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The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

The Food of Oman vs. Near & Far

The Food of Oman

Felicia Campbell

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Near & Far

Heidi Swanson

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Judged by: Jessica Koslow

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In 2011, Jessica opened Sqirl, which is the only non-dinner spot on LA Weekly's and LA Magazine's "Top 20 restaurants in Los Angeles." The recipient of this year's Eater National Award for Best Neighborhood restaurant, Sqirl is also championed on Jonathan Gold's "101 Essential LA Restaurants" list since its inception. Jessica was named Eater's LA Chef of the Year, is the recipe writer for Vogue.com, and has two books coming out with Abrams. The first, Everything I Want to Eat, is slated for fall of 2016. 

The Judgment

“Travel cookbooks,” I thought, when my two Piglet books arrived. And they are, in a sense: Both Near & Far and The Food of Oman seek to make the foreign domestic, both seek to bring the exotic home. 

I enjoy culinary travelogues; like many of us, I nibble my way through vacations and note new flavor combinations as I encounter them. Look to the Sqirl menu and you’ll find evidence of many of these discovered tastes. 

In Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel, Heidi Swanson gives us 35 dishes and drinks from her home kitchen in San Francisco (the “Near”), and 70 recipes inspired by her travels to India, France, Italy, Japan, and Morocco (the “Far”). In between, you’ll find short essays about each country, Instagram-worthy snaps of the author abroad, and, on page 96, a list of Swanson’s current immunizations. All the dishes are vegetarian. And all photograph exceptionally well, which is no surprise given Swanson’s prior works (see, for example, the James Beard Award-winning Super Natural Every Day).  

Her recipes are mostly interpretations—not reproductions—of foreign dishes. And Swanson tell us this up front: “These are recipes inspired by ingredients I’ve encountered, markets I’ve shopped, cooks I’ve chatted up, books I’ve read, and scribbles I’ve made in my journal.” This is world cuisine as seen through Swanson’s eyes: natural, healthy, clean, simple. So we find dishes like Brussels Sprouts with Japanese Mustard and Nori Granola in the Japan section, though we are unlikely to find them in Japan. 

Her recipes rely less on technique and kitchen wizardry, and more on simplicity and brightness through clean cooking. Swanson’s Vaghareli Makai (Indian spiced corn) is an original take on a corn side—it tasted new in comparison to the lime and Aleppo-scented corn from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc I find myself cooking on repeat.

I also made Swanson’s Sprout & Yogurt Salad; Sqirl’s book, Everything I Want To Eat, comes out this fall and has a few sprout recipes peppered throughout, so I was curious to see her direction. The recipe went off without a hitch: It was fresh and easy, with no fluff, and totally delicious—perfect for starter cooks and seasoned ones alike. And that is the worthy goal at this book’s heart: to bring the best of what’s out there home to everyone in one accessible, convenient volume. It is Super Natural Every Day: A Moveable Feast.   

Then there's The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia, a paean to the country’s spice-laden souks, ancient ports, and golden dunes. Our tour guide is Felicia Campbell, and what impressive credentials she has. Campbell enlisted in the Army at 17 and was deployed to Iraq at 19; there, she fell in love with the smells, flavors, and cultural traditions of Middle Eastern cuisine. And she missed them when she returned to the States, so she earned a master’s degree in food studies, became a journalist, toured the region, and now splits her time between Manhattan and Muscat, Oman’s capital city.  

Campbell tells us that Oman is “not merely a place; it is an immersive, sensory experience.” That’s true of the book as a whole, too: It’s immersive, packed full of sociological observations, historical vignettes, and meditations on Oman’s national identity. 

And it’s sensory. Once you start cooking and eating, you quickly realize that Omani food is a complicated culinary kaleidoscope of flavors, ingredients, and traditions—it is at once Arabic and Indian, Levantine and Bedouin. Its depth and diversity reflect the sultanate’s long history as a global commercial and cultural hub, one that straddles well-worn spice and trade routes. And so we find a desert-meets-the-sea mashup of grilled, nomadic campfire fare, platefuls of flavorful and fluffy biryani, and familiar, but “Omanified,” subcontinental staples: dals and flatbreads, curries and savory porridges, spiced teas and pungent chutneys. Campbell’s Maldouf (date chapati) was delicious, and a concept I’ll continue to play with; I can’t wait to put dates in Lafa breads here in LA. Her Yemeni-style roast chicken (Mandi Djaj) was appealing and clearly-written, if a little basic in flavor. But Campbell’s effort to make sense of this gastronomical diversity is an ambitious and delicious success.  

These are very different books for very different audiences, but I’ve been told that this is a competition. And the editors at Food52 demand that I make a choice, so I will choose! 

Campbell’s impressive and inspiring work—masterfully complemented with Ariana Lindquist’s photography—will remain on my bookshelf forever. Between the two, it is the book into which I'll dive the deepest and from which I will draw the most inspiration. The recipes from her book may require an extensive number of steps, but the results are vibrant. Her Omani Chicken and Rice Porridge (Madrouba) is such a standout that we adopted and adapted a version of it for our own restaurant… Thank you, Felicia!

Aesthetically, I found Near & Far to be truer to the author’s voice and purpose than The Food of Oman. Design matters, especially when one is attempting to capture and convey the spirit of an exotic locale or cuisine. Campbell’s writing and Lindquist’s photography are excellent, but it doesn’t seem as though they had similar control of the book’s design and layout. This is the biggest contrast between the two books.

In the end, it’s Swanson’s Near & Far that I’ve decided to advance. Here’s why: Campbell’s book may be more compelling to my own cooking and work at Sqirl, but Swanson’s simple recipes are more approachable—they make Near & Far a better fit for cooks of all skill levels. When I shared these books with my friends and family, they spent more time paging through Near & Far than The Food of Oman. Most wanted to cook Swanson’s food. That night. For dinner. Near & Far’s “nearness,” combined with its polished and professional look, give Swanson’s book an edge—albeit ever so slight—over Campbell’s Omani opus.

And the winner is…

Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel

Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel

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Do you Agree? (17 comments)

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9 months ago maya

Although i'm happy with the result (I own NAF and absolutely love it), this read more like your average Amazon review, listing so-called pros and cons while quoting PR-esque highlights a la "publisher's review". It felt sterile. I wanted to know what Jessica was thinking! while reading them, while cooking from them, while tasting them, and while snacking on the leftovers three days after. As an upcoming book author i'm sure she had a lot more nit-picking (and the opposite) going on than what we got to read and i feel as though it might have been better to just hear a secret recording of her talking to her cooks or friends about it.

The thing that surprised me most about Near & Far, BTW, was that even though it wasn't the selling point, most of the recipes are really really good for you, without being smug. It just made healthy cooking feel a lot more fresh and fun in a very nonchalant way.

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9 months ago David

Very balanced review from Jessica, some other reviews in the Piglet have been rubbish. I have the food of Oman and think it to be a great and accessible cookbook, but her reasoning for why she chose the food of Oman is hard to fault.

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9 months ago Amanda Marie

Near & Far is one of my very favorite cookbooks, and I am continually enthralled by Heidi's ability to marry nuanced flavor profiles with elegant simplicity. It seems that no matter what I'm in the mood for, she has crafted the perfect recipe for it — a nourishing showstopper that never disappoints. My cookbook club and I are cooking from Near & Far this weekend and I'm already fasting in preparation. I was thrilled to see her win this judgment, and can't wait to see how the book advances! I'm also delighted that this review featured such positive assessments of both books. I will definitely be picking up The Food of Oman, and can't wait to dive into a new cuisine.

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9 months ago Tippy Canoe

I thought this was an excellent review. The author does a nice job of breaking both books down and her reasoning for advancing Near and Far makes sense to me. I do find Heidi Swanson's recipes just about perfect. I am not a vegetarian, but I turn to her books (and blog recipes) over and over and they always turn out beautifully.

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9 months ago Courtney C

I have not read the "The Food of Oman", but I have been a longtime fan of Heidi Swanson and I adore "Near & Far". I have to say that every time I make something of Swanson's, it is devoured by both vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Her unique take on flavor makes me come back to her recipes again and again. Though her recipes are simple in method, they are also very layered and complex in flavor; she really knows how to make an impact with her ingredients. This is not a "Cooking 101" book on basics, but a versatile and vibrant take on modern vegetarian cooking that deserves its place in the Piglet.

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9 months ago Rhonda35

It seems The Piglet selections regularly bring criticism from the Food52 community. Granted, some of that is to be expected; we are an opinionated bunch! Most contests have certain guidelines for the judges to follow. I'd like to know the criteria on which the judges base their decisions, as well as how the books are chosen in the first place and how the initial pairings are decided. Sharing this information might help readers understand the review guidelines given to the judges. Could these details be shared @AmandaHesser, @MerrillStubbs, @KristenMiglore, @KenziWilbur?

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9 months ago Rhonda35

PS - I think Jessica Koslow gave a thorough and thoughtful review of the two books she was judging. Some of the other judges? Not so much.

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9 months ago MRinSF

Very happy to see another comprehensive review! I don't necessarily agree with how she came to her decision (especially since I actually thought she preferred Oman, design cohesiveness aside), and would like to have seen Oman advance, but I am thrilled that she cooked from each book and considered them both carefully. Thanks, Piglet -- and thanks, Ms. Koslow!

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9 months ago Zoe Rose

I have Near and Far and I really WANT to love it, but not one recipe has grabbed me from it yet. I will keep trying to dig in to it!

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9 months ago Mehdi

Campbells book it was greatest one i read and me and my all familly are using the recipes all of time ... I think the judgement wasn't fair. The reviewer seemed to like it more, but still picked the other, more simple book. Why? At the end of the day, this review will still inspire people to check out this amazing book, which I guess is fair enough.

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9 months ago cookbookchick

I find myself agreeing with those wha are disappointed with the final outcome here. The Food of Oman will find a permanent place on Ms Koslow's bookshelf and even inspired her to add a dish from it to her restaurant's menu. It does feel a wee bit condescending that she picked Near and Far as if she viewed the Food52 audience as a group of home cooks not up to the sophistication and skills of a professional. Still, it is her ultimately choice, and I respect her decision even if I don't agree with how she got to it. (Note: I do not own these books, so I can offer no opinion on either of them.)

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9 months ago Snafu06

I haven't cooked from Near & Far, so I can't compare the two, but I wanted to chime in and say I've cooked a lot from the Food of Oman and it's been great. A little more complicated than average and you may have to race to Amazon to get some ingredients (black limes for me), but I've enjoyed the half dozen or so recipes I've cooked out of it and look forward to cooking many more. Great book.

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9 months ago Rossella

I've all cookbooks written by Heidi Swanson, I just missed Near & Far or better, as described in the review, the Super Natural Every Day: A Moveable Feast.
I like the analysis made of The Food of Oman. It seems like an original book more useful to discover a culture and a country, than to cook everyday meals.

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9 months ago Victoria Carr

I am often bowled over by what other Food52ers think of the judgment, and I expect to be surprised this time. I don't have either book, so I have to judge would I want either or both based on what I read here. When I perused Near & Far in the flesh, although I thought it was lovely, I left it on the shelf. I have Heidi Swanson's other books, Super Natural Cooking and Super Natural Everyday, like them both, and decided I didn’t want another one. I did not have the reaction that I want to cook from Near & Far for dinner that night. I have not seen The Food of Oman, but it sounds unlike anything I already have, and Ms. Koslow’s musings on the book and the food had me spellbound. That is the book from this review that I am tempted to get. This is the time I disagree with what the reviewer did, acknowledging, of course, that she has the right to pick one anyway she wants. Choosing between two books, I am interested in which book the reviewer wants to cook from more, not what book would most appeal to a larger perceived audience. If that was the measure, how could Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts have advanced to the winning slot last year over David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen (both wonderful books). So while I loved the writing and the analysis here, I am a little disappointed at the result.

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9 months ago Niknud

Rachael is a trusted home cook.

I agree. After reading this review, the book I am tempted to go out and buy is the Food of Oman. While I always appreciate Heidi Swanson and her recipes, the reviewer made me want to discover The Food of Oman. If a cookbook is a leap of faith into the unknown and the new, and a journey to discovering new things, then I am drawn toward Campbell's book. No disagreement with the judgment, it is in the end a subjective assessment. Just mentioning that, from the review, I am more intrigued by the runner up.

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9 months ago Andi

Great review, but I probably wouldn't have chosen a vegetarian cookbook to advance, especially if the other had so much to recommend it. Everything written about the Omani cookbook made me want it, so I was surprised at the end by the choice. That said, I haven't personally read either and am only going on wanting more than vegetarian in a cookbook and the fact I'm currently playing with a lot of middle eastern cuisine.

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9 months ago mcs3000

I couldn't wait for this review. Jessica's Sqirl is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere (so excited for her book). Love anything by Heidi. Her books are my favorite to cook from and to give as gifts. Have not seen Food of Oman - looking forward to checking it out @ Omnivore Books.