At a little over 23, I’ve had the privilege of living away from home a couple of times already and each time, the experience has been different due to differing circumstances.
While living in a hostel, student accommodation facility or PG can give you the comfort of having someone keep warm meals ready for you at the end of a long day, I’ve found that after a while it becomes repetitive, and sometimes might even seem like a bit of an inconvenience.
Also let’s be real, the timings for these set meals are a real bitch.
It’s a privilege to come back to prepared food when you’re away from home and can’t cook (or be bothered to) but unless it’s the kind that helps you miss home a little less, what even is the point? I find myself lacking that ‘magic something’ in food that is batch prepared at canteens and served by semi-polite people who don’t really give a shit all the time.
I’d much rather be in control and not bound to have puri and dal (a reference based on recent experiences) on a Monday morning just because the canteen thinks it’s the best option to kick start a work/school week.
I’d rather start the week however the fuck I want to. Healthy, sugary, savoury, maybe even nothing at all – the possibilities are endless when I’m in charge.
The argument here is that I come from a place where I enjoy cooking, maybe more so, that I can cook. Sure that’s true, but I believe that you needn’t be a classically trained chef to be able to cook, find it therapeutic or be good at it in the first place. And that no matter at what stage you are at, it’s a life lesson, and whatever your gender, cooking is a massive skill to possess!
I’m a chef, and I no longer see daily cooking as therapeutic – something I initially did. It’s become mainly about control. I like being in charge of everything I consume, doesn’t mean it has to come out of my kitchen. I just like the idea of having the option of sleeping in and having dry toast on a Monday morning if that’s all I want.
Control I’ve noticed, is one the best things about adulting in general. We’re willing to put up with every shitty circumstance for a little bit of that.
Consumption is a massive aspect of control. Why let go of that because we are made to feel like cooking requires two heads or an extra pair of hands?
You’ve survived +2 math. Trust me, you got this!
As much as I like takeout on a particularly busy day, and I’ve had days when dinner couldn’t be more than a bag of chips, being left at the mercy of the overzealous PG Aunty is annoying.
Which is probably why this month long work trip has been bit difficult for me. Perhaps Delhi would feel more like home if I’d cook a little and be more in charge instead of living on what the copious amounts of restaurants in the city had to offer.
I love eating out, but not all the time. Kabhi kabhi ghar ka khana really helps on an emotional and nutritional level. Perhaps if, like my colleagues, I could pack myself – no matter how meagre – a lunch, I’d take a break once in a while.
But my lacklustre tryst with Delhi hasn’t been the inspiration for this post.
This year has been strange for my partner and I – several of his friends moved out of the city, some of whom I was close to on some level as well. While I’ve become okay with separation from loved ones over the years, he is still quite sore, new to feeling the absence of people he had grown so accustomed to being around.
But the fact remains that a conversation with any one of these many friends of different temperaments reveal that they are all moving on from the shelter of college canteens and home to that of the terrifying world of adulting, mostly alone.
For many, cooking isn’t proving to be of much success and for others, it’s something they’d love to try but are afraid of. There’s another group – the ones that can’t be bothered (and that’s fine too) but realistically only for the short term.
Lastly, there are the ones who want to be healthier. They’re in a bit of a fix.
If I had to pin point one conversation that prompted this post, it would be the one I had a few weeks ago with a distraught friend who wasn’t being able to wrap his head around why his flatmate refuses to eat vegetables.
There are also juniors who’ve reached out over the years to ask for survival tips, some others who’d just like a bowl of khichdi on a cold day to feel warm and some more who want to sleep in on a Sunday morning instead of making it to 8 am scheduled breakfasts at the mess because they have no choice (or maybe that’s just me).
This post is for all of them (provided they have access to a functional kitchen, no matter how tiny) and really anyone who has recently moved to a new place, is alone or comes back to an empty or semi-empty home after a busy day, would like quick, hassle-free fulfilling meals or just want to learn a new skill and be more in control.
Most importantly, it is for people who want to eat well.
The following list of books has been a massive help to me and others I know from the food community when we started cooking for ourselves regularly, when I realised that maybe shopping and cooking for one is kinda tougher than for eight, when I was a little in over my head with it all and mum was unavailable for recipe advice.
Disclosure: Please note – we have used Amazon affiliate links on this post. This means we might earn a commission if you click on a link (in the section title or within the sections themselves) and sign up for or purchase something through it.
Regardless, I seriously hope that investing in any one of these if not all, helps you begin your independent food journey too!
If you’re at the ‘I can only boil water’ stage or worse:
• How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
This is the Holy Grail of beginner cookbook bibles. It starts at the very basics and patiently holds your hand through the entire process of cooking just about everything and if you’ll only be bothered to invest in one book, this should be it.
This also comes in a few other iterations if you’re so inclined:
How to Cook Everything Basics
How to Cook Everything Fast
How to cook Everything Vegetarian
But unless you’re vegetarian, I’d recommend purchasing the original or Fast.
• Cooking Basics for Dummies by Marie Rama and Bryan Miller
I don’t know why the Dummies books get so much hate from people (read: my partner). I’ve invested in a few over the years (ignoring his not-so-subtle disapproval) and I find them quite useful.
One needs to simply accept that not everyone is ‘smart’ at everything and that’s okay. Ego isn’t good when you’re learning kids, learned that the hard way. It’s okay to take things slow and learn from the very beginning no matter how stupid some things appear.
For Dummies also has a lot to offer in terms of variety once the basics are conquered:
Baking for Dummies
Gluten-Free Cooking for Dummies
Grilling for Dummies
Nutrition for Dummies
Cast-Iron Cooking for Dummies
It’s an endless list for whatever your health and cooking requirements are. The books are very simply written too which makes it better for people who want to learn to cook without frills.
• Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown
This is ideal for students and professionals alike. It gives you notes on how to plan meals and shop on a budget. The recipes are simple, approachable, healthy and take a very tight budget ($4 or equivalent/day) into account which is always the case for food when you’re a student.
No matter how much allowance you’re given (or make), somehow it is all spent on booze and books and clothes.
You can get the ebook for free too, but a purchasing a copy means you’re donating to people who are less fortunate and that’s always a good idea.
• Cooking Outside the Pizza Box: Easy Recipes for Today’s College Student by Jean Patterson
This book doesn’t have any special recipes. It’s quite run-of-the-mill in terms of its repertoire.
Its USP, however, is the fact that there are a couple of chapters that break down how to shop for, clean, and store food, as well as make menus for yourself. The best is probably the section which gives you alternatives to kitchen equipment that may not be available to a student.
For a beginner with very little resources, that sounds like important information to have access to, right? But if you’re the intuitive kind, you might want to give any of the other four on this list precedence over this one.
• The Starving Artist Cookbook by Sara Zin
This is one of the most delicately done books on this list and among the only ones on this entire post without any food photos. Instead, the artist and author, Sara Zin, has watercolour paintings of all the food she’s compiled in the text.
It’s a labour of love and a result of the overwhelming number of cookbooks she encountered while still a beginner and just learning to manage finances and cook for herself.
You go on a bit of a journey with this one and it’s beautiful. Strap in!
Also read: our piece on another beautifully illustrated book, Cake by Maira Kalman and Barbara Scott-Goodman (and the honey cake I made from it).
If you HATE cooking:
• The I Hate to Cook Cookbook by Peg Bracken
The name of this 1960s classic is pretty spot on. Think in terms of a lot of food that will be ready in less than half an hour and aimed at making the life of the cook easier.
“Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them,” says the opening line. “This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”
Bracken’s book is smart. She has a dry sense of humour, an affectionate condescension towards men, and a heavy dependence on premixes. But most importantly, she pokes fun at the joy that women were supposed to prescriptively take in their domestic duties.
There are newer versions of this. If you’re lucky you might find an old or used original copy for a lot less than the MRP.
• What the F*@# Should I Make for Dinner?: The Answer to Life’s Everyday Question (in 50 F*@#ing Recipes) by Zach Golden
Let’s be honest, all the cursing you’ll find in this book is a tiny bit gimmicky.
It’s hilarious to read and if that’s not enough, the recipes are genuinely great and for the people who may not like to really think hard about what to make for dinner after a long day of work and aren’t very good at it.
Golden’s a screenwriter so he writes to sell, and the book is fashioned similarly. There’s a website by him with links to recipes that are failsafe, but I’d recommend the book, for the cursing as much as the food.
(I’ve included the image of Men’s Cooking Manual because it emphasises on techniques and is useful, but is not primary list worthy.)
There are a million diets out there. If I were to list books catering to every kind, I’d probably need a separate post for that. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make a list of healthy favourites soon, but if you’re someone who is new to meal prep and healthy eating and cooking, I’d probably recommend you start with these:
• Happy Food by Niklas Ekstedt and Henrik Ennart
This is more educational than for recipes (only about 38 of those inside). It’s an important book to consider though.
The authors are a chef and researcher pair who marry food with gut and in turn mental health to give you a crash course on the relationship between the two along with recipes that are not difficult but are great resources in understanding food-health relationships. Quite the rollercoaster.
It isn’t a textbook. There are brilliant photos and about 13 chapters on gut health and mental health. Whatever your take on food and mental health, this is a great place to get a wholesome idea of how things work, recipes and to put you on a positive path to healthy living.
• The Doctor’s Kitchen by Dr. Rupy Aujla
This book is by a (very cute) British-Indian doctor who I have had the pleasure of meeting. He is a full-time GP practicing in the UK but when it comes to curing sickness, he believes the longterm solution is with a food-first approach.
If you live and eat healthy, chances of you getting sick are significantly lower. Simply put, prevention is better than cure. There is a lot of Indian food in his cookbook too but you’ll also find middle eastern, British and other cuisines.
It’s very millennial friendly because it offers variety and keeps things interesting and is made for busy people (like himself).
His latest book The Doctor’s Kitchen – Eat to Beat Illness is also another good option.
There’s always his youtube channel, website and instagram for you to look him up his recipes, videos or general wholesomeness.
• Nobs Cookbook by Lucy Mountain
Nobs stands for No Bullshit.
This is a cookbook and lifestyle guide of sorts created by a nutritionist and personal trainer couple. The recipes in the book are meant for everyone and are really simple.
What I love about their philosophy is that they want to move away from the culture of demonising any kind of food (or food group) because it may not be as nutritionally dense as others. Simply, a kale salad and a donut are both food items, labelling one as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’ is unnecessary and could lead to unhealthy relationships with both.
The guide is a subscription based workout program catering to both gym goers, people who workout at home and newbs, and you can follow them on Instagram for a better understanding of it all.
I’m focusing here on the cookbook. It has a lot of fun recipes which are easy and filling and healthy and totally doable at the end of a long hard day or if you’re entertaining guests.
(Also, Lucy is a treat to follow online. She’s funny, unapologetic and real.)
This is another very interesting take on healthy eating and living.
I must admit that his recipe videos freak me out because he yells and throws food into utensils to cook ’em, but if he wasn’t yelling, I’d be on board.
The recipes are simple and really take no time at all. Unlike Jamie Oliver (no shade) whose 15-minute recipes are anything but, these are actually ones you might be able to finish preparing in less than half an hour and are nutritious.
The books come with workout plans and I’m not very sure about that side of things. I only speak for the cookbooks and as far as healthy living goes, you’ll manage to make quite a bit of progress with his recipes.
He also has a bunch of other In 15 books you can check out depending on your dietary preferences and exercise needs (which is a bonus).
• The Wholesome Kitchen by Pooja Dhingra
India’s dessert queen made the book for the times when you want something fun but without the guilt because sadly guilt has become such a big part of our relationship with food.
Dhingra’s book isn’t a health/diet book but it has simple recipes that work well and is a better approach to snacking in general. She’s written it with her nutritionist sister-in-law and elaborates on her own struggles with food and weight loss.
She’s got recipes which are part of her ‘JUMP’ range at Le 15 and includes things you can make and store and consume overtime keeping Indian kitchens and the climate in mind. She’s also got Bollywood’s healthiest contributing recipes and some lovely pictures.
I love her and the ‘indulge’ section is where she shines. Expect a lot of zucchini and chia as substitutes for regular ingredients.
For the ambitious beginner or if you only want to cook on your day off:
I have massive respect for Ottolenghi and the influence he wields over the world of food (fangirl!).
Simple is among his easiest books to follow even if you’re a beginner. The instructions are comprehensive, there is a lot of variety, a list of alternatives to ingredients that might be difficult to find and the beautiful pictures which will immediately make you want to drop everything and cook.
If you’re new to Middle Eastern food, there are menu ideas at the very end of the book for every occasion.
If you’ve mastered Simple, you might also want to consider:
Plenty by Ottolenghi
Jerusalem by Ottolenghi
Often, recipe books don’t have to just be a set of instructions, Ottolenghi makes them beautiful reads as well, much like Nigella, but her writing is perhaps for another time, another list, another story.
Simple celebrates food and life and a philosophy. Eat well and you shall live well.
Whether on Twitter or in this book, Chrissy is unapologetic and hilarious.
There’s a recipe for everything you’d ever want at the end of a busy workday or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or on your period. The recipes aren’t elaborate, they aren’t for chefs, they’re for real people, busy people who love to eat and plan their day around their meals.
A lot of the recipes are ones she’s usually cooking for herself and he family. There are a few which are her mum’s. Funnily, there are just as many pictures of her as there are of food, if not more, but the recipes work, which is what matters.
She’s also got another book, Cravings: Hungry for More, if you’d like more of her sparkling personality and more of her delicious food (although I don’t have this second one in my collection yet).
• Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One by Anita Lo
I found Solo while going through a weird phase in my life – still uncomfortable but adjusting to the idea of possibly dying alone. The book was released last year and is among the very few books on this list written by a Michelin Star Chef.
Anita Lo is very busy, has given up on relationships and has resigned herself to the idea of being single for the rest of her life. But it isn’t sad – the single life – when you can cook. Everything is fine at the end of a long cold tiring day if it ends with a hot meal or on a sweet note.
This book is a lesson on life as much as it is on cooking, at least that is what it’s been to me. Being alone doesn’t necessitate a pitiful dinner of cornflakes out of the box (nothing wrong with that, we’ve all been there, but it’s okay to celebrate yourself with an elaborate meal-for-one on the reg).
Lo’s recipes aren’t complicated though; she cooks all day so she keeps things quick and simple(ish) for herself, and for you.
• I’m Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown
This book is by a TV chef so it’s made out like that. But beneath the frills is an excellent book on food, the science of the why’s and how’s and references.
There are a couple of versions of this one and it’s been updated to keep the pop culture references fresh but overall, on the cooking front, you’re sorted no matter which one you choose to buy.
If you’re so inclined you can find him and his work online for a lot less money (or free) as well.
• The Minimalist Kitchen: 100 Wholesome Recipes, Essential Tools and Efficient Techniques by Melissa Coleman
The Faux Martha is a blog and drool worthy Instagram feed that’ll make you want to get up and live the good ‘minimalist’ life.
All the white backgrounds and pretty plates aside, the food her book and the blog features, is quite simple and ideal for a newb to emulate.
I’d have days when I’d cook something, look for positions with natural light and feel like a fancy food blogger even as I took pictures only to prove to my family that I was indeed eating healthy and trying to live a balanced life.
If you’re the noob who’s stuck having to host a party or worse impress a date or the fam:
• Wine. All the Time: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking by Marissa A. Ross
Whether it’s a meeting with a senior or impressing friends or a date, this cool book by one of my favourite wine people in the world will make the subject less pretentious, intimidating, boring or disgusting.
You needn’t study wine to become good at it and understand your own preferences, and someone who knows their shit while ordering booze, well now that’s sexy.
Buying wine shouldn’t be as stressful as it is, and this will become your ultimate saviour!
• Let’s Stay In: More Than 120 Recipes to Nourish the People You Love by Ashley Rodriguez
This book comes from the author of Date Night In, which is another book you might want to consider if cooking with your partner is something you want to consider as a romantic or relaxing activity.
For Ashley, food is a lot about sharing joy with loved ones – your friends, partner or family and it shows in her writing. The recipes make for cozy nighttime reading and are ones that are best shared with others, both in consuming and preparing.
If my floof was a little less about finding his corner on the bed and working on the laptop for the date nights we have at home, and a little more about actual human interactions, we’d totally be doing ones where we’d cook together and not bother with takeout.
This last list is for the times you miss home and Mum’s cooking:
Depending on where you’re from, the cookbooks you choose might be different. The Bengali-Indian in me has time and again turned to these books for the familiarity of home without necessarily having to deal with the complexity of a full-blown spice box:
• Masala: Indian cooking for Modern Living by Mallika Basu
Interestingly, Basu has admitted that she didn’t know how to boil water when she herself first moved from Kolkata to London and had to teach herself everything from scratch.
Her book is very no nonsense because she’s busy, has a job, children, and a life. Her recipes are all very Indian but the kind you can make and enjoy in half an hour or so. She also covers recipes from all over the country even though the Bengali ones peek out and take precedence occasionally.
She’s just really cool and although the book is made primarily keeping an alien audience in mind, the recipes feel authentic. For a beginner, this approach to Indian cooking is really helpful because starting with the basics of spices and what certain terms are and what they mean and how they add to the dish, are all very important ideas to develop, even if you’re Indian AF.
• Indian-ish: Recipes and Antic from a Modern American Family by Priya Krishna
This one is by a true ABCD and millennial, and is for the city kid. There are a couple of videos on Youtube if you’d like to test the waters before buying this (and I suggest you do that).
But here’s the thing, I wouldn’t like it for anything other than the whacky versions of actual Indian food it has to offer. The book has easy recipes that the author grew up eating at home as an American-Indian and how she remembers these recipes that her mum altered to create a very unique blend of the Indian and the American flavours.
If you like Maggi a 100 different ways, why not look at other Indian food that basically does the same? Always a great option for the nights you have really random things at home and you need some way to make sense of all of these ingredients in one dish.
The aloo bhaate lover in me couldn’t resist adding one of the most comprehensive books in English with only Bangali khabar.
This has all the Bengali recipes you could ever be in think of, and a couple of others which are staples of Banglalis, on a winter evening or rainy weekend morning.
This book came about after the success of the author’s blog that features more than just Bong food so that is also something you can choose to look up for inspiration on any random day.
• Indian: At Home with Madhur Jaffrey by Madhur Jaffrey
Madhur Jaffrey is a badass who taught the world to cook, consume and fall in love with Indian food. She’s the grandmum everyone needs in their kitchen with tips and tricks. This is the simplest and most laidback of all her books.
Cook away with reassurance of the end product being amazing friends. She’s got your back.
This is a list where I’ve tried to keep every kind of prospective cook in mind, the inspired to the lazy, the homesick to the explorer and everyone in between. Most of these books aren’t by chefs, they’re by normal people with day jobs who happened to discover cooking. Many of them also have blogs or websites which are free and offer the similar content, in case cookbook purchasing won’t fit your budget at the moment.
Recipes in most of these books don’t require an oven, just the simple kitchen setup works for many, but a microwave or an OTG will probably be able to give you access to every single recipe in all the books.
In case you’re looking for something more specific or different kinds of help with starting/keeping at it, comment below or reach out to us on social media and we might end up curating new posts on the basis of it!
I’m also considering other lists on basics in kitchens/cooking, not the Basics with Babish kind (another super helpful series of videos you should check out btw) but on things like a list of equipment you need in a frugal setting, meal prep basics/ideas, etc.
Hope this helps. Let us know how else we can help.
Let’s get cooking and take control!
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