From a deep dive into Chinese cuisine to a celebration of cakes: Observer Food Monthly’s books of 2023 | Food

The Farmer’s Wife

By Helen Rebanks (Faber, £20)

Rebanks is the granddaughter of a baker and when her husband, the celebrity shepherd James Rebanks, was studying at Oxford, she worked in a cafe whose fortunes she perked up by introducing wonderful homemade cakes (her intensely sweet crumbly date squares are irresistible). Her recipe book doubles as an honest, moving and absorbing account of life on a Cumbrian farm. KK
Buy it for: anyone who wants to feel like a farmer’s wife presiding over a trusty Aga

By Sri Owen (Bloomsbury, £30)

The Rice Book

For 30 years, a constant presence on any list of the greatest cookbooks of all time (including ours) while remaining relatively under-appreciated. This handsome anniversary edition, including 20 new recipes, should finally right that wrong. Nudging 400 pages, it is the definitive volume on one of the world’s staple ingredients, curated by Sumatra-born Sri Owen who visited 12 rice-growing countries for her research. It is all here, in update form: the cultivation, the history, the culture, plus 200 pages of soups, sushi, adobo, pilaf, rendang and risotto recipes gathered by a determined and gifted cook. In short: the welcome and overdue return of a food world masterpiece. AJ
Buy it for: the foolproof guide to cooking perfect rice

By Gurdeep Loyal (4th Estate, £26)

Mother Tongue

“The big theme of the book is playing with your food,” Gurdeep Loyal told me when we spoke earlier this year about his marvellous debut cookbook. An exploration of his British-Indian roots and the culinary knowledge passed down by the women in his family, Mother Tongue is also fired by Loyal’s globetrotting adventures when he was head of food trends at Marks & Spencer. Among the chaats and kati rolls, you’ll find influences from the Mediterranean, Japan, Mexico, Thailand and elsewhere. Loyal, a classically trained cellist, uses the metaphor of “flavour chords” to explain how he combines key elements in firecracker recipes such as rose and ancho chilli baked ricotta with persimmon and grapefruit, or tamarind, miso and date short ribs. KF
Buy it for: adventurous eaters

By Andi Oliver (DK, £27)

The Pepperpot Diaries Andi Oliver

Family and history told through plates of food. When Andi Oliver was stuck in Antigua for three months during the pandemic (her mother’s family is from there), it resulted in this, her first cookbook. All the Caribbean classics you hope for are here: fried dumplings; ackee, saltfish, callaloo; pepperpot; rice and peas; and roti. Many others, too. The dish I cannot wait to eat is the curry goat with chocolate. The hack I’ll use most often is the green seasoning. The recipes are punctuated with diary notes and stories (meet Vicky, the car-park meat-dealer, Sister Hector and Granny), all in Oliver’s warm, infectious voice. She is UK food’s best-loved personality, the Pepperpot Diaries can only add to that. AJ
Buy it for: the committed cook in your life

By Amy Newsome (Hardie Grant, £27)

Honey

Equal parts beekeeper, gardener and food writer, Newsome has managed a rare achievement: a single-ingredient cookbook with broad appeal, its recipes free from gimmick. In some, honey takes a starring role; in others, it’s used as a highlight to elevate other flavours. She’ll tell you why some honeys suit particular recipes – heather honey in panna cotta; safflower with duck noodles; clover in cardamom porridge – and why it comes with its own rules: it’s never a straight substitute for sugar, for example. This is all framed by research, records in the year of an apiarist, and notes on how to garden to best support bees. Special mention must go to Kim Lightbody’s photography, which bathes Newsome’s food in a golden glow. HO
Buy it for: gardeners who like to cook; cooks who like to garden

By Fuchsia Dunlop (Particular Books, £25)

Invitation to a Banquet - jacket

For Fuchsia Dunlop, Chinese food is the world’s greatest cuisine. She probably would say that, of course: since the 1990s, no western writer has explored the tastes and appetites of the country with such diligence and discernment. But Invitation to a Banquet makes her case with a hard-to-refute power. Written in the UK during the Covid lockdowns, with Dunlop infuriated at being unable to travel to the region, it distils her complex feelings towards China: her wonder at the techniques and adventurousness of the food; her growing feeling of transgression at the omnivorousness that had once led her to eat ingredients such as shark’s fin. There are no recipes, but you’ll learn about the cultural significance of steamed rice and dongpo pork, and, along the way, a lot about Chinese politics and history. TL
Buy it for: a greater appreciation of a cuisine and country

By Claire Ptak (Square Peg, £27)

Love is a Pink Cake

Ptak, who runs the much-loved Violet bakery in east London, grew up in northern California where she foraged huckleberries as a child and sealed her love of pastry while working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In this gorgeously photographed book (the title refers to a set of prints by Andy Warhol), she folds the two halves of her culinary life into a celebration of cakes, cobblers and chocolate cream puffs that can be savoured at different times of day. We also get snapshots of her bohemian early life growing up among musicians and sculptors and, of course, her rapport with Harry and Meghan – she made the lemon and elderflower cake with strawberry buttercream for their wedding. “Bake more often. Bake for those you love,” she writes, and this book makes the act seem irresistible. KF
Buy it for: Ptak’s invaluable tips at the start of the book to improve your skills

By Anya von Bremzen (Pushkin Press, £22)

National Dish Around the World by Anya von Bremzen

In an increasingly globalised world where we can eat food from five continents in a single day, is there still room for the idea of a national dish? Anya von Bremzen, author of the wonderful Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, thinks there is, and in her globetrotting new book she rushes off to investigate pot au feu in Paris, pizza in Naples and ramen in Tokyo with help from food historians, anthropologists, chefs and home cooks. Everywhere she goes, she finds the concept less solid than it appears: each national dish is shot through with contradictions and cross-pollinations, myths and outright lies. Von Bremzen is a delightfully engaged and engaging writer – a natural sceptic who is nonetheless thrilled by the food stories she’s pulling apart. KF
Buy it for: vivid portraits of some of the world’s great food cities and their inhabitants

By Bee Wilson (4th Estate, £28)

The Secret of Cooking

You might be forgiven for thinking renowned food writer Bee Wilson has written many cookbooks. But no, this is the first. Subtitled Recipes for an Easier Life in the Kitchen, the genesis was a period of unhappiness when her husband left her in the middle of the pandemic. Cooking anchored her, she says. Her kitchen, one of the few places she felt better. Echoes here of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but retooled as a cookbook. And it is in the peerless writing and the recipes she gathered from friends that her healing shows. Helped return her appetite for life. With recipes such as ratatouille for Richard; roasting tin chicken with fennel and citrus; and raspberry ripple hazelnut meringue, she boosted mine too. AJ
Buy it for: good ideas for dinner you’ll return to again and again

By Rachel Cooke (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

Kitchen Person

Since 2009, Rachel Cooke has been drawing on her love of food – or “enlightened greediness”, she calls it – to write a popular monthly column for OFM. Over the years she has confessed to cookbook author crushes, lamented lost restaurants, and mused on topics as various as inter-war English food, mayonnaise and cooking for politicians. Now she has gathered 50 of her pithiest columns into a single volume with illustrations by Holly Ovenden and photos from Cooke’s childhood in Sheffield, where her culinary interests were first kindled. Her reflections on food are always incisive and beautifully composed, but there are plenty of practical tips too: recipes, kitchen hacks, cookbooks recommendations. And in a nice touch, each column comes with a new postscript assessing what’s changed since it was first published. KF
Buy it for: anyone with strong opinions about breakfast, lunch and dinner

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