6 Food Books That Aren’t Cookbooks

A friend once told me, “I think people associate you with three things — food, books and cats.” It’s a little maddening to be so casually yet accurately summed up in one sentence. Outside of work, I spend the bulk of my time baking, reading and watching cat videos. I suppose my love for all things culinary and reading converges in my unconscious gravitation towards books about food. While some of them may contain recipes, these literary works are not cookbooks but fiction and non-fiction that broach a wide range of topics, from appetite and indulgence to relationships and culture. Since these food books gave me much to chew on, I had to write quick reviews about them. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be back soon to review books about cats.

#1. Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann

What a gem this book is. It’s easily my favourite singlit read of all time. I picked it up – well, downloaded it – because of the title, really. I’m a baker, so how could I not read a book about cake?

Impractical Uses of Cake follows the life of Sukhin, a middle-aged junior college literature teacher who is relatively successful, wealthy and is apparently a total stud. Ain’t that the Singaporean dream? The problem: he’s pretty much dead inside. According to Dennis, his flamboyant colleague and only friend, Sukhin is a “puddle of a person”, as opposed to a sea. This changes when Sukhin meets an old friend who is now homeless by choice, with whom he bonds with over their love for cake. Their encounter leads him to explore a lesser-known side of Singapore and wonder if a more unorthodox way of life could be more fulfilling.

While some singlit works come across as pretentious, mopey and oddly whitewashed, Impractical Uses of Cake was a standout for me precisely because it was so strongly and unapologetically rooted in Singapore. Yeoh captured the essence of Singaporeans with painful accuracy. Sukhin gets annoyed that a wayang P.E. teacher suggests that people who exercise more are more productive, but ends up going jogging every morning anyway. He buys a car for the sake of it, driving angrily when he is unable to get a parking spot in Chinatown. It’s easy for Singaporeans to see parts of themselves in Sukhin— his flaws and contradictions are precisely what makes him so relatable and lovable. I loved Yeoh’s extensive descriptions and musings on Singapore, such as Sukhin’s rant on how Duxton Plain Park isn’t really a park. Impractical Uses of Cake also provides the reader with some insight into the lives of the homeless in Singapore, which is just one of many social issues Yeoh touches upon through her quirky writing. The best part? I laughed out loud a lot reading this; there is so much to love here!

P.S. The cover illustration only makes sense after you read the book, and I’m oddly humored by how everyone who hasn’t read the book is super confused by it.

#2. Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh

Eat Up is part exploratory essay, part recipe book and part memoir. Written by food writer and alumnus of the Great British Bake-Off, Ruby Tandoh, it deals with the complexities surrounding food and consumption. I picked it up just because I’ve seen Ruby on GBBO and wound up enjoying it much more than I had anticipated.

Ruby’s style of writing is sensuous and energetic, and she covers so much ground in the most informed and sensitive manner. This book is so much more than written food porn — many of us have complex feelings about food, and Ruby’s writing encourages us to unpack these woes in an affirmative and non-judgmental way. Some of these topics – eating disorders, ethical consumption, food and festivities, traditions – I would have loved to read about in more detail, but it was still such an enjoyable read thanks to her frank and comforting prose. This book reads like curry chicken on fluffy white rice on a rainy day, or whatever your equivalent of ultimate comfort food is!

#3. Breast and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Breasts and Eggs consists of two books, both narrated by Natsuko Natsume, an aspiring writer and blogger. In book one, Natsu’s sister, Makiko, and her daughter, Midoriko, visit Natsu in Tokyo. Maki is an aging bar hostess who believes that getting a boob job will help turn her life around (“Breasts”). Meanwhile, Midoriko who is going through puberty has stopped talking to her mother and struggles to cope with her changing body. In book two, which takes place eight years later, Natsu has found some success with her writing and wants to have a child through artificial insemination (“and Eggs”). We learn that Natsu finds it physically impossible to have sex, but artificial insemination is also illegal in Japan for singles. She then encounters a support group for children born out of artificial insemination who are in search of their biological fathers, and is then forced to confront herself about why she actually wants to have a child.

First off, I loved both books. It was a long read but I never felt impatient because I was so invested in Natsu’s story. To be objective, the second book was probably a little too drawn out. While I enjoyed beautifully-written prose about Natsu’s agony and her childhood home, I found myself doubtful about whether those parts really contribute to the story.

On the other hand, the first book was more compact and punchier. It is also more critically-acclaimed, and for good reason. I absolutely loved how the author builds the tension between Midoriko and Maki. Midoriko turns to silence; Maki overcompensates with nervous rambling. The mother and daughter pair is essentially struggling with womanhood and how a woman’s body should look like and function. Yet, the difference in age and life experiences creates an interesting parallel. The style of writing in this book is also more slippery and dreamlike, similar to that of An Yu and Banana Yoshimoto.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this super binge-worthy read. I also recommend searching up Words Without Border’s translation of some extracts of the book to learn more about Osaka dialect!

#4. Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

I picked up Ms Ice Sandwich because I couldn’t get hold of Breasts and Eggs for a while. This novella is told from the perspective of an innocent young boy who goes to the supermarket every day to buy egg sandwiches from a lady he calls “Ms Ice Sandwich”. Our young narrator is captivated by her; she is mysterious and aloof, with ice-blue eyelids. At the same time, he struggles to cope with his ill grandmother’s worsening health and his distant mother. Later, we learn that there is talk around town about Ms Ice Sandwich’s unconventional looks – plastic surgery or bold eyeshadow choices? – and our narrator’s questions his fascination, wondering if it is odd to have a crush on Ms Ice Sandwich.

I absolutely loved this coming-of-age story about an innocent first love. My favorite part would be how its commentary on societal expectations – regarding appearances and manner, family dynamics and grief – comes from the perspective of young children. Kawakami does a wonderful job of curating the voice of a young narrator so that there is a balance of childlike naivety and mature insights.

Throughout the novella, there is an undercurrent of contemplation and sadness as the narrator attempts to figure out his churning emotions and growing pains. Kawakami’s whimsical and genuine writing makes our narrator so incredibly endearing that I truly wished this heartwarming and heartbreaking novella was longer.

#5. Supper Club by Lara Williams

While Supper Club was first recommended to me at a quaint bookstore in Sydney over a year ago, reading this at my current phase of life evoked a lot of thoughts I wouldn’t have had. I like to toy with the idea that some books are meant to find you at specific times to help you on your journey. Too spiritual? Okay.

Supper Club is about a collective of women who gather for a supper club to reclaim their appetites and spaces, both literally and figuratively. Roberta is in her late twenties and her past experiences form the foundation of her character. She is adrift, alone, and repressed. Despite being a fantastic cook, she suppresses her appetite. She also mutes her passions, choosing to recede to the corners of rooms to remain unnoticed. Then, along with her spirited friend, Stevie, she invents the provocative and hedonistic Supper Club— a cabal of women who gather to feast in excess and celebrate their physical changes. All in all, they assert the right of women to take up space on their own terms and subvert societal norms.

Some of the themes are mediated by the plot. Although there are themes surrounding codependency and suppression of women embedded in Roberta’s life experiences, Williams doesn’t dwell on them or use them to send an overt and punchy message. I thought it was a waste that Williams didn’t go in a darker, more carnal direction with Supper Club. After all, the premise is hedonism and overindulgence, so I would have loved for the writing to be more visceral and raw. This is another love-it-or-hate-it book since the messaging is so nuanced and muted— for the record, I absolutely loved it.

#6. Braised Pork by An Yu

One afternoon, Jia Jia steps into the bathroom to find her husband dead in the bathtub. Next to him is a sketch of a fish-man, a creature with the face of a man and the body of a fish. As an artist, Jia Jia becomes obsessed with recreating the sketch but can never replicate the unremarkable features of the fish-man. She starts dreaming of the fish-man and a place called “the world of water,” which leads her to embark on a journey to Tibet.

This book is written in a slightly detached, melancholic and dreamlike manner that is reminiscent of Murakami’s writing. In retrospect, I grasped the details and realities of the book quickly, being a Chinese person living in a city and having a fairly good understanding of society in China, such as the gender and familial dynamics in a traditional Chinese family, the idea of guan xi (关系) and the modern anti-corruption purge that is never explicitly named. I loved how the book explored such concepts, making it so grounded and set in reality; an exploration that lays in stark contrast with An Yu’s use of magical realism. While it is disorientating to go from the literal concrete-ness of the metropolis to the barrenness of the Tibetan landscape, I enjoyed going on this journey with An Yu.

If you enjoy perplexing plots, this is for you. Clearly, the two large metaphors that require unpacking are the fish-man and “the world of water” (and maybe tulips?). An Yu doesn’t quite leave enough hints for the reader to piece together a coherent narrative. I still don’t really know what “the world of water” is (maybe depression or mania?), let alone the tulips. There are several objects and ideas that seem like they would be significant but turn out to be dead ends— I wish more could have been said about some of them.

Overall, Braised Pork was a short and enjoyable read with wonderful writing. Though it definitely lacked some direction in the plot, I would still recommend it anyway. I don’t think every book needs to have a groundbreaking story or message; it’s perfectly fine for a piece of work to just deliver a pleasant reading experience.

Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong

For more reviews, check out Beatrice’s book archive on Instagram @pagesofbeans.

Beatrice Chen

life is rigged in my favour

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