By the Book: The Might of the Iguana and other Oaxacan cooking tales

When you’re looking for a recipe for iguana tamales, you want a reliable source. You can’t just trust your craving for wasp’s nest sauce or pitahaya-flower soup to Google. Instead, we recommend that you turn to Oaxaca Al Gusto, Diana Kennedy’s take-no-prisoners guide to one of Mexico’s most fascinating cuisines.

Considered the foremost authority on Mexican food, Kennedy is unapologetically authentic and this six-pound tome makes no concessions to convenience. So, if you’re in the mood for the dried shrimp tortillas known as gueta binguis and are out of zorrapa, Kennedy suggests that you use asiento instead, but you’ll have to turn to the glossary to discover that the former are crisp bits of fat from the front skin of a pig while the later are the residual crumbs left in the pan after making fried pork rinds.

It’s true that many of the 300 recipes here require serious commitment. Just reading the list of 21 ingredients for mole negro mixteco may make you want to take a nap, but if any cookbook can be called a page-turner, it’s this one. From the detailed instructions for barbecued beef head (with directions for steaming the brains in banana leaves) to descriptions of how to butcher an iguana to make a broth (“cooking times can vary with the age and toughness of the iguana…”), the text makes for absorbing reading for armchair culinary anthropologists. But it would be a mistake to leave Oaxaca al Gusto on the coffee table; plenty of the recipes, like the one for a stewed pumpkin seasoned with cilantro and mint, are more approachable than they appear at first glance. The many salsas, including her grapefruit-orange pico de gallo, are eye-opening in their simplicity.