Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Reviews: Untangling My Chopsticks & Absinthe

I am squeezing in two short book reviews to complete the Books About Food reading challenge today. Interestingly, both books are centered around green beverages: green tea and absinthe. The first book, "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto", by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (NY: Broadway Books, 2003), recounts the author's year spent in Kyoto, Japan, learning about the art of kaiseki. Kaiseki is the traditional and highly ritualized series of foods to accompany green tea ceremonies and involves a series of small dishes of exquisitely prepared and garnished foods.

Riccardi lands in Kyoto without much knowledge of Japanese culture or language, but is fortunate to have some friends of friends to stay with until she finds other lodging, enrolls in language classes and snags a coveted spot in a prestigious tea kaiseki school where there is an American ex-pat to help her navigate the new culinary and language challenges she faces.

The kaiseki banquets she studies sound exquisite; they evolved from Buddhist monastery traditions into highly formal social dining banquets in which tastings of thick and thin whipped green tea are interspersed with samples of the freshest, seasonal dishes, exquisitely garnished. She also provides interesting glimpses of Japanese home cooking and ordinary restaurant fare, and includes many recipes easily adapted to Western kitchens.

Though this book is but a glimpse into a highly complex Japanese culinary tradition, it was a mouthwatering introduction and I will be referring back to it when attempting my own forays into Japanese cooking.

The concluding book for this Books About Food reading challenge is actually about a distilled spirit, and one which not only does not provide any nourishment butwas historically considered quite deadly in large doses. The spirit in question is Absinthe, that green spirit made from wormwood and the favorite tipple of many an artist, writer and dreamer in 19th century Europe, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

The fascinating history of this often-outlawed beverage is fleshed out in "Absinthe: Sip of Seduction: A Contemporary Guide", by Betina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch (Golden, CO: Speck Press, 2008). This revised edition is an entertaining look at the rituals of drinking this bitter spirit, which involve diluting it with water and straining it through an absinthe spoon and sugar cube to produce an opalescent, cloudy cocktail. Absinthe was perhaps the most vilified alcoholic beverage during the temperance movement that swept the West over the last century, associated as it was with the excesses of the bohemian lifestyle, but it has since become legal to imbibe in the United States and Europe again.

The book contains a wealth of illustrations of Art Nouveau posters, postcards, absinthe drinking paraphrenalia and photographs of Absinthe fans from Aleister Crowley to Johnny Depp, so this makes for an entertaining foray into the lore and truths about this infamous beverage.

This concludes my reading for this short but sweet Books About Food Reading Challenge. In addition to the two books reviewed succinctly above, I also enjoyed reading:

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber

A Bowl of Red:The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants by Frank X. Tolbert

Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen

My original list of Books About Food was changed to suit my mood, but all were enjoyable and recommended reading. Now I am primed to read some more science and classics books. Off to the couch!


Beth F said...

Good job on finishing the challenge! You picked some great-sounding books.

Lynda said...

Love the sound of untangling my chopsticks - thanks for the review.
Congrats on finishing the challenge ;0)