These cookbooks and books about food mark milestones in the development of food culture, or simply make good reading on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
1. Beard On Bread by James Beard
This book guides through the fundamentals of making bread by hand without the need for fancy equipment. There’s nothing quite like kneading dough by hand, turning a shaggy ball into a smooth one that springs back to the touch. It’s old school (The book was first published in 1973!) but very satisfying.
Anyone who has ever wanted to make bread but was unsure about handling yeast and such should start with Beard On Bread. Like the best recipe writers, Beard, a tireless champion of American cooking, writes clearly and unambiguously, guiding the novice with a sure hand.
2. Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (Vol 1 & 2) By Julia Child
Child has a gift for writing perfectly clear instructions that also reflected her can-do energy.
Her mushroom soup recipe is perfect; she’ll also guide you through a foolproof Creme Renversee Au Caramel or Caramel Custard. Another great recipe is Gratin De Pommes De Terre Aux Anchois or Gratin Of Potatoes, Onions And Anchovies.
3. Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich
His television persona, on the American version of the cooking competition MasterChef, is brash and intimidating. Restaurateur Joe Bastianich has perfected the dead-eye stare, which he trains on contestants who dare to present bad food. But you can’t deny that his comments are constructive. The same goes for his book.
A harsh but real guide on how to be a Restaurant Man, the tone of the book is all machismo and it begins with a mathematics lesson in opening and operating a restaurant.
If there is one thing to take away from reading the book, it is this pungent quote: “You have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap f*** to make it work.”
This book is required reading for anyone with stars in their eyes and grand plans to open a restaurant. Many of the lessons apply to Singapore, with its high manpower, food and rental costs.
4. Garlic And Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
This 2005 book by Ruth Reichl, who was the New York Times restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999, is a must-read for anyone who wants to write about food seriously.
In her book, she reproduces some of the reviews, but it is the back stories that are the best reasons to read the book.
5. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
If what happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen, Bourdain clearly didn’t get the memo. In his book, he reveals the real workings of restaurant kitchens: the grunt work, the swearing, the burns, the fisticuffs, the drugs and the hurried sex on top of sacks of onions. The rawness and honesty of Kitchen Confidential makes it a worthy read.
6. The Kitchen Diaries By Nigel Slater
Slater makes cooking seem like a pleasure. Instead of exhorting home cooks to turn out complicated dishes by performing kitchen gymnastics, he gives do-able recipes which do not require special equipment, but which always taste good.
7. The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Lopez-Alt unleashes science on home cooking, but is careful to tread the line between making that science relevant to the home cook and nerding out so much that he loses his readers.
Learn the science behind why using certain techniques and ingredients can result in a better dish.
8. Heat by Bill Buford
The founding editor of literary magazine Granta and a writer with The New Yorker quits his job at age 52 to, among other things, work in the kitchen of one of chef Mario Batali’s restaurants, learn to make pasta in Porretta in Italy, and learn the art of butchery with Dante-quoting, larger-than-life Dario Cecchini in Tuscany.
The honest depiction of work and life in a professional kitchen will either galvanise those with dreams to work in a restaurant or put them off completely.
But you get a buzz from his triumphs and start to root for him as he works to perfect the art of making pasta, and tries to understand Cecchini.
9. Nerd Baker by Christopher Tan
Published last year, this book is one of the best Singapore cookbooks published in the last couple of years.
This book, filled with photos and anecdotes from his travels, bucks the trend and delivers in spades, because he is a serious baker who can also communicate methods and techniques clearly.
10. Harumi’s Japanese Cooking by Harumi Kurihara
This cookbook offers no-nonsense recipes for the type of dishes that regular Japanese people cook and eat at home. Recipes include Steamed Chicken Salad With Sesame Sauce, Simmered Pork and Steak Marinated In Two Kinds Of Miso, and the like.
Harumi’s Japanese Cooking is her first one in English. If you’re a fan, her subsequent books, Harumi’s Japanese Home Cooking and Everyday Harumi, will probably find their way to your bookshelf eventually too.
By Tan Hseuh Yun, The Straits Times, 8 May 2016
Additional reporting by Pinky Chng