The act of cooking a meal can bring so much more to the table than just, well, dinner. There's the sustenance and comfort of that food, but what's also built into the sauce or dropped into the pot is a sometimes invisible and highly complex ingredient list that can include tradition, community, history, geography, art, religion and politics. Every country's cuisine reflects that list and the journey its cooks took to your table. American cooking reflects more journeys than most, its collective cuisine assembled almost entirely from the suitcases and memories of generations of immigrants. A new cookbook, published last month by Interlink Books, celebrates this multicultural recipe box, giving voice to the myriad chefs and their traditions as it puts their food on our menu — and, more subtly, their politics on our plates.
The title, "The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great," is the least subtle thing about the cookbook, an obvious allusion to President Trump's campaign slogan, and thus a pointed gastronomic counter to his administration's rhetoric and policies on immigration. Collected and edited by Leyla Moushabeck, the book assembles over 70 recipes from first- and second-generation immigrant chefs from six continents. Except for a brief and eloquent introduction from Moushabeck, the longtime cookbook editor for the Massachussetts-based independent publishing house, those chefs tell their own stories, through their recipes and the short, biographical backstories that accompany them. It's a simple and hugely effective methodology, as it sidesteps the inflammatory rhetoric that the cookbook is designed to refute in the first place, and allows the chefs and their work to speak for themselves.
The chefs that Moushabeck has assembled are as impressive as they are diverse. Persian chef and cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij gives her recipe for pomegranate and walnut khoresh; jollof rice comes from Nigerian pop-up cook and activist Tunde Wey ; Kerala shrimp stew from Indian chef and restaurateur Anita Jaisinghani; a dish of lamb fatteh from Lebanese chef Naji Boustany; a simple yet remarkable dish of turmeric shrimp with curry leaves from Malaysian chef Mei Chau; beef noodle soup from Charles Phan, the Vietnamese chef behind the celebrated Slanted Door restaurants in San Francisco; scallop aguachile from the celebrated Mexican chef Enrique Olvera — and many, many more, including the Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley, whose own cookbook came out in 2016.
There are also, purposefully, dishes from chefs whose immigration status we may take more for granted: French culinary legend Daniel Boulud, whose New York restaurants have helped define American cuisine; Australian chef Curtis Stone, who has two restaurants in Los Angeles; British-born chef April Bloomfield and French chef Dominique Ansel, both of whom have pivotal New York restaurants and who recently opened restaurants in L.A.
It's a tremendously effective project from Interlink, which was founded in 1987 by Moushabeck's father Michel Moushabeck, a Palestinian who immigrated to the U.S. from Beirut. Among Interlink's previous cookbooks are "The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria," and "Persepolis: Vegetarian Recipes from Persia and Beyond," as well as other titles showcasing the cuisines of Mexico, Ireland, Italy and the Middle East, among others. "The Immigrant Cookbook" continues this multicultural project and ups the game some: A minimum of $5 from the sale of each book will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union to support the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
The message of the cookbook is thus clear, immediate and pragmatic, yet it's also subtle, even lyrical. With an epigraph from Kahlil Gibran's "To Young Americans of Syrian Origin," a simple table of contents (appetizers, soups, etc.), beautiful pictures from Ricarius Photography — and straightforward, simply written recipes that work — "The Immigrant Cookbook" would be a welcome addition to any cook's library. What sets it on the top shelf, so to speak, is the multiplicity of voices, techniques and flavors and also the context — which is something that often gets lost in the tumult of noisy kitchens or a noisy political arena.
"Almost all of the foods we think of as American specialties can be traced to immigrants who brought or adapted them: pizza, bagels, pretzels, apple pie, waffles, hot dogs, tacos, hamburgers and the ice cream cone all originate from immigrants — from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East," Moushabeck writes from her Brooklyn home in her introduction.
What makes American cuisine great is those who brought their food — ingredient list and all — to this country, then and now and into the long table of the future.
Cookbook of the Week: "The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great," collected and edited by Leyla Moushabeck (Interlink Books, $35).