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.