The best cookbooks for armchair travelers

The Books I Picked & Why

Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food

By Mary Taylor Simeti

Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food

Why this book?

This book immediately swept me up in its glorious evocation of Sicily: the island's ancient history, the ways of its people, and above all the flavors of the sun-kissed land. In gorgeous prose, American-born Mary Taylor Simeti combines the illuminating insights of an outside observer with a passion for her adopted homeland. The recipes range from the cucina povera that sustained most of Sicily's inhabitants over the centuries to the ornate court cuisine that developed in the 16th century. We also journey to Sicily's convents, where the nuns became famous for their wondrous confections with fanciful names like "Virgins' Breasts" and "Chancellor's Buttocks."


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Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village

By Peter Graham

Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village

Why this book?

Few visitors to France venture to the Auvergne, the sparsely populated, south-central region where until recently most of the now-aging population still spoke the medieval language known as Occitan. Englishman Peter Graham moved there in 1978 and became captivated with the land and its inhabitants. Mourjou communicates his love for this little-known region and its hearty food. Graham collected extraordinary recipes that can't be found in other books about French food (an eggy pudding made with buckwheat flour, ham, Swiss chard, and prunes; a charlotte made with chestnut flour, chestnut cream, pumpkin, and quince). He intersperses recipes with beautifully crafted essays that dive deep into the region's history and culture, chronicling a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.


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My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking

By Niloufer Ichaporia King

My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking

Why this book?

Until picking up this book I knew nothing about Parsi food, a distinctive way of cooking practiced by the descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India around the 8th century. And what a cuisine it is! This book engages all your senses, immersing you in the aromas, colors, and tastes of Parsi kitchens. Niloufer King's descriptions are beguiling, her language deft as she evokes dishes like the "wobbly" cauliflower custard of her childhood and its "trembling delicacy," or a hot green chutney that is "raucous" rather than refined. King brings family and friends to life through anecdotes that reveal the long history and continuing evolution of this distinctive manner of cooking.


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Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light

By Caroline Eden

Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light

Why this book?

Caroline Eden is an intrepid traveler, and her culinary travelogue Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes through Darkness and Light beautifully captures the romance of the Black Sea region. You experience all the bumps and jolts of her journey as she moves along the coasts of Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, repeatedly forsaking comfort for more strenuous modes of conveyance and lodging. The book's shimmery cover is alluring, as are the generous photographs of people, places, and food. Eden's lyrical, evocative prose has an immediacy that communicates the distinctiveness of each place she visits. The book goes beyond history, culture, cuisine, and geopolitics to tell the personal stories of the people who inhabit the Black Sea coast.


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The Cuisine of Hungary

By George Lang

The Cuisine of Hungary

Why this book?

The legendary restaurateur George Lang escaped from a labor camp under the Nazis and in 1946 managed to emigrate to New York City. This book is his love letter to his native land. I can't think of another writer who conveys the fascinating history of Hungarian cuisine with such detail and depth of feeling. The book features "Gastronomic Profiles" of the country's distinctive regions and contains excellent information on Hungarian wines. Lang's book is rich in literary quotations, including an ode "To a Fattened Goose" by József Berda. The recipes are excellent, many with enticing names like "Witches' Froth," which Lang describes as a "featherweight dessert" to offset the richness of an otherwise heavy meal.


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