These cookbooks for culinary travellers on the cuisines of the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe take readers on gastronomic journeys that give insights into local life, customs and traditions as much as they teach us delicious recipes from faraway places.
While Terence has been pounding Cambodian curry pastes and perfecting his Saraman curry in our Siem Reap kitchen, I’ve had my head buried in cookbooks, travelogues and historical tomes, researching and developing our Cambodian cookbook.
In doing so, I’ve come to realise that the cookbooks that engage me the most are those that evoke a sense of place, take the reader on a culinary journey through a country or region, and provide context, history, and insights into local life, customs and traditions, as much as they share family recipes and stories.
They’re cookbooks for culinary travellers as much as they are cookbooks for home cooks – books that you’d be just as happy browsing from the sofa on a Sunday afternoon as you would cooking from on a Saturday night.
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This is the sixth instalment in our Christmas gift idea series. Click through for Classic Cookbooks for Serious Cooks for Christmas, Christmas Gifts for Asian Home Cooks, a Guide to Asian Kitchen Essentials, Christmas Gifts for Travel Photographers and Travellers Who Love Photography, Christmas Gifts for Picnic Lovers, and Travel Books to Inspire Wanderlust.
Cookbooks for Culinary Travellers – The Middle East to Eastern Europe
The following cookbooks for culinary travellers cover the exotic cuisines of the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe – some Terence and I are very familiar with, others we haven’t yet had the opportunity to discover.
Cook For Syria
Syrian cuisine has long been one of our favourite cuisines, since our first taste of cherry kebabs in Aleppo. The country has had a special place in our hearts since our first trip in 1999. The first travel guidebook we wrote for Lonely Planet was Syria and Lebanon and we criss-crossed the country to research that book, becoming smitten with Syria and Syrian people in the process.
We’d love to be recommending a cookbook by Syrian cooks, but Cook for Syria is the next best thing for now and it tops my list of cookbooks for culinary travellers. #CookforSyria started as a fundraiser conceived by London-based Australian social media influencer, ‘Clerkenwell Boy’.
Restaurants added Syrian dishes to their menus and donated profits from the dish to UNICEF’s Syria Fund. The initiative captured imaginations and charity dinners and supper clubs followed, along with this beautiful not-for-profit recipe book.
All proceeds from sales are donated to UNICEF and contributors include chefs Fergus Henderson, Angela Hartnett, Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi, and cookbook author Olia Hercules (see below).
The Palestinian Table
As a result of having Palestinian friends when we lived in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and adoring Palestinian films and the insight they gave into life there, I was desperate to eat Palestinian food in Palestine, especially when I learned many of the UAE’s Arabic restaurant kitchens were filled with Palestinian chefs.
Unfortunately our UAE resident visas prohibited us from travelling to Israel, making things tricky. Soon after leaving the UAE, we were serendipitously commissioned to do a story that took us to Ramallah. Sadly, we didn’t have time to savour the food and interrogation by Israeli soldiers on the way back to Jerusalem deterred us from returning. One day…
In the meantime, there’s The Palestinian Table by Reem Kassis to occupy me, with plenty of historical context, personal anecdotes and an insight into the Palestinian family kitchen. There are over 150 authentic Palestinian recipes, from breakfasts through to salads and dishes for celebratory feasts.
The recipes make dishes spanning three generations of family traditions. There’s stuffed grape leaves with lamb chops, chicken stuffed with spiced rice, meat and pine nuts, and meat dumplings in yoghurt sauce. This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers who have munched their way through the Middle East but may not have made it to Palestine.
Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration From the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea
Just as Palestinians staffed many Lebanese and Jordanian restaurants when we lived in the UAE, Pakistanis filled many Indian kitchens, although the UAE also had its fair share of Pakistani restaurants.
Pakistani cuisine has subtle nuances that distinguish it from the cuisines of its neighbours, India, Afghanistan and Iran, as food writer and cooking instructor Sumayya Usmani reveals in Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration From the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea, a follow up to her Summers Under the Tamarind Tree.
In this book, Usmani explores the role of Pakistani desserts in the country’s culinary culture through 70 family recipes for everything from sugary treats that accompany coffee to extravagant desserts enjoyed at weddings.
In doing so, she takes us on a culinary journey from Pakistan’s south, where influences from across the Arabian Sea can be tasted in saffron and cardamom-laced sweets, to the northern foothills of the mountainous Hindu Kush, where delights featuring locally grown fruit and berries are ubiquitous. This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers for whom a meal is incomplete without dessert.
Chai, Chaat & Chutney: a Street Food Journey Through India
In Chai, Chaat and Chutney: a Street Food Journey Through India, cookbook author Chetna Makan, a former fashion designer with a passion for baking, takes readers with her on a culinary adventure as she explores the street food of cities from “the four corners of India” – Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, and Chennai.
Taking inspiration from those very streets, Makan has created tantalising recipes that are easy to cook at home, including Southern street food favourites such as tamarind stuffed chillies and Sticky Bombay chicken to northern street food specialties like cardamom and pistachio kulfi and pani puri.
I haven’t been back to India in an embarrassingly long time, despite having friends who live there, but browsing Makan’s book is seriously tempting me back. This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers for whom a food adventure is best enjoyed from the footpath.
The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen
British-Iranian cook Yasmin Khan did what I dream of doing in my Russian-Ukrainian grandparents homeland one day. Fuelled by memories of the family farm in the lush seaside province of Gilan, Khan travelled the length and breadth of the country.
She travelled from Tehran, with its atmospheric cafés, to Tabriz and its stupendous mountains, with supposedly little more than a notebook and bottle of pomegranate molasses (well, some of us carry their own Sriracha, right).
During her quest to identify the most delicious recipes she could find, Khan was welcomed into the kitchens of everyone from farmers to artists, teachers to electricians, gaining an insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people, as much as their culinary secrets.
The result, The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen is a collection of modern recipes rooted in old traditions and includes Persian specialties such as fesenjoon (chicken with walnuts and pomegranates) and kofte berenji (lamb meatballs stuffed with prunes and barberries).
There are loads of vegetarian dishes, recipes for various flatbreads, and wonderful treats, such as a rose and almond cake. This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers who dream of discovering Persia as much as Iran.
Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus
One of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia, at a crossroads on the Silk Road, with India to the south, China to the east and Persia to the West, Samarkand has at times been one of Central Asia’s most prosperous cities.
Since Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 BC, countless invaders and traders – Greeks, Persians, Turks, Arabs, Chinese, Mongols, Russians, and more – have left their mark. It’s a cuisine and culinary culture that couldn’t be anything but intriguing to people like us.
Yet Caroline Eden, who covered the region for years as a travel writer, and collaborated on this beautiful book with food writer-editor and recipe developer Eleanor Ford, said she was motivated to write it by the countless guidebooks that dismissed the cuisine as survival fare.
Their focus in Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus is the food influenced by ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russian, Turkis, Koryo-Saram, Jewish, Caucasus, Afghan – so expect to drool over mouth-watering images of lamb kebabs with cinnamon, cloves and hot hummus, and spicy meatballs with adjika and yoghurt.
This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers for whom food and travel are incomplete without the other.
Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond
Still in Central Asia, Georgia and Iran seem to be two of the hottest destinations right now in a region that is sizzling. Every chef, culinary writer and food-lover I know seems to have been or is heading to one of those countries. I’m so envious – both have been on my wish list for years. Kicking ourselves we didn’t get to them all those years we lived in the UAE.
But I can travel there now through this award-winning cookbook Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond by Olia Hercules, who takes her readers on a tantalising adventure through the Caucasus – that exotic region that serves as a cultural bridge between Europe and Asia. There are over 100 recipes for dishes from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
Even if you’re not familiar with the food of the area, you’ll recognise elements from more familiar dishes from Europe and the Middle East and gain a new appreciation for how food travels. This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers who relish making sense of history through food.
Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking
As an Australian of Russian heritage who has travelled and eaten in Russia, I was so disappointed by the Russian food in New York. Fortunately, the food of Bonnie Morales, owner-chef of a Russian restaurant in Portland in the USA, called Kachka, looks so much more delicious (and fun!) compared to what we sampled. It reminds me of the food I grew up eating in my grandparents’ home.
The just-released 400-page cookbook, Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking is crammed with recipes for Russian specialties – from platters of zakuski (drinking snacks) and chicken Kiev to kasha-stuffed suckling pig and a popular dish from her restaurant, Herring Under a Fur Coat.
There are also recipes for drinks, including the restaurants beet cocktail and infused vodkas, as well as plenty of personal anecdotes and guides to everything from Russian tea culture to caviar, and instructions for drinking like a Russian.
This is one of the best cookbooks for culinary travellers for whom there can be no eating without drinking. Read it with a bottle of Stoli and bowl of gherkins by your side.