White truffles in Italy, fried chicken in Myanmar, cold mint and cucumber soup in Ukraine … food writer Caroline Eden shares some mouthwatering books to transport you
Tales of faraway dining, harvests and exotic markets are particularly welcome at a time when international travel is on hold. Few roving writers were as food obsessed as Sybille Bedford. Wine swills off the page and cities are brought to life via the ingredients she tastes in Pleasures and Landscapes (Daunt), a collection of eight essays from her journeys across Europe over 30 years. In 1960s Rome she eats out every night, breathlessly listing the highlights (“white truffles grated at the table over a plate of very fine egg pasta”), “standbys” (pastry and Sicilian oranges) and things to avoid (“Chianti, dead in the glass”). Gold-standard gastronomic journeying to other lands and other eras.
A well-written cookbook, peppered with recipes, impressions and historical insights can conjure up entire worlds and atmospheres, steering us from page to plate. My last trip pre-lockdown was to the Baltic states, and I have been drawing on Baltic New & Old Recipes: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania by Simon Bajada (Hardie Grant) since my return. Bajada offers a recipe for chilled beetroot soup, hakklihakaste (a “deconstructed shepherd’s pie”) and artistic-sounding “potato whistles with chanterelles”.
MiMi Aye’s Mandalay (Bloomsbury) opens up Burmese culture. As well as essays on subjects ranging from monosodium glutamate to serving customs, there is an entire chapter dedicated to fritters, and instructions on how to make “BFC – Burmese Fried Chicken”. The book also emphasises the importance of heirloom recipes: “An aunt of mine once foolishly disclosed her recipe for Shan tofu to her housekeeper, who then, much to my aunt’s chagrin, promptly scarpered to set up a tofu business back in her own village.”
Japanese food culture, often considered intimidating by outsiders, is demystified in Hiromi Kawakami’s novel Strange Weather in Tokyo (Granta). Food plays a central role in this love story observed through the seasons, in which Tsukiko, a woman in her late 30s, embarks on a relationship with her former high school teacher, “Sensei”, connecting with each other over trays of kaki no tane rice crackers, bottles of sake and fermented soybeans.
A similarly food-obsessed but very different city is Odessa, in southern Ukraine, which provides the backdrop to Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry-prose collection Dancing in Odessa (Arc). Kaminsky, who lost most of his hearing after contracting mumps aged four, is a disquieting poet who regularly employs food as imagery. In Odessa, “famous for its drunk tailors … and most of all, for its stuffed and baked fish”, tomatoes fill coat pockets and wild garlic lingers on the breath. In “Musica Humana”, a kind of elegy to the poet Osip Mandelstam, there is a complete recipe for cold mint and cucumber soup.
Recipes are threaded through Emily Nunn’s addictive and hopeful book The Comfort Food Diaries (Atria), my lockdown culinary memoir of choice. It begins with Nunn, heartbroken following a breakup, and laid off from the Chicago Tribune, embarking on a trip across America to seek out friendship and comfort food, with a little help from her hosts, whose names often feature in recipe titles, such as “Toni’s Onion Rings” or “Aunt Mariah’s Pot Roast”. Anyone who is unschooled in regional US food will find the flavours and dishes – think scrapple (pork, cornmeal, herbs) and ham biscuits – are fascinating. A transporting tonic for our times.
• Caroline Eden’s Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light is published by Quadrille (RRP £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.