It used to be so easy to get bored. All you needed was to sit through a slideshow of someone’s holiday photographs. Now you need to have a discussion about food with a foodie: how to prepare the perfect kimchee follows cooking documentaries follows restaurant top trumps. None of this has very much to do with what we actually eat.
To see how foodies don’t relate to food you have only to turn to Symmetry Breakfast: Cook-Love-Share, which grew out of an Instagram account. On Instagram, that gleeful platform for showing off and ‘lifescaping’, Michael Zee posts photographs of the two servings of breakfast he has prepared for himself and his boyfriend. In case you are concerned that it could not get any more cloying, the two servings are arranged to reflect one another across a line of symmetry that runs vertically through the centre of each image. It offers the strict uniformity for which fascist dictators are renowned, and suggests a similar level of enjoyment. But the discipline of the photographs appears to be absent from the international mash up of actual recipes. Italian, Thai and Candian sit cheek by jowl. A recipe for an Italian omelette is interrupted by the addition of linseeds; sweet potato is used instead of its more plain cousin. A plum compote – a perfectly delicious thing in itself – is infused with Earl Grey tea. Nothing, it seems, will get in the way of the modish ingredient. If these sound too simple, you can always prepare the chloe bhature or chickpea curry with puffed breads. This recipe comes from a dreamy place in India, where Zee went on holiday. Zee ‘felt that Stanley Kubrik or David Lynch would really appreciate its beauty’. Did he not notice that these directors offer up nightmares rather than dreams?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China takes the reader patiently through the geography, culinary history and food of China’s Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze that includes Shanghai. That boisterous metropolis, however, does not provide the primary tone of the book; the calm photos of, say, a canal scene in Shaoxing proclaim a more reflective mood. When Dunlop writes a recipe for a Chinese vegetable named celtuce, it is done in the spirit of generosity rather than of showing off: ‘This recipe … appears here because of my fervent hope that this exquisite vegetable, a kind of lettuce with thick truncheon-like stems, will become more widely available outside China … it’s fantastically delicious.’
There is a startling purity to these recipes. Very often the list of ingredients amounts to a handful of things: stir-fried cockles with Chinese chives, steamed sea bass with snow vegetables. Even when the list is longer, it is still in service to a clear flavour. Chicken with young ginger requires a marinade and a sauce, yet the dominant tone of ginger and soy, offset with a note of sesame oil, is precise. One potential drawback is that many of the ingredients require a Chinese market (or, at least, an online supplier). Perhaps, however, we should make the time to track down these ingredients rather than relying on an Instagram post to see them.
Persian cookery has received new-found attention in books such as Persiana, though, as the title suggests, the way into this foreign-to-Britain culture has been through approximations of its food. Yasmin Khan’s The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen makes no such compromises. It is ‘a celebration of a side of Iran that never makes the headlines but is central to its story’. Khan is not afraid to be personal. Her stories start with the general and are seasoned with moments from her family life: she writes about the ‘rice paddies, tea plantations and olive groves’ that flourish in Gilan before moving on to ‘balmy summer holidays running around my grandparents’ farm with my cousins’. The approach gives you faith in the recipes and the ingredients take you to the heart of Gilan: lamb meatballs stuffed with barberries and walnuts, lime and saffron chicken kebabs, Gilaki herb stew. Persian food is aromatic, with a sophisticated combination of herbs and flavourings, but the cooking techniques here are simple and there are few ingredients that you could not find in a supermarket. It means that such delights as aubergines stuffed with tomato and rice, lifted by turmeric, cinnamon, dried mint and fresh parsley and with a dash of cayenne, are achievable in a domestic kitchen. Pomegranate soup topped with walnuts, a scented potato cake or an apricot and prune chicken stew, rich in saffron and fruit, sharp with lemon juice, are treats. It is a balancing act of some beauty. Khan also reveals that most elusive thing, how to cook buttery, golden Persian rice with a delicious crust. The book is worth it almost for that alone.
Noma in Copenhagen has been named the best restaurant in the world on more than one occasion. Claus Meyer, the less well-known of its two founders, has written the nordic kitchen: One year of family cooking – (nearly) all sexy lower-case letters. The book is a mission of delight directed against the ‘ascetic doctors and puritanical priests [who] have led a 300-year-long crusade against sensuality and the pleasure-giving qualities of food’. Meyer deploys the stereotypes of Scandinavia that are blooming everywhere right now. The food is foraged, raw and – because they know how to do things naturally in the north – seasonal. The recipes are simple and surprising. Sugar blended with tarragon for strawberries is not complicated, but, in keeping with Meyer’s mission, it is flavoursome and delightful. There is clearly something of the austere version of Scandinavia we love to fantasise about in this book, with its profusion of pickles and rye bread, but the rich flavours of herring marinated with carrots and onions (of course, boasting the deliciously odd, irrepressibly northern juniper berry), or of orange and fennel-marinated cod – a Nordic version of ceviche with cider vinegar and fennel rather than lime and chilli – hit a different note.
None of the journeys in these books is as delightful as that which The Palomar Cookbook takes us on. It is a lesson in producing cookery books. The food that blends Palestinian and Israeli traditions is photographed with a beautiful, absolutely un-English sensibility: just look at the piles of spices on hexagonal white tiles. The Palomar Cookbook brings together the staff of the restaurant from which the book takes its name, along with their families and the restaurant’s food. The photographs are striking in that they show normal people as they eat, free from the brush of the food stylist. The Palomar Cookbook, unlike many cookbooks published today, doesn’t seem like a surrogate for a holiday or an accessory to furnish the kitchen of a foodie. It feels instead like a work from a kitchen that loves what it does and wants to pass on a tradition. The polenta, rich with mushroom ragout and set off with asparagus, is a delight. Even that most slippery of vegetables, okra, becomes tempting at Palomar. Meanwhile robust pork belly, poached with ras el hanout and served with glazed vegetables and Israeli couscous, or octo-hummus (octopus and hummus, with tomato confit and parsley dressing), is enough to satisfy the most craving carnivore. The Palomar Cookbook does precisely what a good cookbook should do – it brings pleasure and happiness.