Samin Nosrat knew the premise of her debut cookbook wasn’t going to serve up photogenic fodder.
The book, released in April, is a primer that she says puts “ideas, concepts, philosophy” first. If it was solely text, it would be unwelcomingly dense. But since the West Coast cook’s intention was to get people to cook without recipes, she didn’t want to include imagery that emphasized them. Plus, as she pointed out, “photos tend to promote precision,” which is the antithesis of her mission. Illustration was a better option, she reasoned, and she sought out graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton to collaborate on the project.
That’s how “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” became part of a slow-growing outlier category of cookbooks: Those with hand-drawn images instead of the typically lush food photography of the meticulously styled variety.
Some of these books adopt the visual structure of graphic novels, while others include sketched guides to working with ingredients, and still others employ colorful pictographs. They all fuse words and images and deviate from the standard format. But especially for readers unaccustomed to the unconventional layout, how usable are they?
The very first example of the graphic cookbook appears to be Len Deighton’s. In 1965, the British spy novelist published a collection of the black-and-white “cookstrips” he had created for the Observer newspaper. Since then, additions to the genre have appeared sporadically, with a notable recent uptick.
In “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” there are only four illustrated recipes, and MacNaughton sees them more as underscoring than instructive; they “give visual life to what Samin has already put in the text and reinforces the learning.” Infographics dominate: Various types of charts and diagrams document ideal water-to-grain ratios and what a boiled egg looks like at different stages of doneness. MacNaughton’s leading principle is what she refers to as the “see-say argument,” which defines a successful illustration as one “that shows something you can’t tell . . . in a way that’s easy to use — to implement — and is also visually appealing.”
Last year, Ten Speed Books offered two entries in the graphic-cookbook category. In July, artist Robin Ha’s “Cook Korean!” hit the market. Saturated in bright hues and jam-packed with unframed, hand-drawn sketches and words, her “cookbook comic book” was inspired by and, simultaneously, was a deliberate departure from graphic novels about cooking and eating. She noticed they were more interested in plot than culinary instruction but recognized the potential for applying the “sequential art” of comics to the act of preparing a dish. “You can see a series of images in the order that they happen,” she noted. “And cooking is basically a series of actions that need to happen in order.”
Abraham Conlon, chef and co-owner of Fat Rice in Chicago, found that such a sequencing strategy works best for demonstrating specific techniques. His Macau-informed restaurant’s cookbook, “The Adventures of Fat Rice” — the second of those Ten Speed titles — deploys a similar graphic approach to unfamiliar processes, such as butchering clams, washing rice or folding samosas and dumplings. Any required wok maneuvering is translated into the black-and-white grid of the strips Conlon loved as a child. Each coincides with a text recipe.
He said he and co-authors Adrienne Lo and Hugh Amano didn’t want to sacrifice good text descriptions for the graphics. Alternatively, they recognized that few cookbooks teach cooks how to properly work with woks and that the speed required was better conveyed by pictures. “If you lost your place, you didn’t have to go back and read,” he said. “You could just look up and get to the frame, because it moves fast.”
“The Adventures of Fat Rice” is a pastiche: Along with those illustrations from Sarah Becan and the prose, you’ve got Dan Goldberg’s photography. It’s all intended to transmit the aesthetic and energy of the restaurant and its multicultural cuisine.
When discussing cookbooks, we rarely consider them from an ergonomic point of view. But this category forces us to do just that. And what works for one author or artist or home cook doesn’t work for them all.
According to Steven Franconeri, professor of cognitive psychology and principal investigator of Northwestern University’s Visual Thinking Lab, biology makes some of these formats less construable than others. Our visual system, which involves up to 50 percent of our brains, is wired to process the world as a unit.
“After that,” he explained, “it needs to look at certain details and compare this thing to that thing . . . and that process is complex and flailing all over the place — it’s foraging through things that are interesting. It’s great if you’re a data analyst looking at a graph, or looking for Waldo, or searching a crowd; but if you’re trying to control the order in which the information is presented, it’s not the best way.”
Recipes — and our ability to follow them — rely on that order.
A comic book panel using a 1-2-3-4 sequence tends to work in part because it provides a clear, linear progression. And since the human visual system “can only process about four things at once,” he says, restricting the number of frames in a strip is also helpful.
Recipes that move in a circular, winding or unrestrained manner may be aesthetically pleasing when taken as a whole, but they are hard to follow, as are those that cram too much onto a page. Franconeri endorses still lifes of ingredients, where no ordering is necessary; diagrams that indicate scale, allowing you to see how big or small a cut should be; and diagrams for culinary techniques such as hacking up a chicken.
Scott McCloud, cartoonist and author of such books as “Understanding Comics,” appreciates that form of graphic tutorial for the same reason. “If there’s one error I find repeatedly, it’s not breaking down your process so there’s one image for every thought,” he said of his medium. He said dispersal of images and text in “Cook Korean!” causes visual dissonance.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, a former graphic designer and cookbook author who recently opened Nabi, a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, said she thinks of a cookbook as a manual. While she acknowledged the talent displayed in the illustrations, she didn’t see how Ha’s use of graphics “added anything to the explanation of the recipes.”
With some adjustments, Ha’s recipes could be more effective than their typed iterations, said Alberto Cairo, professor of visual journalism at the University of Miami. “When something is explained in text or verbal form, our brain tends to create pictures,” he said. Infographics or similar illustrations, then, succeed when, “if I explain it verbally and I show you a picture to supplement it, part of the work your brain needs to do is done for you.”
“The visual explainers are cleaner in ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ ” than in “Cook Korean!” and “The Adventures of Fat Rice,” he offered. “They don’t look as baroque as the other ones.”
Asked whether she considered presenting her recipes in a more traditional format, Ha was emphatic. “I don’t really like cookbooks that are just text-based, because a lot of times I don’t know how some of the ingredients should look like and what some of the cooking terms mean,” she said in an email. “I think a lot of home cooks have the same issues.”
What do some actual home cooks think? I asked some I know to spend time with the three titles. They agreed with Cairo’s assessment of Nosrat’s book but had varied responses to the more “baroque” option. Laura Schwalbe, 34, who lives in Manhattan, said she loved MacNaughton’s graphics in “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” “I was able to recall the information a lot better because of the charts and graphs,” she said. “I’ve never memorized a pesto recipe, but I was able to get what the pesto pie chart was trying to say so that I understood why those ingredients are used and how to sub them out per my choosing.”
Shawna Mitchell Sisler, 37 in San Francisco, agreed: “The watercolor, stencil look is clean and inviting.” Her reaction to “Cook Korean!” was tortured. She found herself unable to complete a dish. “I started on two different recipes and got so annoyed at the lack of linear instruction lines and all the excess clutter that my brain exploded a little,” she said.
But Brooklyn resident Gheanna Emelia, 27, had a different take. She missed neither the type nor the photographs in Ha’s book. “There is text direction,” she remarked, “but paired with the illustrations, it’s short and effective!” Another tester, Cristi Rajevac, 34, who lives in Atlanta, said that “Cook Korean!” is “a really enjoyable way for someone with no experience with Korean food or cooking to dive in,” and because the culture was foreign to her, she says may have preferred the drawings to actual food photos.
Cairo said personal taste does play a role and that our preferences tend to be culturally informed. In addition to following a left-to-right, top-to-bottom flow, “American-European tradition is clearer; it uses as little text as possible and plenty of white space so the infographic stands out,” he said, referencing “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” as proof. “Japanese graphics,” he countered, “look very, very cluttered to Western eyes. They’re very busy and full of stuff, but their audiences seem to like them.” He said that he doesn’t cook, but were he to try, his ideal cookbook might be one that combines multiple media in a single image — so maybe you would have photographs embellished with hand-rendered elements or overlaid with typed notes.
Of course, Cairo’s functional ideal might be someone else’s “baroque.”
There’s obviously no perfect recipe for recipe writing. To demonstrate that point and help you find the format that works for you, we’ve taken Robin Ha’s directions for making savory Pine Nut Porridge, a traditional, warming, mildly sweet and surprisingly meaty-tasting Korean dish, and presented it two ways: the vernacular text version (below) and Ha’s illustrated original (pictured above). The question isn’t “Does the porridge taste good?” (It does.) Or, even, “Does the recipe work? (It should.) The question is, “Is the form functional?”
If you want a graphic option that takes much of the preceding criticism and expertise into account, you might have to put pen to paper yourself.
Druckman is author of “Stir Sizzle Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet.” She will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
2 to 3 servings, Healthy
The original recipe called for a garnish of (inedible) pine needles.
Sweet short-grain rice is available at Asian markets and on the international aisle of some large grocery stores.
MAKE AHEAD: The rice needs to be soaked in cold water for 2 hours.
Adapted from “Cook Korean! A Comic Book With Recipes,” by Robin Ha (Ten Speed Press, 2016).
½ cup sweet short-grain rice (see headnote)
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup pine nuts (toasted or not), plus more for garnish
1½ cups water
½ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
Soak the sweet rice in plenty of cold water for 2 hours.
Drain the rice and transfer it to a blender. Add the milk and blend until the rice is completely broken down and the resulting puree is creamy. Pour the puree into a large saucepan.
Place the pine nuts in the empty blender with ½ cup of the water and blend thoroughly. Pour the pureed pine nuts into the saucepan with the pureed rice.
Add the remaining cup of water to the blender and pulse until the water picks up all of the rice residue. Pour the starchy water into the saucepan.
Bring the contents of the saucepan to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the ½ teaspoon of salt and continue to cook for 2 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking or clumping, until the porridge thickens. Taste, and add salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Divide among individual bowls and garnish each with a few pine nuts.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 3): 240 calories, 6 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 430 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Recipe tested by Charlotte Druckman and Kara Elder; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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