Book Review: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible

Several years ago, I somehow came across The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs, by husband-wife team Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. I instantly fell in love with the book (reviewed in an earlier blog), and I constantly refer to it in my kitchen because it provides a concise yet thorough overview of the flavor profiles of & compatibilities between various spices & herbs, fruits and veggies, and meats & fish. The “flavor matchmaking” lists in the book are invaluable when working with unfamiliar ingredients, though are just as useful in helping cooks to create flavorful pairings of familiar items. And I’m certainly not alone in my assessment of The Flavor Bible: it’s won the coveted James Beard Award, and I understand that many American culinary schools include it among their recommended texts for would-be chefs.

I will admit, however, that I was more than a bit skeptical when I learned of Page’s followup book, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. Even as a former, failed California vegetarian (I used to sneak away to eat chili cheese dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel!!!), I couldn’t imagine that The Flavor Bible had left any stones unturned. But boy, was I wrong. Even thicker than the original book, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible is just as fabulous. After exploring the history and dietary benefits of vegetarianism and advocating a “compassionate cuisine” that treats both the earth and its inhabitants with kindness, Page provides more than 500 pages listing compatibly-flavored ingredients.

What’s especially exciting to me about Page’s lists of flavors/ingredients is the global approach that she takes: unlike The Flavor Bible, which largely addresses ingredients familiar to American cooks, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible includes spices, herbs, fruits & vegetables from cuisines around the world. So for cooks who are interested in venturing out of their comfort zones and trying new flavors, the book is invaluable, even if they’re not vegetarians. And even for those cooks who regularly explore East Indian, Vietnamese or Brazilian dishes, or even the cuisines of central Asia and the Caucasus (yes, I own and love this book, Samarkand: Recipes from Central Asia and the Caucasus!!), The Vegetarian Flavor Bible covers a very wide range of unfamiliar ingredients and flavors, making it an indispensable addition to your culinary library. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I had to choose only three books for my kitchen, they would be The Flavor Bible, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, and–of course–Salt Fat Acid Heat.

Take, for example, my pet spice, Grains of Paradise, about which I may have pontificated previously. 🙂

West African Grains of Paradise.
They’re really tiny!
When you crush Grains of Paradise, they’re white in the middle.

Almost everyone who checks out Locavore’s herb & spice selection asks about grains of paradise, which makes me very happy. I grab my little bowl for them to sample, and explain that this West African spice belongs to the ginger family, and is closely related to another of my favorite spices, cardamom. During the spice trade along the historic Silk Road, avaricious traders tried to up the price they could get for this spice by calling them “Grains of Paradise,” and claiming that they grew only in paradise. During those days, grains of paradise were often substituted for black pepper because black pepper was more expensive, and grains of paradise provide a similar peppery heat to dishes. The grains initially give what tastes to me like a woodsy, bergamot-like flavor, which then breaks into a pleasant heat.

Almost nobody coming into the store has heard of grains of paradise, much less knows what they are. And truth be told, when we decided to add them into our herb & spice collection we at Locavore didn’t really know what they were either. Imagine how thrilled I was when, seeking to learn more about them, I turned to the trusty Vegetarian Flavor Bible and discovered that Page had included a listing for this tasty but little known spice! Here is her entry on the grains:

The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, p. 267.
The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, p. 268.

Once I learned that The Vegetarian Flavor Bible addressed even the mysterious grains of paradise, I began turning to the book all the time, and even snagged a copy from our book table to use at my desk. I look up everything in this book, as well as in The [original] Flavor Bible. The two books are far from redundant. Though there is a bit of overlap, there are significant differences between the two books, earning each a place in my kitchen. I can’t recommend these volumes highly enough!

Over the next few weeks as we explore some new Locavore products, I’ll be consulting them again and again, so stay tuned. We’re not done here!! 🙂