New cookbooks are often released in time for the holidays, and for good reason: They make great gifts.
Four new titles by East Bay authors are bound to make the food lover in your life appreciative to receive such a thoughtful gift, and as a group, the books are representative of how many of us are eating — and thinking — today. One is vegan, one is vegetarian, and all four are by members of historically and systemically marginalized groups.
One is by local food celebrity chef Bryant Terry, while the other three are by authors you might not have heard of (yet), all of whom got their start with work published online. Three out of four are first cookbooks, including from a 67-year-old first-time author (proof that it’s never too late). Three of the authors either live in Oakland or grew up there.
Here’s a bit about each, as well as a few of the most mouth-watering recipes to help you decide if this book would be a good fit for someone you know (or yourself).
Provecho: 100 Vegan Mexican Recipes to Celebrate Culture and Community
Author: Edgar Castrejón
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Must try recipes: Jackfruit tinga tostadas; mushroom spinach empanadas; sweet potato and kale tacos
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Raised in East Oakland, Castrejón is from the new school of cookbook authorship: Use social media to gain a following – in this case, Instagram – and then get a cookbook deal. From a young age, Castrejón remembers hanging out in the kitchen as preparing for the meal was a multi-generational family affair. “Family dinners and celebrations didn’t start when we sat down at the table,” he writes. “They started hours earlier in the kitchen, chopping onions or simmering a pot of stew. Cooking wasn’t considered work that had to be done before the party started. Cooking was the party.”
A child of immigrants from the state of Michoacán, elaborate, braised meat dishes like carnitas were always on the menu. Castrejón began losing interest in meat as a child; perhaps that his uncle tapped him to help him kill chickens had something to do with it. When he went away to college – the first in his family to do so – he became vegetarian, and when he had to look after some cows on campus, he resolved to never eat an animal product again.
While he knew converting family members to veganism was a lost cause, he set out to prove that he could come up with versions of the dishes they love that they would enjoy just as much, at least sometimes, without the meat. His fillings range from jackfruit (which gives the same consistency as pulled pork or chicken) to tofu to various kinds of mushrooms. He isn’t above using Impossible meat for ground beef. He makes his own crema and queso fresco using nuts.
Cowritten with cookbook author Susan Choung, Provecho – which, in Spanish, means to make the most of a meal – is an excellent guide to veganizing a cuisine that many might consider too meaty to attempt.
Mumbai Modern: Vegetarian Recipes Inspired by Indian Roots and California Cuisine
Author: Amisha Dodhia Gurbani
Publisher: Countryman Press
Must try recipes: Pear and chai masala cinnamon rolls; caramelized onion, fontina, and samosa tart; kumquat and black sesame bundt cake with lemon icing and candied kumquats
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“One never knows what will become a defining moment in one’s life,” Fremont resident Amisha Dodhia Gurbani writes.
It was at her mother’s funeral, where relatives gathered to cooperatively cook her mother’s favorite meal, a dish called undhiyoo, that “I promised her, looking into the sky, that I would write her the cookbook you are holding now, to pass down her legacy and all that she has taught me. She was the most important person in my life, and as a tribute to her, this book keeps her and her love for food in our hearts forever.” As someone whose love of food also came from her mom’s influence, and who also lost her mother too young, reading how this book came to be brought tears to my eyes.
Gurbani’s story starts in the Indian state of Gujarat, though she herself never lived there; it’s where her family came from to live in Mumbai. Similar to how Castrejón describes his youth, Gurbani was drawn to the kitchen at an early age. One of her earliest memories, she says, is holding the end of her mother’s saree while watching her cook, and by the age of 10, she could cook a complete thali meal herself (which is usually composed of five to six dishes).
There was precedent for moving across the world in her family; her maternal grandparents had started a business in Uganda, and many of her mother’s family had immigrated to the United Kingdom. At 22, Gurbani came to Los Angeles to obtain a master’s degree in computer science at U.S.C. Her mother sent her off with the traditional masala dabba (metal tray and bowls) along with the spices to fill it with and various bags of lentils as a parting gift; once here, she began cooking foods from home for her new friends.
While Gurbani started her career by moving to the Bay Area and working in tech, once she had her children, she began making her own baby food. She introduced them to Indian spices early, and as an immigrant, she felt it was important to cook the foods she grew up with, so that her kids would know them and consider them part of their cultural legacy.
At the same time, she ate locally and seasonally, which her family had done back in India, and how many of us in the Bay Area do now. “My kitchen and my dishes thrive with what I get from the farmers’ market,” she writes. “My goal is to showcase the Gujarati and Indian food that I grew up with in Mumbai while using the best of the California produce all around me.”
When she began making her kids sandwiches to take to preschool, Gurbani was disturbed by the amount of sugar in commercial brands of jam and started making her own. That turned into her sharing her recipes on her Instagram account, The Jam Lab. She also began selling her creations, but running a side business while working full time wasn’t sustainable, so she started a blog as a way to keep track of her recipes and share them with others. She eventually attracted enough followers that she was offered brand partnerships – many with wine and olive oil companies – as well as offers to do recipe development and more.
Also an avid baker, Gurbani’s recipes are a mix of the savory and sweet. While many of the savory dishes sound delicious and worth trying, I was more drawn to the sweet recipes in this book. Not only are they gorgeous to behold, but they are all enhanced by spices a Western palate wouldn’t necessarily think of.
52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen
Author: Faith Kramer
Publisher: The Collective Book Studio
Must-try recipes: South Indian-inspired fish cakes with coconut-cilantro chutney; falafel pizza with feta and herbs; leek and mint fritters
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Once her children were grown, Faith Kramer started wondering what might be in store for her professionally. Pre-children, she had worked in both journalism and public relations, and she had an abiding interest in food. While Kramer’s mother was an adventurous eater and cook, she didn’t teach her daughter to cook, as much as she led her to develop an adventurous palate; Kramer taught herself cooking once she was in college. But her family did teach her about the beauty of Jewish ritual, particularly in observing Shabbat, or the Sabbath.
“For some, this dinner is just a festive meal,” Kramer writes. “For others, it is part of their religious observance. For most, Shabbat is a space to celebrate, recharge, and share with those you care for – a time to look at our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world at large.”
While many Ashkenazi (those of Eastern European descent) Jewish homes still believe that to serve anything but some kind of chicken dish on Friday night would be blasphemous, and it must be done so with challah and syrupy sweet Manischewitz or Kedem wine, Kramer comes from another school. Some years ago, she started to take mental inventory of what people she knew were serving for Shabbat dinner, and became curious about how Shabbat meals have evolved from the days when only chicken was served.
Meanwhile, she had started a blog, called Blog Appetit, and started writing a recipe column for her Oakland synagogue’s bulletin (Temple Beth Abraham). That’s how she caught the eye of an editor from J., the Bay Area’s local Jewish newspaper, who asked if she’d like to take over the recipe column, long a popular feature of the paper.
That was 12 years ago.
Now 67, Kramer has been fortunate to travel the world. Her palate is influenced by her travels, and she’s not timid about combining foods and flavors that are specifically Jewish with those that are not. She also has a working knowledge of the cuisines of Jews from around the world, who have always been greatly influenced by the countries in which they live.
Inspired by a trip to Cambodia, for example, she marinates flanken, a traditionally Jewish cut of beef, with ginger and lemongrass. She stuffs tamales with spicy beef tzimmes (a root vegetable and dried fruit stew). She flavors pot roast with the Ethiopian spice mixture Berbere. She braises her brisket in a favorite condiment of the Middle East: pomegranate molasses.
While those examples are all carnivorous, there are plenty of vegetarian dishes, too. She also explains – in brief – the rituals of Shabbat, lists further resources and offers menus made up from the dishes in the book.
Black Food: Stories, Art & Recipes from Across the African Diaspora
Editor/Curator: Bryant Terry
Publisher: 4 Color Books, an imprint of Ten Speed Press
Must-try recipes: Collards with pot likker, cornbread dumplings and green tomato chowchow (Adrian Lipscombe); jerk chicken ramen (Suzanne Barr); vegan black-eyed pea beignets with warm spiced sugar and green tomato jam (Elle Simone Scott)
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Without having read any of the other articles about this book, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t vegan, since Bryant Terry has made a name for himself – among other things – as a vegan chef. But this is a collection of recipes from other Black chefs and personalities – over 100 of them, in fact – collected by Terry, with a few of his in there, too.
“Without being overly prescriptive, I asked brilliant colleagues to offer dishes that embody their approach to cooking and draw on history and memory while looking forward,” Terry writes.
But recipes are not the only contributions. Black Food also has art, essays and poetry to inspire Black joy and expound upon the current moment we are living in, while at the same time, it offers ways to enhance rest and rejuvenation; after all, sharing a leisurely meal with friends and family is one of the most restorative methods of doing that.
Terry, who divides his time between Oakland and Napa, has always been just as much of an activist as a chef, and working on a more just and equitable food system has been part and parcel of his activism. This book furthers that conversation, with chapters on Land, Liberation & Food Justice, Black Women, Food & Power, and Black, Queer, Food. A chapter entitled Radical Self-Care offers recipes for non-edible substances like a healing rose bath soak and a vibrational okra bath. Readers of Terry’s other books will notice that there’s also the requisite playlist of songs to cook by. (For example, the food by queer Black chefs should be cooked while listening to Frank Ocean and Meshell Ndegeocello).
The book also serves as a who’s who in the Black culinary community. While some names were familiar, like food scholar Michael Twitty, who contributed an essay about migrations in Black food, and Oakland chef Lala Harrison – who is about to open her first restaurant, Roux 40 in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood – others are revelations. Others are recognizable because of their place on the national stage. Mashama Bailey, a chef in Georgia, for example, was on season six of Netflix’s Chef’s Table; she shares a recipe for smoked collard greens, with pepper vinegar and braised with an onion trinity. And more than one Top Chef contestant is featured, like James Beard award winner Nina Compton and Erik Adjepong, who in Season 16’s finale, memorably told the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in his four-course meal. Adjepong shares his dessert from that meal: corn and goat’s milk pudding with blackberry sorbet, chocolate crumble and tapioca pearls.
This book is one to savor slowly, as there is as much food for thought in it as there is food for eating. So many contributors are included, in fact, that you might want to dive deeper into their stories after you read the book. While they all get a paragraph or two to introduce their recipe, there are no contributor bios to speak of, so if we want to learn more about who they are, we have to take to the Internet ourselves to do additional research. If this mix of celebration and education is what we expect from 4 Color, Terry’s new imprint at Ten Speed Press, we have a lot to look forward to.
Featured photo of Erik Adjepong’s corn and goat’s milk pudding from Black Food. Courtesy: 4 Color Books