The world of cookbooks is somewhat mysterious and misunderstood. Some think of it as a crutch to creativity & spontaneity, while others can’t even begin to imagine how to survive without it. In reality, cookbooks can be a bit of both: a ruthless dictator on one day & a generous muse on another.
Unashamedly, my culinary journey began by reading all sorts of cookbooks and newspaper recipe clippings. I completely relied on recipes and clutched to every cookbook page and instruction like a bible thumper from the deep south. However, once you gain experience in cooking, you realize how things connect in the kitchen—how ingredients are transformed, how flavors complement each other, and how to use your senses to your advantage. You begin to trust yourself as a cook.
You become a true cook.
That moment of realization is liberating, beautiful, and untangible. The world is truly your oyster now. Cookbooks start to become some sort of playground for whimsical imagination. Recipe instructions become cements and pictures become bricks to build your next culinary creation. Ideas begin to appear out of thin air.
However, not all cookbooks are equal. There are billions of cookbooks out there—some are good, most are bad, few are life-changing. If you’re lucky enough to come across such books, they will not only transform your cooking, but it will change how you see food forever.
One tip for all cooks out there regardless of your cooking level: keep a cooking journal. Handwrite each rececipe and record all things that you observe in the kitchen: was the end result too salty? too watery? too undercooked? This is how you free yourself from the chains of cookbooks. This is how you become a good cook.
The first time around, cook everything as instructed. Follow everything to the dot. If it asks for 50 grams of sugar, measure out 50 grams—no more, no less. As you cook, write down your observations and remember to wholeheartedly trust your senses. The second time around, make changes as needed and be creative.
Here are some cookbooks that still proudly hang on my bookshelves (in no particular order), some of which have changed the way I see food:
1. Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland is a comprehensive Indonesian, Malay, and Singaporean cookbook filled with intimate vignettes and cooking philosophies. This is probably one of the most comprehensive and most well-written Indonesian cookbook in English.
2. Cooking by James Peterson is a moderately advanced cookbook. The recipes has its roots in classic French and American technique. Beginners might be confused with its concise instructions (e.g. deglaze pan with mirepoix and wine), but intermediate cooks might enjoy its succinct style. This is still one of my most beloved cookbooks since it continually challenges me to push the envelope in the kitchen.
3. Simple Chinese Cooking by Kylie Kwong is a beautiful cookbook filled with gorgeous photography and recipes that are simple but delicious. Most of the recipes call for less than 8 ingredients and a no-fuss cooking techniques. However, do not let simplicity fool you; each dish somehow manages to capture the essence of Chinese cooking, and everything that I’ve made from this cookbook has been never been less than delicious and elegant.
4. The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson A collection of African recipes based on Chef Samuelsson’s journey across the African continent. The combination of beautiful pictures and exotic recipes makes this a very enjoyable cookbook.
5. Gordon Ramsay’s Just Desserts If you overlook his agressive and sometimes repulsive television persona, you start to realize that Gordon Ramsay nothing short of a genius. His technique is sophisticated and graciously integrate classic and modern philosophies. Although the techniques are mostly French, it’s apparent that he has influences from exotic places around the world.
7. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child This is probably the most authoritative French cookbook in the English language. However, it observes strict French cooking techniques. This is a great book to start if you have no background in French cooking. Recipes are clear and detailed.
8. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcela Hazan Amongst all of the flashy Italian cookbooks out there, Marcela Hazan’s is still considered the most authoritative in the English language.
9. Lidia’s Family Table by Lidia Bastianich If you’ve ever seen Lidia’s Sunday cooking program on PBS, you know that she’s the type of grandmotherly person who would warmly invite you to her house for some hearty lasagna. Her cooking is genuine and indescribably comforting, yet it is without pretense. Some of my basic Italian cooking techniques came from her books, and they’ve all proved to be delicious
List of books that have been on Amazon Wish List for years:
- Ad Hoc at Home & The French Laundry by Thomas Keller
- Eleven Madison Park by Daniel Humm
- Mourad: New Morrocan by Mourad Lahlou
- Bernard Clayton’s New Book of Bread
- Momofuku by David Chang
- Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques
Well I hope that I’ve inspired you to go out and search for your special cookbook. Thought it might be daunting to commit to a particular cookbook or cuisine for a chunk of time, I promise that the journey will be educational and, most of all, memorable. Happy cooking!