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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : World of Books

November 30, 1995|Jonathan Gold

Probably the goofiest cookbook I own is a strange little thing I bought at a housewares shop in Lakewood, a book of Mexican recipes printed in Bombay and adapted for the Indian cook. Tacos are described as fried round puris , tortillas as rustic chapatis, and the chile verde seems more like an adaptation of a Kashmiri dish than something you might taste in a Mexican home. The author's powers of description seem overtaxed in her recipe for a burrito, which comes out pretty much like a Bombay-style lamb frankie anyway. And every time I leaf through this book I wonder: do American books on non-American cuisines get any closer to the truth?

Some of the best "foreign" cookbooks in print are written by Americans: Paula Wolfert's translation of Southwest France to American kitchens, Barbara Tropp's China, Julia Child's Paris. Many are better than anything that exists in the original language.

But with cookbooks actually from the country of origin, you get something of the pure experience of the cuisine, unfiltered by authors who worry about the availability of the Indian okra called drumstick or of Chinese bitter gourds, untrammeled by cookbook editors who refuse to condone recipes that demand metates instead of Cuisinarts. Sometimes it's nice to read a cookbook written by somebody because he cooks this food every day.

I have spent a lot of time lately at Los Angeles' foreign-language bookstores, looking for explanations of kaiseki dishes I have just eaten, searching for paella recipes, seeking a Virgil to guide me through the infernal circles of barely translated Korean menus. Here are a few of the bookstores I like.

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SUP Bookstore, just downstairs from the dim-sum-intensive Harbor Village restaurant in the heart of Monterey Park, is a splendid place, almost the size of a Barnes & Noble, with a well-balanced selection of Chinese-American literature, a full range of Chinese school supplies and several hundred Chinese cookbooks that few of us who learned the cuisine from Barbara Tropp and Nina Simonds are likely to own. A surprising percentage of these have at least rudimentary English text. You'll find all the volumes of Pei-Mei's indispensable series (she's sometimes considered Taiwan's answer to Julia Child), sumptuous and expensive compendiums of new-style Hong Kong cuisine and microwave-cooking manuals; a sleekly produced book devoted solely to lucky black and white dishes (fish with caviar; double-boiled black chicken with coconut); an interesting-looking, though untranslated, book on the Chinese tea cult. Still, what I find myself going back to SUP for are the bilingual paperback cookbooks of Chinese regional cuisines: Taiwanese, Chiu Chow, Shanghainese, Cantonese. Even if you never cook a single dish from them, these cookbooks will help you understand the food served at restaurants right down the street.

SUP Bookstore, 111 N. Atlantic Ave., Ste 228, Monterey Park, (818) 293-3386.

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It may be easy to find a Latino record store in Los Angeles--in some parts of town, the problem is finding a stretch of sidewalk unaffected by their blare--but Spanish-language bookstores are rare. The Spanish & European Bookstore is one of the best, with aisles of current literature, an immense children's book section and 500 or so Spanish-language cookbooks, ranging from a Mexican manual of sugar sculpture to the cartoon-illustrated Everest series on regional Spanish cuisine, as well as a large selection of home-style recipe books for the Latin American and Spanish kitchen. When you're ready to explore beyond Diana Kennedy or Penelope Casas, this is a good place to start.

Spanish & European Bookstore, 3102 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 739-8899.

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Chameli, of course, is basically a fancy northern-style Indian vegetarian restaurant. The place also serves the local Indian community as something of a one-stop Indian cultural center, with language classes, music tapes, a small clothing boutique and a wall of Indian-themed books (faith, fiction, sociology) that includes a good selection of novels by Rabindranath Tagore and R.K. Narayan. The two long shelves of Indian and vegetarian cookbooks are far from comprehensive, but you'll find all the classics--Julie Sahni, Yamuna Devi, Madhur Jaffrey--plus food histories and dozens of small paperbacks from India. I'm fond of buying Indian cookbooks from the racks between the ghee and the lentils at Punjabi grocery stores in Artesia--a favorite cookbook, "Tasty Dishes From Waste Items," may have more uses than you ever thought possible for banana peels and curdled milk--but Chameli is where I go when I need something on a specific dish.

Chameli, 8752 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (818) 280-1947.

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