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 Rises, which 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.