Six Degrees of Separation: From The Naked Chef to Like Water for Chocolate

We have an unusual starting book for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. Our host Kathy at Books Are My Favourite And Best has chosen Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef as our chain inspiration. I haven’t read anyone else’s chains yet, as is my wont, but I’m looking forward to seeing how we all fare. If you’re unfamiliar with this literary meme, you can find the rules here.

The Naked Chef is widely held to be ground breaking in the way it presented cooking as being for everyone – even men! We don’t have any Jamie Oliver cookbooks in our house. He’s not a favourite. We do like A Modern Way to Eat, though, which is by one of Oliver’s apprentices from his Fifteen initiative.

In this collection, Anna Jones has brought together 200 vegetarian recipes that go beyond what most people think of as vegetarian food. It’s arranged by mealtimes, centred on sharing with family and friends, and Jones’s Huevos Rancheros is a go to holiday breakfast treat. The book also contains a recipe for what is known among our friends as ‘THAT tomato and coconut cassoulet‘, possibly the most comforting stew you’ll ever encounter.

Another vegetarian and vegan cookbook that excites the palate is Rukmini Iyer’s The Green Roasting Tin. The contents are one pot recipes, all made in a roasting tin, and it is one of the most used books in our kitchen. The recipes are arranged by the amount of time you need to prepare and cook them, so you can eat fresh no matter how busy you might be. Iyer brings British Indian influences to European recipes and creates heaven in a dish. A particular favourite of ours is her take on the Catalan dish Escalivada.

Meera Sodha’s East is another fusion cookbook full of vegetarian and vegan delights. Sodha travels around South and East Asia, from India to Indonesia, Singapore to Japan, via China, Thailand, and Vietnam, gathering together dishes that she then makes her own. Mr Hicks and I love the Japanese dish Katsu Karē (cat-su cah-rey), a breaded cutlet (the katsu) in a sweet curry sauce (the karē). Sodha’s version is an aubergine cutlet served with a carrot curry sauce, with homemade pickles. It’s a contender for ‘if I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life’ status.

Another cook who mixes up cuisines to inspire new dishes is Ruby Tandoh. Some may remember her from The Great British Bake Off. Her baking book Crumb is amazing, but I’m going to talk instead about Cook As You Are. This book is an attempt to demystify cooking for those who think they don’t have time or who are overwhelmed by the idea of gathering together ingredients and cooking from scratch. Tandoh has written recipes filled with asides that steer the reader towards easily swapped-in alternatives they’re likely to have in the cupboard. Her recipes are easy to follow and always work. Not everything in the book is vegetarian, but one of our favourites is Chilli Stewed Greens with Black Eyed Beans, Tandoh’s take on the Yoruba dish efo riro. It’s another comforting hug of a meal. I can’t find the recipe online, but there is a free-to-download easy read version of ten of the recipes from the book here.

I could talk about other vegetarian cookbooks I’ve known and loved, like Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More, or Delia’s Vegetarian Collection, or the first vegetarian cookbook I owned, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, but I’m going to jump from cookbooks to fiction now. Two books that I love that have food at the heart of them, in a way similar to that of the cookbooks I’ve chosen, in that food is life, love, memory and emotion, are The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Bender’s book is bizarre and magical. It has Rose as its central character, a girl who can taste every emotion felt during the making of a dish. She mainly becomes inadvertently party to her mother’s emotions, as it’s her unhappy mother who cooks the family meals. For me, Rose choosing not to eat the food her mother makes is a version of the children of the 70s and 80s who rejected the meat and two veg tradition of their parents and chose vegetarianism.

Esquivel’s novel is also bizarre and magical. In it, the central character Tita can only express herself when she cooks. Tita is trapped by a family tradition that says the youngest daughter may never marry but must look after her parents into old age. The book is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, and each chapter has a recipe. The recipes are linked to what is going on in Tita’s life and produce dishes through which she lets her family know how she’s feeling. The ending is triumphant.

I began with an array of vegetarian cookbooks that encapsulate the importance of food to mental as well as physical health, then hopped over to fiction to explore how our mental health might impact on and be detected in the meals that we make. Food is important to me and, at low points in my life, has been difficult too, leading to disordered eating. The joy in the cookbooks I’ve chosen above, and particularly the campaigning work that Ruby Tandoh does against the shaming of food, have been helpful to me in making peace with how I eat.

What an interesting first book to leap off from. Where would your chain take you? Why not find out what other readers have joined together by visiting Kathy’s post?


11 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From The Naked Chef to Like Water for Chocolate

    1. Lemon Cake is great. I think about it often, particularly her brother, who has his own existential thing going on.

      I’ve made myself so hungry I’m going to have to pick a recipe before we go food shopping!


  1. Love how all of your choices ate centred around food. All the cookbooks are new to me, but one’s I’d love to explore. I’ve been vegetarian 10 years now and while we do have a really rich range of cuisine in India, I always love exploring new recipes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Both East and The Green Roasting Tin are among my go-to cookery books. I eventually got round to reading Like Water for Chocolate, and nearly included it in my chain. But I didn’t really get in with it, so left it out in the end. I think I’ll hunt out the Tandoh on your recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the magical realism makes Like Water for Chocolate a polarising book. I know someone who becomes irate at how much she dislikes it!

      Definitely hunt out the Tandoh. We’re still exploring it, but what we’ve made so far has been perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how you did this chain and the link you’ve highlighted between food and mental health. I definitely find food a significant part of my experience of the world and integral to how I feel. I’m interested to look into some of these cookbooks – the picture on the front of The Green Roasting Tin makes my mouth water!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oooh another delicious chain! You’ve introduced me to several new and exciting-sounding cookbooks here, Jan, and reminded me that I have long intended to acquire The Green Roasting Tin. I like the sound of both the fiction choices you’ve chosen too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been a good month for deliciousness, hasn’t it? Clever Kathy choosing a cookbook! Definitely get a copy of the Green Roasting Tin, Sandra. It has revolutionised our cooking and got us out of the rut of the same handful of dishes in rotation.

      Liked by 1 person

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