Cathy Erway's Favorite Cookbooks

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Where Cathy Erway finds cooking inspiration. [Photo: Pete Lee]

You may know Cathy Erway from her Taiwanese cooking posts here on Serious Eats, or perhaps from her weekly podcast on the Heritage Radio Network, Eat Your Words. Most likely, you know her from her blog, Not Eating Out in New York, and the book that followed her two-year experiment avoiding restaurant food.

"I've always liked cooking, or at least hanging around the kitchen and watching it before I was old enough to," says Erway. "But the motivation for the blog came about during my first year living and working in New York, when I realized that nobody seemed to make their own lunch, or really cook at all."

Erway has recently completed her second book, which highlights a range of recipes from Taiwan, including homestyle dishes and street food. Now that she's back from her cookbook research travels, I wanted to ask her a bit about her thoughts on cookbooks, her cooking idols, and the lesser-known cookbooks she thinks more people should check out.

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[Photo: Cathy Erway]

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How many cookbooks do you own? The number is always in flux—I give books away to friends and family rampantly and receive them constantly (mostly for upcoming shows on my podcast). I love collecting vintage cookbooks, though, and I have about a dozen old Chinese cookbooks that are out of print. These relics are some that I really treasure.

What, to you, makes a great cookbook? I think a great cookbook has a focused and informative culinary perspective. I've lately been obsessed with collecting cookbooks that really dig deep into the cuisine of one culture or region, like the Hakka Cookbook by Linda Lau Anusasananan. I love older books like The Talisman Italian Cookbook by Ada Boni and What's Cooking in Portugal by Saul Krieg. My big, old copy of Culinaria the Caribbean by Rosemary Parkinson is like an encyclopedia with National Geographic-like photos throughout. The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann and Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal capture the color and beauty of the land and people as much as the food they make. Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallman and Peter Kaminsky has a great mix of atmosphere, prose, and solid recipes. These cookbooks never go out of style, in my opinion.

Who are your cooking idols and inspirations?

  • Elizabeth David: Because you don't always need actual recipes to absorb more wisdom about how to cook. (Recommended book: Mediterranean Food.)
  • Sandor Katz: His enthusiasm for a lost art of fermentation quietly led a massive resurgence. But his books aren't all technical and have a lot of opinion. (Recommended book: Wild Fermentation.)
  • Claudia Roden: Her cookbooks always take the deep dive into culture with personal insight that she's not afraid to add liberally. (Recommended book: Arabesque.)
  • Naomi Duguid: She often takes a political stance in her excellent cookbooks and chooses cuisines that are underappreciated and overlooked. (Recommended book: Burma: Rivers of Flavor.)

What was the first cookbook you really loved? My first cookbook: Kids Cooking in the Klutz series. It was very practical (it even came with colorful measuring spoons) and got me trying to cook things I'd never eaten nor knew what they'd taste like beforehand from an early age.

What's your favorite cookbook for vegetable inspiration?
Eat Your Veg by Arthur Potts Dawson. It's an incredible cookbook, and I like how it's focused on celebrating vegetables but not in an exclusive way, so anyone can relate to it.

What cookbook really taught you something new? I learned a lot from Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh and consider it a great primer for basic, homestyle Japanese techniques—like making dashi, marinating fish with miso paste, and braising kabocha squash with the skin and all. So Many of us think of Japanese food from a restaurant or fine dining (kaiseki) standpoint, but washoku is really easy, delicious, and healthy.

What cookbook do you recommend for beginner cooks?
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters is about right for the job! With this book, cooks will hopefully be inspired to create their own recipes using trusty techniques and good ingredients.

What lesser-known cookbook do you think deserves more love? He hasn't earned quite the status of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, or even Marcella Hazan for his cookbooks, but I think Jeff Smith's old Frugal Gourmet cookbooks are pretty good! My dad had The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother, from which he learned to make all kinds of worldly dishes when I was growing up (the chicken paprikash recipe is awesome). I think it's a great book that gives you a nice snippet of the many cuisines and cultures that make up "American food."

What newer cookbooks are you excited about? I was enlightened by Tartine No. 3 and can't wait to see anything Chad Robertson does with yeast next. The ancient grains, and old and new bread-making techniques in it was just amazing.

I also like Eugenia Bone's The Kitchen Ecosystem because it beautifully describes how to reuse, repurpose, and create anew with every ingredient you purchase. It might sound complicated, but it's not, and it'll save you money and effort in the end.