Cookbooks I buy overseas have always been my idea of trips that keep on giving. If I pick up a locally published recipe for panelle or Wiener schnitzel or turnip dumplings, I know I might have a chance of tasting Palermo or Salzburg or Hong Kong when I try it at home.
But my horizons expanded radically when I got back from India with my latest acquisition, a Rajasthani cookbook by “India’s No. 1 cookery author,” Tarla Dalal. After dragging it thousands of miles through three airports over 24 hours, I logged onto the website listed on the cover and found the same recipes, and many more, in a quickly searchable database, with no end of hand-holding for non-Indian cooks. Recipes are written in English but for Indians who know ingredients by different names, and so there’s a nifty little glossary: Type in jeera or besan and you get the English name (cumin, chickpea flour) plus suggested recipes, along with a photo understandable in any language. Even better, there’s an “Ask Tarla” function for e-mail answers from the author.
Just when security nightmares are making flying about as appealing as a root canal, the Internet is finally making it possible to stay home and taste the real India or the real Thailand. Or revisit Italy or France or the Caribbean, not to mention Ireland and Australia.
It’s virtual travel at its best. Sites such as epicurious.com have been sorting out the world’s food for years, but too often what they serve is more L.A. than Lombardy. The recipes are culled from mainstream magazines (Bon Appetit, Gourmet), and local oddities such as souse (pickled pig parts) from Barbados or even temptations such as cheesy-hammy tarte flambee from Alsace are not exactly high on their lists. More focused sites make you realize the world is much bigger than just a few favored nations with mainstream appeal.
Far-flung ingredients included
With the first three Dalal dishes I tried I could have been in India without the jet lag. Unlike the recipes in so many cookbooks in my collection, these were written not for the great American masses who timid publishers dream will buy into a bestseller but for cooks in the country where they originated. When a dal needs 12 seasonings, including dried mango powder or fresh curry leaves, Dalal specifies every one. And the system works halfway around the world because anyone whose supermarket is asafetida deficient can just click to sites that will ship the pungent powder overnight.
No longer do origin-conscious cooks have to abandon all hope of re-creating a dish for lack of ingredients or understanding, or settle for recipes made so bland we could be eating anywhere. As it has with political news and starlets’ sex videos, the Internet is removing the traditional filters between information and user. No editor is deciding to omit the nigella seeds because most of us would never know the difference. (Twenty years ago, I remember, most “Mexican” cookbooks never bothered with chipotles or cilantro.)
Easily navigated sites such as www.tarladalal.com make “How to Cook Anything” look like “Cooking for Dinosaurs.” Just in the last couple of years the Internet has evolved into a more orderly, more expansive resource, and search engines such as Google will take you anywhere straightaway. Web addresses have gotten simpler. (Forget http and tricky colons and backslashes; even www no longer is always necessary.) The most isolated cooks and remote destinations are setting up sophisticated sites with authentic recipes. And to top it off, both printers and Internet access seemingly get faster every week.
On sites such as www.1worldrecipes.com, though, you can find the kinds of dishes that are hidden in the crude little cookbooks I’ve brought home from individual islands in the Caribbean, and the ones in Italian or Spanish I’ve invested in in Europe. On this site, a dish called feroce d’avocat, avocado with crab and super-hot Scotch bonnet peppers, replicates one I know from Grenada, for instance. I also found the national dish of Curacao there: keshi yena, a whole round of Edam stuffed with a chicken picadillo with raisins and olives, then baked. I could almost have saved myself a cookbook from that trip.
Other options are literally site-specific. If you want to try the best dish from Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, the official tourism site (www.discoverlanzarote .com) includes the very same recipe I had to buy in a cookbook. It shows photos and directions for making papas arrugadas with two mojos -- potatoes cooked in salt water until they wrinkle, then dunked in garlicky green and red salsas.
Then there are all the huge sites designed for heat-seeking chefs rather than home cooks; these link to good recipe databases. The site www.culinaryforum.com will hook you up with a dozen or more solid sites, while www.chef2chef.net is a virtual atlas of promising sites.
The Internet is an especially valid passport to Italy. For all the superb regional cookbooks in print these days, there are probably more websites with distinct advantages. Not only are they easier to search (no index can compare with a computer) but they also lean more toward exotica. On www.capriflavors.com, for instance, I found a good rendition of spaghetti aum aum, with a cheesy eggplant sauce I ate repeatedly on Capri. The site www.italianmade.com sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission, also has almost as many regional specialties as Italy has pastas, including sweet pumpkin tortelloni and buttery fontina gnocchi -- and a very useful glossary.
Commercial sites turn out to be surprisingly good sources of authentic recipes. The site www.agferrari.com is in business to sell Italian products, particularly high-end oils and vinegars, but its recipe collection is impressive. It’s where I finally found sgroppino al limone, an amazing drink from the Veneto made with Prosecco, vodka and lemon sorbet that I first tasted on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Neither my Venice souvenir cookbook nor my Pantelleria one included it, and I had to get an Italian I met on the island to e-mail me his idea of a recipe.
Unfortunately, it only listed ingredients, so I made a drink that was about 60% alcohol. Italians may cook by feel, but Americans need proportions. Agferrari provided a real recipe, one I was confident enough to tweak (adding more fizzy Prosecco, for starters).
For innovative recipes, sites focused on restaurants, run by either individuals or groups, can open up new worlds of contemporary cooking. The site www.miettas.com, set up by a restaurant guide, is a good destination for anyone wondering what’s cooking in Australia (and it’s not kangaroo). Even though Australian cookbooks are becoming internationally available, the cuisine there changes as fast as ours does, and this site reflects the situation. You can find any number of over-the-top creations by chefs making the most of local ingredients, both exotic, like yabbies (river crustaceans) and mainstream, like goat cheese.
Chefs who see themselves as the next Mario also are producing sites with serious recipes, letting patrons reconnect back home. One of the better destinations for anyone who will never make it to Northern Ireland is www.gourmetireland.com, run by Paul and Jeanne Rankin, a legendary chef couple who use local foraged foods in 21st century ways. Ten years ago, I had to tote their two cookbooks all the way from Belfast after a stunning meal at their Michelin one-star Roscoff, and now their latest concoctions (celery leaf tempura, smoked haddock hash) are a click away. Then there’s www.sanjeevkapoor.com, which showcases India’s celebrity chef whose food I liked at Grain of Salt in Calcutta -- dishes like fish curry and corn and paneer croquettes.
My ignorant American side tends to give the highest ratings to sites that are all in English, but most do have a translation option. In many cases, though, you might be better off getting out your old travel dictionary. Some enticing sites a French friend swears by, such as www .gastronomie.com and www.marmiton .com, are excellent only for Francophones -- the English phrases are laughable. (Marmiton has recipes with titles such as Pot With the Angels and Typed Express Train; one called Soup Dawn ends with this mysterious instruction: “Add to the cooking of vegetables a calf bulge which will be able to consume itself hot or cold.”)
Unlike cookbooks, websites are usually updated, and regularly. Errors can get fixed, and many sites are as interactive as Tarla Dalal’s. Some, like 1worldrecipes .com, let users rate recipes. (A suspicious number, I have to say, hold five stars.)
Unfortunately, the feedback is sometimes essential. Recipes published without that old filter -- the editor -- tend to pick up glitches. Even the keshi yena recipe, which is identical on at least a dozen websites, is troublesome. The massive filling overflows the cheese, and the cheese can melt from your oven halfway to Willemstad. The flavors are exceptional, though, and the one recipe that advised using layers of sliced cheese rather than a whole round turned out to be the solution in the L.A. Times Test Kitchen. Not surprisingly, the layered effect was actually the way I had encountered the dish in Curacao, although there it had banana leaves enclosing both cheese and filling.
Most sites are free, but some charge a fee for maximum access. Tarladalal.com offers a fair number of the author’s recipes and a huge database of those contributed by readers, but if you want more of the real deal it will cost you $25 for six months or $40 for a year. As a convert to curries, I thought it was worth the price. Dalal’s “Rajasthani Cookbook,” from one of the more seductive regions of India, costs about $5, but that’s in a bookstore in Bombay. You won’t find it on www.amazon.com at any price. (The few titles by Dalal that are available are not, shall we say, her masterworks.)
The only risk of traveling virtually and cooking locally is that you may not stop with authentic recipes and no-substitutions ingredients. Soon you’ll want the real equipment. I’m the new owner of a kadai, the Indian wok, which is the best tool for deep frying in nominal oil. I saw it in action in Bangalore and then online and had to have it. Now I’m thinking about tracking down some of the wines I have had to carry home cushioned in my dirty laundry from far-flung places. I know Lanzarote’s El Grifo is out there in cyberspace somewhere.
That little “continue shopping” button you see while looking at recipes can be dangerous. Only on a real trip can you delude yourself into believing money is no issue.