Review

7 Cookbooks for Foreign-Policy Wonks

Cookbooks remind us that countries are more than their politics.

Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams at the launch of The Negotiators Cook Book.
Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams at the launch of The Negotiators Cook Book.
Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams at the launch of The Negotiators Cook Book on Oct. 29, 2018. Mal Mccann/Irish news
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

I am not a master chef. When my mom came to visit this past Thanksgiving, she was horrified by my only can opener: a cheap hand-operated one, barely functional and so rusted it probably gave her tetanus just by looking at it. (She bought me an electric can opener that arrived the next day.) For the record, I was 38 years old at the time.

THE FOOD ISSUE: This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Explore the issue.

But I do love food. I also love foreign policy, so I started thinking about how the two intersect. Not just at the macro level of supply chains and trade wars, but at the personal level, around the dinner table with family and friends. How things like politics, conflict, migration, and trade shape, and are in turn shaped by, the food culture and cuisine of a country or region. 

I am not a master chef. When my mom came to visit this past Thanksgiving, she was horrified by my only can opener: a cheap hand-operated one, barely functional and so rusted it probably gave her tetanus just by looking at it. (She bought me an electric can opener that arrived the next day.) For the record, I was 38 years old at the time.

But I do love food. I also love foreign policy, so I started thinking about how the two intersect. Not just at the macro level of supply chains and trade wars, but at the personal level, around the dinner table with family and friends. How things like politics, conflict, migration, and trade shape, and are in turn shaped by, the food culture and cuisine of a country or region. 

To explore that idea, I decided to seek out cookbooks from around the world that intersect in some way with some aspect of geopolitics. Below are seven I found compelling. These aren’t just cookbooks with recipes for delicious food—though they certainly contain those. Rather, they’re immersive explorations of the people, cultures, and stories behind the headlines. And they’re a reminder that countries are more than just the wars they fight and the treaties they sign. 


The Negotiators Cook Book, Gerry Adams, Republican Merchandising, 78 pp., $9.97, October 2018

Undoubtedly the most bizarre entry on this list but one that could never be left off, The Negotiators Cook Book is less a genuine cookbook and more a public relations stunt/party fundraiser/attempt at rebranding on the part of Gerry Adams. Adams is the Irish republican politician and former Sinn Fein president known for his central role in the Northern Ireland peace process—and his close ties to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which he denies having been a member of to this day.

The official story Adams provides for the cookbook’s origins is that during the yearslong negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and continued after, the British government was reluctant to feed any of the negotiators, nationalist or unionist. So the Irish republican team, including Adams, as well as advisors Ted Howell and former IRA commanding officer Padraic Wilson (who served time in prison for conspiracy to murder, plotting an explosion, and other charges), fed themselves. 

The cookbook is a collection of some of the recipes that sustained them during that period, including “soup, home baked bread, pasta dishes, salads, hams, pies, fish dishes or veggie meals, fine desserts and exotic moist fruit cakes.” There are recipes for such classic dishes as green salad, potato salad, green pea soup, and apple tart, as well as more inspired items such as Maura Dougan’s boiled fruit cake and “Chilli McCarney.” 

The recipes are not the most elaborate or elegant you’ll find in this list—the green salad recipe consists of just four ingredients: “Any GREENS or REDS for that matter either singly or in combination”; “Cos, Iceberg, Little gem lettuce, Radicchio, Spinach, Rocket—whatever you are having yourself”; “This plus a go of halved/quartered cherry tomatoes”; and “A dressing (applied at point of serving) of your choice”—but they’re hearty, nourishing, and full of history. And although the recipes themselves may not have brought peace to Northern Ireland, they certainly did their part in contributing to the agreement that ultimately ended the Troubles. 


Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences From Every Corner of Ukraine, Olia Hercules, Weldon Owen, 352 pp., $35, July 2020

Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules is based in London but grew up in the town of Kakhovka, on the Dnipro River in Ukraine’s south. “Apart from having a regular kitchen indoors, we had something else: a separate little house, nothing glamorous—just a one-room brick structure, which we called litnya kuhnia, ‘summer kitchen,’” Hercules writes. It was in summer kitchens like these that families in rural areas across Ukraine did their everyday cooking, prepared elaborate celebratory feasts, and—perhaps most importantly—pickled, fermented, and preserved the fruits and vegetables from their gardens in preparation for winter.

The book offers a stunning array of recipes, all of which have their roots in the summer kitchens that Hercules describes with such fondness. Some of my favorites to look at: pickled watermelon, borsch with duck and smoked pears, Hutsul polenta, Odesan confit sprats, buckwheat drop scones, and a poppyseed cake with elderflower and strawberries so fresh and summery that it almost made me weep just looking at the photo (and thinking about my waistline).

Woven throughout the book are short, informative essays such as “On varenyky” (about the traditional stuffed dumplings), “On pich” (about the masonry ovens historically found in Ukrainian homes and some summer kitchens), and “On borsch” (about, well, borsch).

“My maternal grandmother, Lyusia, originally from Besarabia, was resolute about the ‘correct’ color of borsch,” Hercules writes. “It had to be a deep and dusty rose color, imparted by the pink flesh of the giant local tomatoes.”

Summer Kitchens, published in July 2020, is a lush portrait of an idyllic Ukraine. Now, just two years later, Ukraine is a war zone, and Kakhovka, the city of Hercules’s childhood, is under Russian occupation. As such, Summer Kitchens is more than a cookbook—it’s a painful reminder of just how much Russia’s invasion has taken from the people of Ukraine. 


Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen, Durkhanai Ayubi, Interlink Books, 256 pp., $35, October 2020

“This book pays homage to the peals of laughter, the tears of loss, the staunch pledges and sacrifices, the lost potential, the ethereal memories and, above all, the dreams of the people of Afghanistan. Of all those who have gone before, and all those still to come.”

So begins Afghan-born, Australia-based food writer and restaurateur Durkhanai Ayubi in her gorgeously meditative cookbook, Parwana. Interspersed with snippets of poetry from Rumi, Khalil Gibran, and Ahmad Shah Durrani; musings on imperialism from Edward Said; and personal stories of the author and her family’s life, Parwana’s recipes take the reader on a culinary journey through Afghanistan’s history and regions in a way that is both deeply personal and historically illuminating.

Accompanied by mouthwatering photos of glistening pomegranates, colorful chutneys, crisp vegetables, and steaming kebabs, the book’s recipes tantalize. There are elaborate dishes, such as mantu, which are small hand-folded dumplings stuffed with a sautéed onion, cabbage, and carrot filling and topped with either a tomato-based lamb kofta or vegetarian sauce; plenty of lamb and chicken kebab dishes; a host of fig and quince jams and apple preserves; and delectable sweets such as gosheh fil, a crumbly pastry dessert dusted with cardamom, ground pistachios, and confectioners’ sugar.

When we talk about Afghanistan, it’s almost always in the context of war, terrorism, and humanitarian catastrophe. But the country is, of course, so much more than that. It’s a place with a long cultural—and culinary—heritage that has also been shaped by many cultures mingling in constant transformation. Ayubi brings all of those influences together, beautifully, in Parwana. 


In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean, Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen, Ten Speed Press, 288 pp., $35, October 2020

If you were lucky enough to grow up with a grandmother who loved to cook, you know the magic of grandma’s kitchen. Some of my fondest memories of my maternal grandmother are of the two of us making biscuits in her kitchen when I was a little girl, covered in flour and standing on a stool to reach the counter as she encouraged me to enthusiastically “kerplunk!” the biscuit dough down on the counter. It made us both giggle uncontrollably. 

Grandmothers cook with love, which is what makes their food so good. That’s also what makes the recipes in In Bibi’s Kitchen so good. The book features recipes and stories gathered from grandmothers, or bibis, from Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, and Comoros. “[F]ew cookbooks, or any books, for that matter, champion women who have lived long enough to have grandchildren,” Somali-born chef Hawa Hassan and author Julia Turshen write. “By celebrating bibis and their cooking, we aim to use food as a way to honor the matriarchs of numerous families and countries.”

And while the ingredients and dishes in the book might be different (or perhaps not) from the ingredients and dishes your grandmother used and made, the softly wrinkled hands, warm smiles, and love behind them will likely feel quite familiar. 

But even if you didn’t get a chance to know your grandmother, or if she was a pill or just a lousy cook, the book still offers an intriguing look at how colonialism, geography, and the spice trade shaped the cultures and cuisines of the countries in this part of Africa. Take, for instance, the grilled lobster tails with vanilla sauce. As the authors explain, “this luxurious dish is the national dish of Comoros and features the vanilla that the French started growing in the area just before the twentieth century.”

And, oh, the recipes! There’s Ma Sahra’s spiced chicken and onion samosas; Ma Shara’s kaimati (crispy coconut dumplings in cardamom syrup); Ma Baomaka’s kadaka akondro (green plantains with braised beef); Ma Zakia’s roho (a fudge-like Comorian wedding sweet); and so many more. 


Jerusalem: A Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ten Speed Press, 320 pp., $35, October 2012

Authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi both hail from Jerusalem. In fact, they were born there in the same year, 1968. “We both grew up in the city, Sami in the Muslim east and Yotam in the Jewish west, but never knew each other,” they write. It was only later in life in London that they would meet and become friends and business partners. (With two other people, they own a London-based chain of restaurants, and both have written numerous other cookbooks.) Jerusalem is their love letter to the ancient city they both still think of as home and its myriad communities. 

Yes, there are recipes involving hummus—several, in fact: basic hummus, hummus kawarma (lamb) with lemon sauce, musabaha (warm chickpeas with hummus) and toasted pita—as well as other staples such as tabbouleh, shakshuka, falafel, and latkes. But there are also exquisite surprises, such as Swiss chard fritters and chermoula eggplant with bulgur and yogurt; lamb-stuffed quince with pomegranate and cilantro, as well as braised quail with apricots, currants, and tamarind; and delightful desserts such as semolina, coconut, and marmalade cake and poached pears in white wine and cardamom. 

If you thought Jerusalem’s politics were complicated, just wait until you see its cuisine.


Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes From Across the African Diaspora, ed. Bryant Terry, 4 Color Books, 320 pp., $40, October 2021

Black Food is an artistic, cultural, and culinary experience of Black joy, resilience, activism, love, and beauty. Alongside incredible curated recipes, California-based chef and educator Bryant Terry presents what he calls a “communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora,” including essays, visual art, poetry, and music—yes, it even contains a playlist, featuring Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Miles Davis, and Bob Marley & the Wailers, among others.

“These pages offer up gratitude to the great chain of Black lives, and to all the sustaining ingredients and nourishing traditions they carried and remembered, through time and space, to deliver their kin into the future,” Terry writes. 

Come for recipes as varied as Nigerian-born New York Times cooking writer Yewande Komolafe’s crispy cassava skillet cakes; Ghanaian American fine dining chef Selasie Dotse’s Ghanaian crepe cake with Grand Marnier diplomat cream and Milo ice cream; 18-year-old Top Chef Junior finalist Rahanna Bisseret Martinez’s creamy grits with jalapeño-seared maitake mushrooms and sautéed chard; and Terry’s own Dirty South hot tamales with cilantro sauce. 

Stay for literary delights such as entrepreneur and African cuisine expert Freda Muyambo’s essay, “Motherland”; British Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s moving recollection, “Jollofing with Toni Morrison”; and writer Michael Otieno Molina’s razor-sharp liberation poem, “Black God in the Gumbo Kitchen.” 


The Latin American Cookbook, Virgilio Martínez, Phaidon, 432 pp., $49.95, November 2021

Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez’s The Latin American Cookbook is an absolute tour de force, including more than 600 recipes from across Latin America: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. 

The recipes—from Paraguayan burnt tea to Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche to Belizean empanadas—trace the stunning diversity of influences that have shaped the cultures and cuisines of the region. Latin American cuisine “was born from a variety of geographical roots: by cultures that built ancient cities, left faint traces, were brought forcibly to the region, displaced by war and a changing climate, and came from the furthest reaches of the globe in search of a better life,” Martínez writes. “The variety of recipes that have arisen and continue to come to life in this biological and cultural masterwork that we call home is seemingly endless.”

This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Jennifer Williams is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @jenn_ruth

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