Beyond Borders: Exploring Cookbooks, Expanding Horizons

This season of One Book, One Chicago, we explore the theme Beyond Borders and the book Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. One of the ways I love to explore the world is through cooking. I know the universal language is technically mathematics, but in my experience food is a great way to learn about a culture. I’ve picked some recent cookbooks that speak to the immigrant experience. Not only are they thought-provoking, they’re inspiring me to make some new dishes. (If you'd like to see me try my hand at expanding my cooking borders, you can watch me try some recipes on Snacks in the Stacks.)

Alvin Cailan learned how to make perfect rice from his father. His great-grandmother taught him how to make lumpia. Even after working in fancy restaurants, starting his own food truck (breakfast-themed Eggslut) and opening his own restaurant, Cailan never forgot the classic flavors of his youth. This cookbook is full of personality, funny anecdotes and awesome recipes. As one of the premier Filipino-American chefs in the country, Cailan has written Amboy as both a love letter to his heritage and to delicious food.

Esteban Castillo grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., less than two hours from the Mexican border. The food he ate growing up reflected the unique blend of Mexican and American cultures that makes up Chicano cuisine. In both Spanish and English, using traditional and local ingredients, and adapting nostalgic recipes to make them his own, Castillo uses Chicano Eats to introduce us to food that is both familiar and surprising.

I treasure the recipes that I have from my grandmothers. They are an important part of my repertoire. So it makes sense to assume that eight grandmothers would have an incalculable wealth of information. Each country featured in this cookbook is part of the spice trade. Think Madagascar vanilla or peri-peri from South Africa. Each story that the grandmothers share reflects the history of the area and the people who live there, including echoes of colonialism and fascinating cultural nuances. Africa is often incorrectly represented as a monolith, but In Bibi's Kitchen seeks to widen the perspective of “African food” in the Western world and beyond.

Even though I’ve been told for years that Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, I can count the times I’ve had Polish food on one hand! And usually that means pierogis. Fresh From Poland, touted as the first Polish vegetarian cookbook, offers a different look at what is traditionally considered a meat-heavy cuisine. Michal Korkosz combines stories about his grandmother, descriptions of a standard Polish pantry and podwieczorek (a sweet meal between lunch and dinner) to create a delightful depiction of growing up in Poland. And he gives lots of substitutes for hard-to-find ingredients. Shouldn’t be a problem in Chicago, right?

I would love to hear about any great cookbooks you’ve been looking at recently. And feel free to share any secret family recipes you’ve got in the comments, too! Just be sure to check with Grandma and make sure it’s OK first.