The Real Thing, The Rare Thing: Cookbook as Inspired Teacher

My cookbook collection

I know I know… I own too many cookbooks.  Even I have to admit it now that I can no longer fit my collection into the kitchen bookcase and the shelves in the pantry cleared for the overflow. And yet I just bought another cookbook, a big heavy one.  Do I have a cookbook-buying disorder?  No, I don’t think so.  But it’s true that my family looks at me in disbelief every time I bring  one home.  After all, I don’t even follow recipes.  I hate celebrity anything.  Dislike fads of any sort.  So how could I possibly need so many books filled with recipes, some of them written by star chefs?  To pretty up my kitchen?  Because everyone who cooks these days (and writes about cooking) seems to own all these cookbooks?   I hope not.

I’m a seeker.  I’m after stories.  History.  Trails.  Insights.  Inspiration.  Knowledge.  Magic.  I’m looking for the great yet surprising teachers– the ones doing more than broadcasting their fabulous recipes and foolproof techniques; I’m looking for the ones who weave recipes into something greater than eating experiences alone, something that connects to tradition and yet is not shackled by it, something that reveals the personal connection to a way of thinking about spice and texture and color and yet is not self-consumed and I-centric, something that invites exploration and experimentation and yet provides a guiding hand, a soft mentoring voice.  I’m looking for something unlikely.

And I’ve found one.  Really.  I may never need to buy another cookbook.  At least for a while…

a cookbook, no, a book worth owning

Mourad Lahlou’s New Moroccan, The Cookbook is a great book, completely apart from the recipes.  This well-known San Francisco chef shares his own story, his family’s, Moroccan food’s, the immigrant-to-the-US’s all while offering (patiently, I might add) invaluable lessons in flavor combinations, ingredients, techniques and traditions.  Yes,  he’s a big deal chef, but the book rejoices in the food, not the chef. It carries joy and humility as well as creativity and a strong, even passionate, point of view.  I’ve read so many books on Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean cooking, but few have I read cover to cover in a single sitting (in spite of its hefty 381 pages).  So few have appealed to me on all levels and cracked open the traditions while making something completely new.  Anyone reading this book would surely want to take the first plane to Morocco (the second to San Francisco). It’s that good.

Perhaps I was swept away by the book’s dedication to Mourad Lahlou’s grandpa as “the barometer of my soul, and the true author of my story.”  Perhaps I was seduced by the incredible, evocative photographs, the care of the type-setting, the quality and beauty of the book itself as an object worth spending $40 on, using, caring for.  Perhaps I felt immediately drawn to someone who opens his book with these words:

“Some people set out to learn to cook.  They pursue it.  They look for teachers. They practice and study.  I became a cook in a way that could scarcely have been more different from all of that, in a place so far from where I ended up that it feels like a beautiful, brightly colored dream.  I learned to cook from memory.  Let me tell you how.”


Perhaps it was the way  the book journeys into the heart of Moroccan cooking –“Spice is a Verb”– before he turns to recipes at all.  The sense that this chef really hopes you will read the book–not just buy it.

A book for now, it embraces both the past and the present, the old world and the new, using the ingredients of California with the attitude of Moroccan spicing.  Julia Moskin’s article in  The New York Times reveals his desire to move into the future, to look forward while contrasting him to the venerable cookbook writer, Paula Wolfert, who champions the strictly traditional.  I am reminded of Elizabeth’s recent post in which she admires and delights in the traditions of Emilia- Romagna cooking while lamenting the lack of creativity and experimentation in the restaurants and markets.

Next week I’m going to start working through Mourad Lahlou’s recipes just to see how they feel as I move around the kitchen.  And then I’ll put them away and see what I come up with on my own as a result of what I’ve learned as I dream of my next trip to San Francisco when I’ll go to Aziza and see if eating at his restaurant is as enlightening as reading his book.

My shelves are safe from the weight of new books for a while–I still have much to learn from this one!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Culture, inspiration, kitchen, lessons

8 Comments on “The Real Thing, The Rare Thing: Cookbook as Inspired Teacher”

  1. Mary Ellen
    October 31, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Just bought thus for Fran for Christmas. We ate at AZZIZA together a few years ago in SF.

  2. November 1, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    You’ve eaten at Aziza! I can’t believe I was just in San Francisco a few weeks ago and had no idea that it existed. Shows how New York oriented I am when it comes to eating in this country!

  3. November 1, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Sounds like a great tajine of a book.

  4. barbara t. ganley
    November 1, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Wow, I’m looking forward to tasting your discoverings. Hope you have sent this piece to Mourad Lahlou and Aziza.

    • November 1, 2011 at 11:31 am #

      Heheh, Mother Dear, I just bet you’re looking forward to your next (culinary) trip to Vermont as it will surely include a journey into Morocco through the lessons I am learning through this gem of a book. And next time you go to San Fran, you’ll have to eat at his restaurant. Alice Waters is not the only chef out there!


  1. Potlucks & Culture Kitchens: My Kind of School | Open View Gardens - February 8, 2012

    […]   As I prepare to head to Morocco and Italy for two months, and as I listen to Elizabeth tell stories of cooking with the immigrant women in Venice, I’m thinking about exploring not just the traditional cuisines of the places I will spend time in soon, but the ways in which those cuisines are changing.  Just as I am as likely to make Korean pork or Thai chicken as I am Irish or Vermont anything, what are they making now in Fez, say, that blends in some of the new cultural influences in their lives?  As Mourad Lahlou says in the introduction to his splendid New Moroccan (about which I’ve blogged): […]

  2. Potlucks & Culture Kitchens: My Kind of School | Open View Gardens - February 8, 2012

    […] new cultural influences in their lives?  As Mourad Lahlou says in the introduction to his splendid New Moroccan (about which I’ve blogged): “And so, dish by dish, and year by year, my food evolves. I started at Kasbah with a […]

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