Baklava from 'Flavors of Oakland.' Photo: Anya Ku
Baklava from ‘Flavors of Oakland.’ Photo: Anya Ku

When I first heard about a cookbook being written by two teenagers, I must admit that I didn’t expect much. I knew the co-authors were enthusiastic, and that one of the two had experience working in well-regarded Oakland restaurant kitchens. I knew they had a good idea — telling a story of Oakland’s diversity through recipes — but I couldn’t imagine that two full-time students with no publishing experience could pull off anything more impressive than a culinary ‘zine.

I was wrong, of course.

“Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories” is a solid, honest-to-goodness cookbook with tested recipes and a spine that thankfully allows for any page to stay open when flopped on the kitchen counter. It weaves together 20 very different life stories of home cooks from every nook and cranny of the city, while offering a quirky and fairly comprehensive array of recipes.

Flavors of Oakland cookbook cover

Co-authors Anya Ku and Elazar Sontag spent over a year visiting, cooking with and photographing their subjects; they learned how to cook everything from pork-filled potstickers with homemade wrappers to banana leaf-wrapped Hawaiian lau lau. They even had a contributor teach them to make rainbow-colored M&M challah bread — the O.G. rainbow bagel.

Each recipe is prefaced by a narrative story, written by Sontag, that describes each home cook’s background, path to cooking and, often, thoughts about the changing state of the city. Sontag writes with friendly confidence, but he lets the cook’s stories shine. It is easy to sense his curiosity and enthusiasm throughout the text, and it it is very clear when he and Ku are learning something totally new.

That inquisitiveness and honesty is one of the “Flavors’” biggest assets. It is easy to forgive its flaws (occasional typos and inconsistent recipes) because of the book’s spirit. Most cookbooks published today approach their subjects from the perspective of an expert — whether that person be a famous chef, a popular paleo blogger or a food scientist. These books can be useful references and lovely aspirational reading, but they all too often feel like carbon copies, and know-it-all copies at that.

Anya Ku (center) and Elazar Sontag (right) with friend Keith Walcott (left). Photo courtesy: Anya Ku
Anya Ku (center) and Elazar Sontag (right) with friend Keith Walcott (left). Photo Courtesy: Anya Ku

Instead, both authors of “Flavors” approach their subject as a learning experience, and us, as readers, get to learn right alongside them. And the great thing about learning from home cooks is that there is far more often a casual friendliness to the food, as well as a greater effort to teach, rather than demonstrate. Recipes are relaxed, techniques are flexible.

While studying the recipe for Lawtell gumbo, you can see Johnny demonstrating to Sontag when the roux is finished. “You may be convinced at the point that you have burnt the oil and flour mixture, but this dark toasted roux is what gives the gumbo such a rich and delicious flavor,” Sontag writes. The temperature of the oil for Kim’s fried catfish isn’t measured; a pinch of cornmeal tossed into the hot fat sizzles when ready. Tricky maneuvers like wrapping food in banana leaves aren’t taken too seriously — if you tear a leaf, just try again with a new one.

At the same time, some recipes are detailed and exact. As you read Sontag’s description of Tibetan logo momo, you can hear Yangki’s admonition to leave the steaming bread alone until the exact moment the steam is fully absorbed. Chung’s tofu and vegetables in his ma po tofu and hot and sour soup are sliced into measured pieces. Jackie’s potsticker recipe requires close attention to detail in order to master the pleated shape.

This diversity of recipe style, in addition to the range of cuisine, makes “Flavors” read more like a community cookbook than a professional tome. And that’s a good thing. Like those old-school crowd-sourced pamphlets, “Flavors” is, above everything, a depiction of the community of Oakland at this exact time in history. It illustrates a city on the cusp of great social change, advocating for all of us to hold tight to the people that make Oakland great.

Baklava from 'Flavors of Oakland.' Photo: Anya Ku
Baklava from ‘Flavors of Oakland.’ Photo: Anya Ku

Recipe: Baklava

Makes 30-35 portions

Baklava requires a resting time of eight to 24 hours before eating. The phyllo should be defrosted in the refrigerator for eight to 12 hours before using.

1 pound (4 cups) shelled walnuts, chopped finely or run through the food processor
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 sticks sweet unsalted butter (8 ounces)
1 pound phyllo dough, defrosted in the refrigerator overnight

3/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice

For the baklava
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Combine 1/2 cup of the sugar with the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add walnuts and mix well. Melt the butter.

Brush the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with a light layer of melted butter and place two folded sheets of phyllo in the pan. If the sheets do not not fit nicely in the pan use a pairing knife to cut them down to size. While you work, make sure to keep the phyllo sheets covered with a lightly dampened towel; otherwise the dough dries out and becomes fragile and brittle.

Brush the top layer of phyllo liberally and gently with butter so as not to tear it. Spread a thin layer of nut mixture over the phyllo; each nut layer gets about a half cup of nut mixture. Place another folded sheet in the pan, brush with butter but do not add nuts. It is okay if some layers of phyllo tear when they are being picked up; they can be pieced back together. Place another folded sheet, brush with butter, and spread a thin layer of nut mixture over the top. Continue to alternate between butter only and nut and butter layers until you have run out of nuts. Do not put butter or nuts on your final sheet of phyllo.

With a sharp knife, cut the pan of baklava lengthwise in 1-inch strips then cut diagonally from one corner to the other through the middle of the pan. Continue cutting on this same diagonal working from the middle outwards on both sides. This will create diamond shaped pieces. Before baking, place a clove in the top of each segment; they will serve as a toothpick and will hold the pieces together nicely.

Dab one last liberal helping of butter over the top of each piece. Bake the baklava for one hour, or until lightly browned. Approximately 10 minutes before the baklava is done, make the syrup.

For the syrup
In a small saucepan combine the water, sugar, honey, and lemon juice. Boil the mixture for ten minutes on medium heat. If the syrup is crystalizing and sticking to the sides of the pan add several more drops of lemon juice.

Once the baklava is finished, pour the syrup evenly over the tray of baklava.

Allow the Baklava to rest and absorb the syrup for eight to 24 hours before arranging on a large platter and serving.

Recipe reprinted courtesy of “Flavors of Oakland” by Anya Ku and Elazar Sontag. Copyright 2016, Flavors Press. All rights reserved.

Learn more about “Flavors of Oakland” and connect with the project on Instagram. The book is available in local shops and bookstores. JCC East Bay will be holding a talk with the authors and Nosh contributor Alix Wall on June 30 at 7:30 p.m. Find more information about the event here.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...