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Sunday, December 17, 2000

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Bookshop with a difference

Set amidst spice and vegetable shops in a part of London where supermarkets are still alien, is a unique bookshop devoted to cuisines from all over the world. You might even want to indulge your tastebuds at the test kitchen at the back if you are adventurous enough, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

I have no interest in the culinary arts, especially in the exotic and the experimental. I never got beyond the vatha kuzhambu and paruppu tohaiyal of my village ancestors in Thanjavur-on-the- Cauvery. My fancy fare is confined to kosumalli and rasavangi.

So what was I doing on Blenheim Crescent, off Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London, browsing in the eclectic "Books for Cooks"? Where the small space packs in an exhausting array of over 8000 volumes - on the widest range of cuisines your wildest fancy can dream up?

Just look at the titles on the racks! With them you could be a gourmet Marco Polo wandering through West Asian and Mandarin eateries. Or delve into the ancient civilisations of the Aztecs and the Mayans - through their culinary tracts of course! Or sniff through the kitchens of all the European nations from Iceland to Cyprus. And satisfy the gustatory cravings of tongues from every continent on earth.

Luxury foods stand cheek-by-jowl with mundane stuff. I mean, you can learn a 100 ways of handling the potato or truffles. Discover uses old and new, whether of vinegar or rose water. If I wanted to check out the best way to roast polar bear, or stuff platypus (oops, are they on the endangered list?), some book here will surely tell me how to go about it.

Founded by Heidi Lascelles in 1983, "Books for Cooks" is conveniently located close to fruit and vegetable stalls, and opposite a piquant little spice shop. With antique stores and second hand dealers at different ends of Portobello Road, and exclusive shops like "Java Cotton" (hand-blocked fabrics) and "Ceramica Blue" (pottery from seven countries), the place is abuzz with tourists. Supermarkets are alien to this multi-racial neighbourhood, dotted with ethnic restaurants. No wonder "Books for Cooks" has become a favourite haunt for customers from all parts of the world. Says Assistant Manager Billie Whitehead, "The other day we had a man from overseas who said 'it has taken me five years to make it to this place but here I am!' "

The shop has its regulars too. Their suggestions are part of the research in acquiring titles.

What intrigued me about the shop was the tiny kitchen at the back. Here 20 chefs take turns to try out recipes from the books on display. "After all, the best recommendation for a cook book is that it really works," Whitehead smiles.

The test kitchen was a natural corollary of the specialist venture. The recipes are picked from the chefs' areas of interest and expertise (Raziya Desai offers Indian and South African delights). You could get anything from Lebanese bread to Japanese soup, or from the currently fashionable, sweet-spicy, cinnamon- khus khus flavoured Moroccan fare. Much depends on what is available in the season, and in the market on a given day.

"Customers have to take whatever is offered," warns Whitehead. With cuisines so varied and the food experimental, results could be anything from the splendid to the weird.

And yet, the bookings for the five tables and 20 lunches served every day are done six weeks in advance. "We try anything. Our lunches are definitely for the adventurous," says Whitehead. "We encourage feedback. Unlike in restaurants, our customers chat with the cooks, find out exactly how a certain flavour was introduced."

Customer requests for assistance led to workshops upstairs. Resident French chef Eric Treille (who launched the shop's own series of cook books), or one of the chefs attached to the shop, demonstrate a particular area of cookery in each session. Sometimes, authors of cook books provide guest lectures. The 24 attendees do not get to make the dishes themselves but interact through queries. And yes, they get to eat whatever is cooked. Special hands-on cookery classes are held for kids.

As I watched the Australian chef Jules Fergusson giving finishing touches to a lush, tawny dessert (assisted by Japanese apprentice Chi-Chi), I heard a couple from Houston, Texas, enquiring about the Books for Cooks holiday to Tuscany, Italy. "This trip gives us a week of cookery lessons through the day," they explained to me. "We are taken to local eateries and get to enjoy food in its natural setting." That's what I eventually ended up doing on the Portobello market, biting into the oven-hot, olive-flecked croissants, cooling down with garden-fresh figs and tangy raspberries.

Before I left, I spotted "The Travel Bookshop" (where Julia Roberts meets Hugh Grant in "Notting Hill").

But that is another story.

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