Somewhere between A Day At El Bulli and Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, I realise I’m sinking into quicksand. This feels familiar — it happens every time I decide to buy cookbooks for close friends, which is significantly more challenging than buying novels as gifts.
There’s a three-part trick to choosing the right novel or under-the-radar non-fiction classic for any reader. The first part is obvious — ask the recipient to name five or six books they read recently and loved.
So is the second part — tell an experienced bookseller a bit about the person and their choices, and let the expert do the heavy lifting. Most people omit the third part, which involves surveilling your target’s true reading habits by hacking into their computers. (Don’t do that, unless you’re an obsessive, lawbreaking perfectionist who hates getting book recommendations wrong.)
Choosing cookbooks is hard for a variety of reasons, some practical. Most Indian bookstores stock a small selection of classics of the kind that any self-respecting food-lover would already own. Because of the quirks of book import laws, it can take months for new cookbooks to arrive. Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana might be in stock, for example, but booksellers in Delhi said that Sirocco, her latest, would take time to arrive unless customers placed a special order.
As if in compensation, many independent bookstores used to stock detailed, sometimes quirky collections of Indian family recipes, and regional or community cookbooks. These were often printed as thin booklets, or clothbound with sparse illustrations, the recipes printed so close to one another that they swarmed your eye, like passengers crowding out of a local bus. The recipes for Maharashtrian light salads called koshimbirs or fiery Syrian Christian fish curries or Tagore-family-style mutton curry never failed.
The older bookstores are closing, as their proprietors retire or die, and it’s growing harder to find the recipe books that chronicle “ghar ka khana”, home cooking. Instead, the bookstore chains carry very successful lines of smart miniature cookbooks — 101 Vegetarian Recipes, Easy Chinese Cooking — that offer contemporary, familiar recipes for the cautiously adventurous, globetrotting Indian’s palate.
Beyond the practical hurdles lie more subtle traps. New cookbooks, even when written by food experts or authorised by restaurants, are a minefield. I jettisoned a promising, gorgeously produced Mexican cookbook out of nervousness, because the very famous chef’s guacamole recipe seemed dangerously low on avocado and included olive oil. Perhaps it was an accidental error? But I didn’t have time to cook through the recipes beforehand, and I thought of my friend — a knowledgeable, enthusiastic cook with a low tolerance for misprinted or pretentious recipes — and moved on.
As a sloppy but undaunted cook, I’m dubious about cookbooks from chefs with terrifyingly high standards. It’s like being around people who wear formal dress all the time when you’d rather be wearing palazzo pants and a faded T-shirt.
But then some cookbooks, like Grant Achatz’s Alinea, are meant chiefly to brighten your imagination — it’s like watching Olympic gymnasts, it brings joy even if you know you’ll never attempt a Produnova vault yourself. David Chang’s Momofuku or René Redzepi’s Noma, books that enhance your sense of possibility, have made good gifts for friends who like an abstract approach to home cooking.
But the realists and the impressionists? No, they want books that inspire them but don’t depress them by raising the bar too high (recipes that require levels of professional chef technique you cannot learn from watching MasterChef reruns) or stretching the limits of possibility (ingredients that require you to forage for a month in desolate, ancient forests before you start cooking).
What realist cooks like are high-quality insider cookbooks with challenging but achievable recipes. Chefs like Ottolenghi, Salma Hage and David Thompson open up an entire cuisine and region for the curious outsider, adding layers of history and taking you into local markets as well as kitchens. Plus, they’re fun to cook from, and a cookbook must make you want to go back and make that food again and again, for the people you love.
It takes time to do a good cookbook review, much more time than it takes to review a restaurant if you are to do justice to the recipes, which is probably why it’s easier to find reliable restaurant reviewers than cookbook reviewers. But they’re out there, and on their advice I buy several books, greed overcoming good sense as usual.
This is the really crucial part of buying food books for friends: keep the food histories and essays for yourself, and give them the cookbooks that make your mouth water. Your friends will thank you and, most importantly, you will always eat well.
Nilanjana Roy is the author of ‘The Wildings’ and ‘The Hundred Names of Darkness’ and lives in Delhi @nilanjanaroy
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published