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Around the World in Four Books

Summer tends to be an off-season for new cookbooks, along with books in general. Publishers are scrambling to get their fall lists in place, and bookstore owners are wondering whether last spring’s duds will ever move off the shelves. Still, it’s a good moment to catch up on interesting also-rans of the last year or so. Herewith some off-the-beaten-track food books that probably won’t top any bestseller lists but may give hours or years of pleasure.

Edward Behr, who publishes a newsletter titled “The Art of Eating” from his home in northeastern Vermont, is a real essayist who combines a love of good food with a love of finding out about things and fitting pieces of knowledge into ideas. The 18 examples of the Behr approach collected in “The Artful Eater” (Atlantic Monthly Press: $19.95; 272 pp.) show his penchant for finding magic in the most workaday kitchen stuff. Salt, for example. Or carrots, eggs, apples, pepper, cream, bay leaves.

The briefer essays here are well-fashioned nosegays of food facts (from history, botany, industrial science, etymology, etc.) that a keen-witted observer might absorb just by keeping his eyes and ears open. The more ambitious ones, for instance the pieces on coffee, mustard, Atlantic salmon and aged country ham (“The thin slices of ham reveal flavors that are concealed in the intensity of a thick piece--like subtle notes in perfume that disappear when it is spilled”), obviously took legwork, intelligent querying of experts and kitchen experiments. This is food writing with nothing showy or manufactured about it--just thoughtful, graceful, self-effacing workmanship.

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The few current English-language books on Korean cooking are exercises in deadpan intercultural bewilderment. Until an American publisher notices that something wonderful is being neglected, the one work worth seeking out is Marc and Kim Millon’s “Flavors of Korea,” a British-published paperback distributed here--unfortunately without adjustments for American users--by Trafalgar Square (North Pomfret, Vt. 05053: $17.95; 201 pp.).

This charming introductory book has a tutelary spirit: Marc Millon’s grandmother, Bok Dok Sur, who defied a traditional Pusan family to go to Hawaii in 1924 as the 16-year-old “picture bride” of a Korean plantation worker (her grave-faced photograph is on the back cover) and ended up decades later in California. Basically, the Millons’ 150-odd recipes draw on her cooking, with further gleanings from a Korean research trip/family visit.

Some of what they present may have crossed the path of non-Korean restaurant-goers here--e.g., marinated grilled short ribs ( kalbigui ), shredded raw beef with sesame oil and vivid seasonings ( yukhoe ), and noodles tossed with a rainbow of ingredients ( chapchae ) . Other dishes will be completely unfamiliar, especially sweets and beverages. I wouldn’t expect to cook from most of these recipes without a fair amount of trial and error, but “Flavors of Korea” brings humor and insight to something usually about as accessible as a brick wall.

“Sephardic Cooking” by Copeland Marks (Donald I. Fine: $24.95; 541 pp.) is just the “labor of love” the author calls it, all the more precious because most of the 16 Jewish communities he describes are now vestigial or extinct. The heart of the matter is the legacy of that other quincentennial--the 1492 expulsion of the real Sephardim, the Spanish Jews, who took their cooking traditions to other Mediterranean regions. Meanwhile, unrelated groups, now often called “Sephardic” for want of a better name, somehow made their way to unlikely places including Samarkand, Calcutta and both sides of the Red Sea.

The 500-plus recipes that commemorate these outposts of Judaism illustrate a richly absorbing array of cooking styles--the sweets and filo pastries from the Middle East, Persian meat and fruit stews, lovely North African vegetable salads, intricately spiced braised dishes from Ethiopia and southern India. It’s an impressive achievement and would be a superlative one except that Marks’ gauche, disjointed writing and dim historical grasp often leave one in the dark as to what is Sephardic (as opposed to Turkish, Georgian, Russian, Tunisian, etc.). Not for the scholar on your list--but happy hunting for cooks interested in exotic Jewish recipes.

The recent spate of cookbooks about different parts of the Caribbean has recalled the sort of package tours after which you can hardly remember whether you were on Crete or Cyprus. Cristine Mackie’s “Life and Food in the Caribbean” (New Amsterdam Books: $19.95; 188 pp.) hits a determinedly different note. Like its predecessors in the marvelous British Weidenfeld & Nicolson “Life and Food” series (reprinted in the United States by New Amsterdam), it owes more to curiosity about one’s fellow-beings than to measuring spoons and stopwatches.

Mackie’s purview is the former British Caribbean sub-empire from Jamaica and the Leeward Islands to Guyana on the mainland. She writes of these places with a sort of ragged intensity that can be exasperating--you keep having to give up on deciphering some blurred historical assertion or an unexplained term such as “sea eggs"--but ultimately compels. There is real excitement in the way she traces a succession of human presences: hapless and soon-decimated Arawaks; British plantation lords and the unsung artisans or servants who came over with them; African slaves brought by the millions over several centuries, and indentured laborers from Portugal, China and India.

The loosely written recipes (about 100) reflect the contributions of all immigrant groups. Be warned that, though fascinating, they lean toward the odd or untranslatable, and that there is no guide to British measurements and terminology.


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