentil flour-based flatbread that has husked black beans (urad dal) and green gram (moong dal), seasoned with cumin, pepper, and dill, and often crisped over an open flame. Makhijani complicates a topic that could otherwise be merely reverent and tasty. While she writes about how exiled communities have an allegiance to their ancestral foods, she also admits to having “some anxiety of the preservation of this food culture: the survivors of war and decolonization and migration and refugee life are often tasked with holding on.”

Editor and Asian American Tarot creator Mimi Khuc also writes about the culinary inheritance of refugees and being between culinary cultures: “For viet food, [cooking was] a mystery managed and magicked by the adult women in my family; for American food, [it was] an easy formula of supermarket shortcuts of pasta sauce from jars and frozen dinners.” Khuc’s adventures in cooking are joyfully shared on her public Instagram, most recently, her annual bánh chưng making. A beautiful stack of small three inch-square banana leaf packages, the inside sticky rice filled with nước mắm marinated pork & mung bean flavored with shallots & coconut oil—wrapped and stacked like the magicked presents they are.

—Swati Khurana, Flash Fiction Editor

When I moved into my own apartment mid-pandemic, a few very good friends sent over cookbooks as a house-warming gift. It was their way of being with me in my new home when we were all still physically separated. One of my favorites is Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish. (You can tell by the food-stained pages, the way the spine cracks open easily to the most-loved instructions.) It reads like a love letter to her mother, Ritu. The crux of this book is that it’s a hybrid, “merging the Indian flavors of her childhood with her global travels as well as her kids’ requests for spaghetti and PB&J.” Personal highlights include: spicy chickpea dip (a hit at picnics), tofu green bean breakfast scramble, and roti pizza (another crowd-pleaser). I would also highly recommend shrikhand (sweet cardamom yogurt), which requires threads of saffron (luxurious) and patience (something learned). By the time you’ve cooked your way through Indian-ish, you’ll feel like you’ve spent time with a delightful, funny family. You’ll also feel a lot less alone, wherever you find yourself.

—Katie Yee, 2022 Margins Fellow

Prolific Los Angeles-based food writer Esther Tseng doesn’t just write about insider tips on the hippest restaurant openings. In her writing, she delves deep into issues such as mental health, food justice, gentrification, and the plight of undocumented restaurant workers, as well as cultural histories. A recent piece in the LA Times highlighted the work of an Indigenous women-led nonprofit advocating for indigenous restaurant workers’ rights.

—Grace Jahng Lee, 2022 Open City Fellow

At first, it wasn’t obvious what food, and food writing, had been meaningful to me during the last tumultuous year of the pandemic. When I pulled up my Google Photos stream to confirm, there was a clear winner: beans, beans, beans. Simple, unassuming, easy to forget. From their first appearance in October 2020, triggered by this simple one-pager from Rancho Gordo, they quickly became a mainstay in my pandemic cooking routine. Photos of beans in every state appear over the months: red speckled pinto beans, shiny soaked black beans, pools of perfect lima beans floating in creamy broth, leftover marcella beans tossed over a salad or under crispy fried eggs. Not much else about those lackluster months merited documentation, but beautiful photos of beans abound. 

More a technique than a recipe, as the Rancho Gordo one-pager would suggest, bean cooking added a new clock to my days. I watched their slow, wrinkly expansion in the overnight soak, the way they danced on a full boil, and the final quiet of the prolonged simmer so gentle they barely seemed to be cooking—and suddenly they’re perfect. I loved the meal as much as I loved the bean discourse. To soak or not to soak? To pressure cook or regular boil? Alliums in the broth or charred lemons? To start with stock or water? When to add the seasonings and how? The conversation sustained me over months of lockdown, months when my friends were up to slow cooking of their own: fermenting, pickling, salt curing. 

—Aishvarya Arora, Poetry Coalition Fellow