How Reading Fiction Can Make You A Better Cook

by | Apr 29, 2013

Photo by » Zitona «

It’s a little known fact that before I became interested in neuroscience (which was well before I became interested in food) I spent three years as a literature major at Berkeley. The power of language to whisk us away to other worlds, different times and even into other people’s minds never ceases to astound me.

Fiction can often give me a better glimpse into a culture than even visiting, since the amount of time and exploration required to really get a sense for the mindset and lifestyle of the people who live there is substantial, and vacation time is typically limited.

Excellent works of fiction transform me as a person as I internalize the vibe of a book, and what I read has the power to influence what music I listen to, how I dress, and even how I eat. When a book really pulls me in its hold can last for weeks or even months at a time.

For instance, it’s impossible for me to read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Riseswhich I’ve done several times, without craving Spanish tapas and red wine for the better part of a month (this is also why Spanish food is one of my favorite cuisines). The Last Chinese Chef had me exploring obscure alleyways in Chinatown in search of the best dumplings and peking duck, and before reading it I would have said Chinese food wasn’t really my jam.

Midnight’s Children, the meta-award winning book by Salman Rushdie, forever changed the way I think and feel about Indian food. Spices and heat permeate the characters and events in Midnight’s Children, which is one of the literary tools Rushdie uses to portray his native culture. My obsession with Indian food lasted for months as I read this and other works by Rushdie, since I couldn’t stop reading him after finishing the first.

Initially this manifested as more trips to my favorite Indian restaurants, but eventually it led me to spend more time in the spice aisles at the grocery store and cook more Indian food at home. As I got into it I bought myself some Indian cookbooks and found an Indian grocery where I could get specialty ingredients. It was certainly one of the more delicious times in my life.

Though I don’t cook as much Indian food now as I did during that phase, the time I spent experimenting with Indian food at home gave me a decent sense of how flavors work together in the cuisine. I can now improvise with these tastes in the kitchen and often hint at them in various dishes that I cook without going all in. For example, instead of making a full curry dish I might make a yogurt and curry marinade for lamb, or add cumin, coriander and chilies to spice up my lentil salad.

One of the best ways to become a better cook is to care about what you’re making. Trying to recreate flavors you’ve had in restaurants or even just read about in books can help you dive deeper into a cuisine and get a better understanding of how tastes and textures interplay to make those characteristic flavor profiles we associate with different cultures.

How has reading spiced up your kitchen?

Originally published May 21, 2012.

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25 Responses to “How Reading Fiction Can Make You A Better Cook”

  1. Hilary says:

    “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto gave me my first inkling that cooking could be an engrossing, healing, enjoyable experience. The main character recovers from a major loss in this novella in part by throwing herself into the world of cooking. Although I’m still not much of a cook, Yoshimoto’s book definitely opened my eyes to the simple beauty of a well-appointed, well-used kitchen.

    Wikipedia page about “Kitchen”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen_%28novel%29

  2. @dudeslife says:

    back in the 80s and 90s Weis & Hickman got so tired of fielding requests for recipes from their Dragonlance novels, that they released Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home that featured recipes on how to make Otik’s Spiced Potatoes, Gully Dwarf Stew and other goodies.

  3. Rachel says:

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed my cooking being influenced by what I’m reading, but it makes sense. I know that my speech and behavior changes to be more in line with the main character in my book (especially in classic literature!). I’m sure there’s a subconscious change in what I want to eat and cook, as well. Now I’m going to have to start watching for this pattern.

  4. Reading the Hunger Games had me craving dandelion salad and especially the lamb stew with dried plums which led to a great blog post and even a contest win. The food throughout that trilogy was amazing and helped the author define the culture she was trying to portray.

  5. Darrin says:

    I’ve been reading the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R. R. Martin recently, the novels that the hit HBO show Game of Thrones is based on.

    It’s INSANE how food-centric it is. Lots of feasts described in vivid detail. There’s even a blog written by a couple fans who recreate these meals, and they have a cookbook coming out soon.

    Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels from the 50s and early 60s had a lot of great food descriptions as well.

    One of the stories actually contains an excellent recipe for scrambled eggs that I still use to this day. (Spoiler alert: it includes a LOT more butter than any recipe would dare suggest now!)

  6. Elaine says:

    Reading Eat, Pray, Love actually resulted in trips to both Italy and Bali! (Haven’t made it to India yet.) Those two trips were also food explorations for me and I treated myself to a cooking class in Umbria. So yes, you’re so right. When we read, we learn more about that culture and sometimes we’re inspired to actually visit.

  7. Wonderful post Darya – and just what I needed to inspire myself to get off the internet and go read those books I just checked out of the library. It can be hard to get motivated to properly read a book these days (although Im sure there have always been distractions available… prior to the internet I remember spending a lot of time listening to music and just totally zoning out…) BUT it’s so worth it. It’s also really easy to feel reading fiction is a bit of an indulgence and that you’d get more from reading relevant intelligent blogs – of which I consider yours to be one obv! BUT it’s not. Good fiction makes us more intelligent, more compassionate, more worldly.. and more hungry… !? :)

  8. M.E. says:

    I am so enamored of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series that I now keep a bag or two of Trader Joe’s frozen artichoke hearts in my freezer at all times. I like them fried. I have a copy of Leon’s cookbook, too, but I’ve been too busy making tapas like the ones available here in Jose Andres’s Jaleo. It’s taken me a while to perfect Jaleo’s sausage and beans dish named after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but I can’t get enough of it. That and the fried artichoke hearts.

  9. Lou Doench says:

    Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos stories portray him as a bit of a Gourmand, in fact the book Dzur is centered around a gourmet meal at a fancy restaurant.

  10. Karin says:

    Great post – thanks! I’m sure you’re right – I’m a great fan of Asian-themed crime fiction, and a great fan of Asian food. There’s nothing quite like recreating the dishes you read about in books ;-)

  11. Ged says:

    When the Book Group I belong to began about four years ago we used to meet at a central meeting place and share a bottle or three of wine and some nibbles. Gradually this changed to hosting the meeting at our houses and we began to reflect the books we read in the food we provided, and this has now become an established, though not obligatory, custom. So far we have “visited” Afghanistan, India, Italy by way of Japan (Murakami’s hero in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle constantly eats spaghetti bolognese in Tokyo!), the Balkans, Turkey and most recently a delicious meal of Carribean fish balls and coconut and mango salad (Small Island by Andrea Levy). We loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett, but declined to serve Chocolate Pie at that meeting …

  12. Lynn says:

    The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capelli is a lovely story. It is infused with authentic Italian cooking. Since my father is Italian, it felt like I was cooking alongside my ancestors…

    • Darya Rose says:

      Thanks! Is it about weddings? If so I think I need at least a year before I can handle it ;)

      • Lynn says:

        LOL! It takes place during WW II, in Italy, and a British officer is sent to oversee the applications of soldiers who want to marry local girls. I don’t think it will overwhelm you. It has a love story, a lot of history, Italian geography, and if course, FOOD! I mean, REAL FOOD, not the stuff wrapped in cellophane. Here is Amazon.com’s description: “Captain James Gould arrives in wartime Naples assigned to discourage marriages between British soldiers and their gorgeous Italian girlfriends. But the innocent young officer is soon distracted by an intoxicating young widow who knows her way around a kitchen…Livia Pertini is creating feasts that stun the senses with their succulence—ruby-colored San Marzana tomatoes, glistening anchovies, and delectable new potatoes encrusted with the black volcanic earth of of Campania—and James is about to learn that his heart may rank higher than his orders. For romance can be born of the sweet and spicy passions of food and love—and time spent in the kitchen can be as joyful and exciting as the banquet of life itself!”

  13. Paloma says:

    This is an older novel at this point, but agree on the “Eat. Pray. Love” reference. I wanted to do nothing more than cook classic Italian dishes (not just pasta – I’m talking Roman-style artichokes, salads with anchovies, grilled branzino, etc.) for weeks. And it goes without saying that this theory applies to film, as well. I’m Spanish, and anytime I see Spain depicted in film or photography, I have a rather Pavlovian response to crave boquerones, tortilla and patatas bravas.

  14. Paloma says:

    This is an older novel at this point, but agree on the “Eat. Pray. Love” reference. I wanted to do nothing more than cook classic Italian dishes (not just pasta – I’m talking Roman-style artichokes, salads with anchovies, grilled branzino, etc.) for weeks. And it goes without saying that this theory applies to film, as well. I’m Spanish, and anytime I see Spain depicted in film or photography, I have a rather Pavlovian response to crave boquerones, tortilla and patatas bravas.

    http://slimpickingsbypaloma.blogspot.com/

  15. Val says:

    The book Julie and Julia definitely got me inspired to do more in the kitchen as far as cooking fresh instead of packaged and processed. Then when I saw the movie, it just reinforced that.

  16. Tom4Surfing says:

    One of the things I enjoy about Tom Corcoran’s Alex Rutledge novels is that he describes what song is playing in the background, exactly what brand vehicle (boat, bike, motorcycle, car, etc.) is being used, the scent of specific plants, and so on.

    I have added songs to my playlist and wines to my shopping list because I thought, “If that character likes St. Supery Vintu, I probably will, too.”

    In fact, I just bought Bustelo coffee because that is what Alex drinks. I won’t be switching but it was a fun thing to try.

    Books are an easy way to try on a life different from our own. I love that you bring that cerebral concept into your concrete world.

  17. Alexandra says:

    Haruki Murakami’s 1q84 took place in Tokyo but most the the food described was western, a very strange book, but a good one and the food had me drooling. Almost any book by Isaac Bashevis Singer has lavish descriptions of old world Jewish food.
    And Lastly while reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had me craving cheese sandwiches with pickles on dark bread.

    And lets not even get into the Game of Thrones novels, the guy can write about food.

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