This year’s hottest and most hunger-stoking food writing has been in vegetarian and vegan books. Food writers have dedicated more time than ever into transforming everyday vegetables into centrepieces for dinner. The one that will undoubtedly get the country cooking more carrots is Jamie Oliver’s first vegetarian book, Veg (Michael Joseph). It strikes just the right balance between old, recognisable dishes such as quiche and moussaka, and new, such as Persian rice and dosas, to keep fancies tickled.
Meanwhile, Nigel Slater’s Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter (4th Estate) is an antidote to every trend-led book. Slater gets that you don’t want to cook all day, that you want something simple for mid-week supper and you’re happy to eat things on toast. While “autumn/winter” is not a radically new idea, it is a testament to how superb a writer he is that this book will make you want to stick a woolly jumper on, go and walk the dog then sit, feet up by the fire with a warm bowl of butternut squash soup.
Our worship at the altar of speed and ease in the kitchen shows no sign of abating, given the number of books dedicated to cooking with one pot and/or five to seven ingredients. The shining star is Diana Henry’s From the Oven to the Table (Mitchell Beazley), in which she faultlessly delivers highly achievable, boldly flavoured dishes. The true genius of this book lies in the fact that they don’t all look as if they have just been “bunged in the oven” when, in effect, they have. Henry also helpfully tells you straight what is too much of a faff and what is worthwhile effort, meaning you’ll never be ambushed mid-recipe, and you’ll learn how to cook along the way.
Also on the subject of fuss-free cooking is Alison Roman’s glossy Nothing Fancy (Hardie Grant). Roman has an “allergy to the word entertaining” but a palpable love for life, having people over and highly flavoured, low-effort food. What’s more, she has a knack for persuading you – yes, you – that you can cook a whole fish for friends for dinner and whip up snacks with ease. You won’t find tips on floral arrangements or napkins, but you will find heart, soul and food frequently and unapologetically made using store-cupboard ingredients. If your new year’s resolution is to have people around more often then this is the book for you.
The opposite of home cooking is restaurant cooking, and those books rarely make these lists given their propensity to cheffiness (and so a lack of empathy for the home cook). But two have broken ranks this year. The first is Dishoom’s From Bombay with Love (Bloomsbury), a lovingly put-together guide that is packed full of stories and beautiful photos. It shares the secrets (at long last) of the restaurant group’s popular recipes, from their bacon naan roll to their chicken Ruby Murray and Black Dal. A book for both the coffee table and the kitchen.
The second restaurant title (and possibly my favourite book on this list) is Black Axe Mangal (Phaidon) by Lee Tiernan, a chef-disciple of the Fergus Henderson, nose-to-tail school. It roars with audacious personality, colour and flavour. But there’s substance to back it up, with generous information on grilling, smoking – hot-boxing your own mackerel, for example, or de-boning a hare. OK, so some recipes are completely unachievable, but others like aubergine and ricotta flatbread might make it to your dinner table. Not for the novice cook or the faint-hearted – but it is really great.
This year there has been a welcome selection of books on food from all over the world. The one most plastered with my sticky notes is Selina Periampillai’s The Island Kitchen (Bloomsbury) with recipes from the Indian Ocean islands, from Madagascar to Mauritius (where the author’s parents are from) and the Maldives. For the most part the story of the food is the story of people who migrated to the islands from Europe, Asia and Africa, resulting in vibrant and invigorating flavours. King prawns with tamarind and coconut, Creole saffran (spicy turmeric) rice, and cumin and lentil flatbreads are all on my to-cook list.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan (Bloomsbury) was first published almost 20 years ago and became something of a bible, but has been updated with new information, recipes and beautiful photos. Now it is a masterpiece. There is much expert knowledge and brilliant writing from Dunlop on textures, techniques and the story of Sichuanese cuisine. Equally, there are many achievable recipes, from bang-bang chicken to dandan noodles, which beg you to drop by your local Chinese grocer and get straight into the kitchen.
Georgie Hayden’s Taverna (Square Peg) takes her back to Cyprus, her motherland, for recipes her yia-yias (grandmothers) would be proud of. Much of this food I’ve heard of – halva, taramasalata – but much of it I haven’t, and tomato-braised peas and beans, courgette keftedes, tahinopita (tahini and cinnamon swirl) all sound delicious. The recipes centre on feasting, family and community, and the stories and photographs of her family are more personal, combining to give a satisfying taste of home. More homely cooking is available in Vicky Bennison’s Pasta Grannies (Hardie Grant), the book of the YouTube series in which Italian nonnas show you how to make pasta dishes by hand. Part anthropological record of a dying skill, part deep dive into Italy’s incredible regional culinary repertoire, it is a heart-warming big hug of a book.
Baking books have tailed off in tandem with Bake Off viewer figures and instead fermented foods, pickles and preserves have arrived. Sour (Quadrille) by Mark Diacono zings from page to page, with must-cook-now recipes using the tang of citrus or the sweet sour of tamarind.
Away from the direct heat of the stove, Bee Wilson’s excellent The Way We Eat Now (4th Estate) is a state-of-the-nation book that explores our food systems, how global economics has changed the way we eat and how what we eat is not necessarily a question of personal choice. However, the book I’ll be curling up with when not actually cooking is Charlotte Druckman’s Women on Food (Abrams), her wide-ranging, unorthodox anthology of food writing. It’s sharp, witty, entertaining and has insights from a host of brilliant food writers, from Nigella to Tejal Rao.
• Meera Sodha’s East: 120 Vegetarian and Vegan recipes from Bangalore to Beijing is published by Fig Tree.
• Save up to 30% on the books of the year at guardianbookshop.com
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