1. What She Ate by Laura Shapiro
A slightly speculative but riveting read that profiles six notable women and their relationship with food: Dorothy Wordsworth (eating one’s feelings); Rosa Lewis (empowering); Eleanor Roosevelt (falsely detached); Eva Braun (mortal enemy); Barbara Pym (simple pleasures); and Helen Gurley Brown (self-mastery). While credit must be given for sharing women’s stories, I would have liked to see a wider cultural representation of women.
2. The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky
No other book on my shelf contains as many dog ears or sticky notes. An enlightening read on etymology, Jurafsky’s well-researched publication proves that words hold more sway over us than we think. Instead of, “You are what you eat,” the author underscores that “you eat how you speak.” A resident of the Bay Area, Jurafsky is particularly well-versed in the linguistics of Chinese cuisine. Guess which dialect has the most adjectives for describing unpleasant smells? The answer: Cantonese.
3. Tapai by Hishamuddin Rais
First published in Off The Edge Magazine (now defunct), these 40 short stories touch on two things: 1) local cuisine, whether in Pakistan or Pulau Kambing, and 2) the author’s lust for life. Nevermind the fact that he is hitting 60; the flaneur gatecrashes art gallery openings to partake of free canapés and flirts with cendul pulut ladies. Look past the smattering of pretencious French phrases for a wealth of information on traditional Malay dishes, from dendeng to tembusu.
4. Tok Tok Mee by Gerald Tan
Remember the good ol’ days when wan tan mee vendors announced their arrival by knocking bamboo sticks together (hence tok tok mee)? Or how the nasi kandar man transported his wares in pots balanced on poles placed over one shoulder? Me neither. Hence the importance of this love letter to Penang’s fast-vanishing street foods. Local ‘celebrities’ grace these pages, including Uncle Mahbu (Bangkok Lane’s mee goreng) and the Lim sisters (Ayer Itam kari mee).
5. The Story of Food by DK Books
Nicely summed up by Giles Coren, restaurant critic for The Times, in the foreword as “an antidote to ignorance,” this illustrated tome leaves no stone unturned in the origin of produce. Juicy facts and colourful images compensate for DK’s rather dry deliverance. What I enjoy most are the quirky quotes pertaining to each chapter, including this Italian proverb: “It’s better to be the head of an anchovy than the tail of a tuna.”
6. Istanbul & Beyond by Robyn Eckhardt & David Hagerman
A duo I’ve long admired since their days as contributors to the Wall Street Journal and Time Out Penang, Robin Eckhardt and husband David Hagerman do a fine job of putting monetarily poor but tradition-rich cultures on a pedestal. Here, the journalist and photographer shirk Michelin-starred establishments to sniff out street food culture in Istanbul. Some recipes normally passed down in the oral tradition have been put down onto paper for the first time ever.