Traveling Through Food: 5 Cookbooks I Love

I can’t leave the country, so I’ve been traveling through food. My family has been doing a weekly international take-out night to keep our favorite restaurants going through the pandemic and ogling foodie-friendly travel shows and videos that highlight destinations that are (for now) tantalizingly out of reach. Adventures are in short supply these days, so food is an easy way to experience new places without leaving the house.

Making your own food makes the experience even richer. There’s something comforting and almost meditative about actually preparing your own own food. It’s fun, affordable and something your whole family can do together. And we all have to eat anyway, right?!

I’ve spent the summer revisiting some of my favorite recipes and trying some new ones. Here are five of my go-to cookbooks that highlight food from around the world. Be sure to tell me your favorite cookbooks in the comments below so we can all start traveling through food together. I hope one day soon, we’ll be able to do it in person again.

Take a quick trip to Paris

I bought Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make At Home: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten because after becoming slightly obsessed the perfect croque monsieur in Paris and wanted to replicate it at home. I’ve made the addictive ham and cheese cafe sandwich several times, but I reach for this cookbook a lot more than I anticipated I would.

I thought I’d use this cookbook for its recipes for sweet brioche bread and profiteroles (cream puffs), two addictions I particularly treasure. But the recipes I use most often are for side dishes like cauliflower gratin, herbed potatoes and garden fresh green beans. The French emphasis on quality ingredients is useful in every season, but especially when the markets are bursting.

Garten’s recipes are elegant, but not fussy. And she never calls for a bunch of random ingredients. Everything feels essential.

A traditional take on vegetarian cooking

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Musoki about reclaiming traditional African cooking, the importance of local ingredients and traveling through food on this recent Travel Tomorrow podcast episode. It was a fascinating conversation that made me see a lot of parallels between the local food movement happening across the African diaspora and the one occurring in indigenous nations in the U.S.

I really recommend Sophie’s eCookbook, My Vegetarian Kitchen: 34 delicious and wholesale dishes from A Kitchen in Uganda. I’ve been obsessed with her recipes since she planted the idea of curry sweet potatoes chips (fries) in my brain. You’ll never see humble root vegetables the same way again. And at just $5, it’s a steal.

If you like her work, I’d recommend following her blog, A Kitchen in Uganda. It’s what started her foray into food writing and photography.

Super healthy recipes from elders around the world

In my quest to cook more vegetarian meals, I came across The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes To Live To 100, a gorgeous tribute to healthy eating around the world. Dan Buettner (a New York Times best-selling author) visits communities all over the globe (from Japan to Greece to California) where residents live much longer than the international average and shows us how their food contributes to their longevity.

I learned a lot from this cookbook and was able to work some of the recipes (and the habits they illustrate) into my menu rotation pretty easily. Since the communities Buettner writes about are diverse, you’re bound to find foods you already enjoy represented. (I’ve been cooking a lot of the dishes from Costa Rica lately, personally.)

If you like cookbooks with great photos, you’ll love this book. National Geographic photographer David McLain’s images are really beautiful.

Baking Across America

I scored a used copy of United Cakes of America by Warren Brown at a Fargo Public Library book sale and it’s one of my favorite used book finds ever. (And that’s saying something — I’m a quite a treasure hunter.) Traveling through food is always fun, but experiencing the U.S. through the country’s cakes is a trip.

I’ve been working my way through, pulling out recipes to bake with my kiddo on a whim and they’ve all been fantastic. The Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake (inspired by the original Toll House cookies in Whitman, Massachusetts) might just be our favorite. But making the Coca-Cola Cake from Georgia (all gooey marshmallows and soda) and the super chocolaty Texas Sheet Cake (shown above) was especially fun. The batter textures were unlike anything I’ve ever made.

Brown’s icing recipes are my new favorites. His buttercream (shown in the first photo in this post) and chocolate butter cream are my new go-to choices for pretty much any cake. They’re a little labor intensive, but totally worth it.

A fun (and slightly retro) global food sampler

Betty Crocker’s New International Cookbook was my first introduction to food from outside of North America, other than traditional holiday foods passed down from Norwegian ancestors and Americanized Italian food. (I didn’t really even eat Chinese food growing up, which makes me seem really sheltered when I think about it.)

So when I picked this up batter-stained cookbook in my high school Home Ec class, it blew my mind.  I distinctly remember making Scotch Eggs and a particularly good Sri Lankan flatbread (the first time my young self had ever cooked with coconut) and feeling like those countries had sprung to life in some old classroom map etched into my brain. I drove to Fargo to shop at small markets I never knew existed, tracking down ingredients that seemed exotic to me, but were just normal pantry staples for other people.

The recipes have been adjusted for an American palate, but I have such a soft spot in my heart for the first cookbook that ever challenged me. It’s been out of print for years, but if you’re a nerd like me, you can still find a used copy to use as an accessible overview to see which types of cuisines you’d like to learn more about.

Study Spain through its food

The Food Of Spain by Claudia Roden is part history book, part visual art, part cookbook, this is actually one of my favorite volumes about Spain, period. Its table of contents organized by historical influences, region and recipes, which gives you an idea of how comprehensive this volume is.

In addition to food, Roden also covers Spanish wine, ancient trade routes, great kings and queens and Moorish architecture. I’ve been known to pull this book down to look for a recipe and completely lose track of time. It doesn’t hurt that the photos are like something out of a travel magazine.

The author interviews local experts for a very deep dive into the elements of Spanish cuisine. So not only do you get excellent, time-tested recipes for specialities like empanadas, flan and tortilla española (and  a host of lesser known but equally delicious recipes from every corner of the country) they’re developed by people who have perfected them.

What about you?
How are you traveling through food while social distancing?
Which food destination is your favorite?
What’s your favorite cookbook?
Which region of the world do you want to visit when we’re able to travel again?

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

4 Comments

    • Thanks! I think we need to find all kinds of ways to get out of our own heads these days.

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