Book ideas for Christmas 2021

The A-Z of Pasta
Rachel Roddy
Published by Viking; Penguin Random House
As ever, plenty of great cookbooks this year. My favourite is Rachel Roddy's A-Z of Pasta. But there may be something else that suits you better. Read on.
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Welcome to my annual roundup of cookbooks published during the past year. 

As ever, it’s a lengthy curated catalogue of good books aligned to the kind of person who might like them.

It’s not an objective ‘the best’. Not even a subjective ‘my favourites’. Lists with those words in their title tend to be deeply flawed and are a bit reductive, really. Apparently there’ve been 800 food and drink books published this year. 40-50 or so of those will be good –  the result of hard work, skill, experience and enviable creativity. Another 40-50 might well be enjoyed and used – probably a set of branded recipes or rehash of something that’s gone before, but decent, useful and desirable to some. I’m not sure what the other 700 are about or why they exist, but still: 100 legit books. All due a doff of the cap.

So sorry if your book or your favourite is not mentioned below. Please feel free to add it in the comments. Perhaps, in the spirit of this list, suggesting the type of reader or cook for whom it’d make a neat gift.

p.s. if you are after sources of properly considered food book reviews / lists, then head to is Nicola Miller’s Tales From Topographic Kitchens – she’s extremely well-read and provides a proper digest. See also the reviews on Kavey Eats, where cookbooks are given a real working-over before they’re written about.

Top of the pile

Yeah so the list itself isn’t a ‘best of’ or ‘favourites’, but as ever I begin by mentioning the book that I’d personally love to receive (I already have it, but you know what I mean). 

Anyone can get insta(tik) famous by posting a video eating some pasta and then presenting a recipe with the words “here’s MY recipe for [insert basic and traditional pasta recipe that’s been cooked better by nonna’s for centuries]”. Seriously, hundreds do.

I mention this because the reason for the often viral success of those posts is largely because pasta is so familiar and comforting, and the recipes so easy and everyday. And so our appetite for them is impossible to satiate.

And I mention that because if you think you don’t need a(nother) book about pasta. Well, you do. Everyone does.

Rachel Roddy’s An A-Z of Pasta runs through an alphabet’s worth of pasta shapes, presents background, method, personal anecdotes, historical and sociological record, snippets, observations, and of course recipes. It’s captivating. There are a week’s worth of tomato sauces, all of which are basic, all of which you must read and replicate. Plenty of other lesser-known combinations and sauces too. None of them are presented as unique. And yet no one else could have written this particular book.

It’s perfect. In form – cover, colours, paperstock, ribbon – and, crucially, content. Recipes that both remind and inspire. Words so evidently educated, considered and none wasted. Because of the subject matter you’ll refer to or cook from it often. Grab a copy to keep by the stones and get flecked with oil, wine, pasta water and all the smells of the kitchen, plus another to read in bed.

Buy An A-Z of Pasta, on Bookshop / Amazon

For the person who likes to get stuck in

These three books may well provide comfort for some; a taste of home or travel. For others, they’re a trip into the unknown. A cuisine and culture to explore and learn to love. A style of cooking to really get stuck into – through quick weeknight meals, but also weekends of project cooking, when you’ve time to read, shop, put on and enjoy a feast.

Sambal Shiok; the Malaysian Cookbook by Mandy Yin is an absolute cracker. A tour of Malaysian food, albeit rooted in the story, laksa and (supreme) satay burgers of her excellent business (also called Sambal Shiok). Cook the laksa and satay burgers, of course. But also dive into the home style dishes section (in particular) for things like Nyonya chicken curry kapitan, Mandy’s beef rendang and sambal mapo tofu.

Uyen Luu’s Vietnamese; simple Vietnamese food to cook at home is another high quality edition to any cookshelf. Providing a highly cookable introduction to (you guessed it) Vietnamese home cooking, this is packed with fresh and fragrant food ideas, all easy once you’ve stocked your larder with a decent fish sauce. Uyen cooks the best pho in London … and now we can too.

I also think Thali; a joyful celebration of Indian home cooking by Maunika Gowardhan is a real treat. One could definitely just occasionally browse and pick out a dish to cook – I’ve literally never flicked through it and not landed on something that looks, sounds and then tastes incredible (just now, Parsi creamy chicken curry). Better still, note the theme of the book and cook as the title intends: as a  collection of dishes to build a full Thali (big plate). There’s a whole chapter devoted to dal. I’m into it.

Sambal Shiok on Bookshop / Amazon

Vietnamese on Bookshop / Amazon

Thali on Bookshop / Amazon

For arsonists

Looks like next year is going to be big on books about cooking over flames. Before those arrive, consider the Honey & Co duo’s Chasing Smoke. Itamar and Sarit’s journey around the fire pits and grills of the Levant takes in fruits, vegetables, fish … though I have to say I am drawn to ‘lamb and other meats’ section, be that for a base Adana recipe, lamb and loquat kofta, tahini BBQ lamb chops with fresh plums and spiced plumb sauce. Super flavours. All very achievable. 2022 is indeed going to be a BBQ year – I finally have a garden, and this book will remain close to but not on the fire.

Chasing Smoke on Bookshop / Amazon

For the person who keeps telling you about ‘That Time I Went to Japan’

Smart guy, Tim Anderson. Not only does he write excellent cookbooks. But he’s cleverly chosen to specialise in the world’s best and most varied cuisine (don’t @ me). Your Home Izakaya; Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan is indeed packed with fun and simple, things you know, things you don’t (/things you remember, things that are a blur). To begin with try the spicy sesame ramen salad and nikumiso lettuce wraps. So much more beyond. Damn this is a good one. Glorious design too.

Your Home Izakaya on Bookshop / Amazon

For the fruit, veg and herb growers

From the Veg Patch by Kathy Slack is a useful cookbook for everyone, but especially those who grow their own fruit and vegetables or subscribe to a veg box – it zones-in on 10 of the most common / glut-heavy British fruit and vegetables, and provides 10 recipes for each of them (and a few more ideas in passing). Classics and twists covered. It’ll help to keep things interesting.

Herb; a cook’s companion should hold the attention of growers (and others) too. Mark Diacono tended the garden at River Cottage then founded his own place, Otter Farm, before moving on. The relevance of that background is that he’s always has a way with herbs – growing them, cooking with them, preserving and generally making the most. I always enjoy Mark’s eclectic and global recipes, and they come to the fore in a book like this because the growing advice and recipes go far beyond the basil on your kitchen window ledge (plenty for that too), to basils from all over, shiso and so on. A good prompt to plant something different in the pots next year. And to use the bounty with liberal abandon.

If those two catch your eye, I think you might also be interested in Kylee Newton’s The Modern Preserver’s Kitchen. The three or four pages on pickling brines and quick pickle ideas are reason enough to have this book on your shelves (the citrus-pickled fennel is perfect). But I also like that she boldly shows how tart and sour things are good everywhere. Such as in her chocolate and pickled pear frangipane tart, and pickled pea frittata.

From the Veg Patch on Bookshop / Amazon 

Herb on Bookshop / Amazon

The Modern Preserver’s Kitchen on Bookshop / on Amazon

For readers and thinkers (and for everyone else too)

Give Eating to Extinction; the world’s rarest foods and why we need to save them to the person who you normally give James Rebanks’ books. It’s an important and actually quite inspiring collection of essays from Dan Saladino, one the voices of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. In it, Dan meets and writes about people and communities who are fighting to preserve ingredients and traditional ways of cooking and eating. The future of food – our future – lies in making urgent, proactive efforts to promote biodiversity.

Eating to Extinction on Bookshop / Amazon

For the veg-focused thinkers

On which note, Anna Jones’s One: Pot, Pan, Planet: A greener way to cook for you, your family and the planet binds Anna’s well-established approach to food to the unavoidable reality that we’re messing things up right now. Plenty of tips in here on how to be more eco-conscious in our shopping, cooking and eating habits. Also an awareness that few of us feel as though there’s enough time to cook from scratch; at least not beyond the handful of things we can make with a pack of pasta and some tomatoes. The corn risotto, aubergine and peanut stew with pink onions and one pot orzo with beetroot, thyme and orange have become staples over here.

One on Bookshop / Amazon

For fans of Nigel Slater

Maybe try Nigel’s latest?! It’s excellent. If you know Nigel’s previous hits (including Appetite; Kitchen Diaries I, II, III; Tender I, II (my personal favourites); Greenfeast I, II &etc) then you know what you’re getting: low-key, minimal ingredient, maximum comfort recipes, plus prose to relax to. Eyes are drawn to things like marmalade chicken, gentle soups, braised pork meatballs with rib ragu sauce and the lyrical phrases that preface and surround every recipe.  

A Cook’s Book on Bookshop / Amazon

For fans of Ottolenghi

Personally I think it’s mostly a clichéd nonsense to moan about lengthy ingredients lists and necessarily large cupboards full of barely used jars. But here we are with yet another top book from the Ottolenghi stable (this time expressly by the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen team) … which knowingly takes on that trope and offers myriad ways to use up everything on your shelves, whether you bought them because you clicked on his Guardian column or not. It’s called Shelf Love and is the first in a series of OTK cookbooks. Absolute Flavourtown.

Shelf Love on Bookshop / Amazon

For those who wish it could be Christmas, every day-e-yey

In theory it seems kind of mad to have a whole book that’s relevant for, at best, 5 weeks of the year. And yet they’re useful and used, aren’t they? Nigel, Nigella’s and Delia’s are my go-tos. There’s a new one in town, though, and I have a feeling that over the next few decades it will become the one I use most often. Anja Dunk’s Advent; festive German bakes to celebrate the coming of Christmas sits in the nichest sub-genre of this already niche sub-genre. But I know I’m not alone in wanting to bake festive things. To send Christmas smells round the house. And to create traditions and memories with my son. Bring on a month of Stollen and spiced biscuits (so many varieties!)

Advent on Bookshop / Amazon

For the kids

Feast Your Eyes on Food: A Food Encyclopedia of More Than 1,000 Delicious Things to Eat, by Laura Gladwin and Zoe Barker is an incredibly thorough and enchanting illustrated encyclopedia of ingredients and dishes from all over the world. For (in particular) the 7-11 in your life.

Feast Your Eyes on Food on Bookshop / Amazon

For people who probably correctly think most cookbooks are aspirational nonsense and I’ll not cook more than one thing from them just pass me The Roasting Tin

Ruby Tandoh’s Cook As You Are; for real life, hungry cooks and messy kitchens bucks the trend, not least in its paperback presentation, but also because she says it like it is and offers realistic (and still totally desirable) recipes and food choices. The ideas are organised loosely around mood, time it takes to cook, the reality of the way we eat (what’s in the cupboard, do I want a snack or a meal). All of which appeals to me. You too? Variations and substitutions abound. Real talk.

(p.s. Rukmini Iyer’s Roasting Tray series is also great. But you and this person probably have the set already.)

Cook As You Are on Bookshop / Amazon 

For those with sweet teeth

La Vita e Dolce by Laetitia Clark is D-reamy. I loved her book Bitter Honey, which was full of Sardinian food and scenes, and really made me want to travel there when this Pandemic is over/in between variants. This new one is full of sweet stuff – biscuits, tarts, cakes, sweets by the spoon, fried things, gelato and gifts to give to others. Turns out Italy offers a lot on all these fronts. Not just tiramisu (though of course that’s there too). I’ve eyes on the ricotta, pear and hazelnut layer cake. Also chocolate fudge ice cream with mascarpone.

And without wanting to appear as though I’m just copy-pasting the sweet section from last year, when baking books from Ravneet Gill and Edd Kimber were suggested, may I commend to you the latest baking books from Ravneet Gill and Edd Kimber. Both are very strong indeed, Rav covering classics, twisted classics and newer takes. Edd repeating his excellent One Tray premise, but this time making it (even) eas(ier).

La Vita e Dolce on Bookshop / Amazon

Sugar, I Love You on Bookshop / Amazon

One Tray Bakes Easy on Bookshop / Amazon

For enthusiastic eaters … who don’t cook so much

Most cookbooks end up being coffee table books or shelf place takers. At least the two that follow were planned at least in part for that purpose.

Clare Finney’s The Female Chef: 30 women redefining the British food scene is an essential snapshot of the current media representation and also to an extent reality of women in food. Which is to say, masses to celebrate, plenty more to be done. Clare interviews around 30 restaurateurs, chefs, cookbook writers to get the lowdown on their background, influences and current work. Names you know, some you don’t, all beautifully presented and each with a portrait and recipe too. I think it’d be good to run a new edition every five years or so.

On which note, another pleasing book by the same publisher (Hoxton Press) was updated this year – Rosie Birkett’s East London Food (2nd ed.). You might know it if you spend a long time browsing the living room images on The Modern House. Again, it’s a really good and worthwhile snapshot of a scene of note. Obviously very targeted towards a certain geographic and probably demographic. Of which I must declare an interest. But perhaps you or a friend do as well.

The Female Chef on Bookshop / Amazon

East London Food on Bookshop / Amazon

For everyone in addition to all of the above. Surely?

Thanks for reading to the bottom (almost). Better salespeople than me would have begun by noting that all of the books suggested above (and below) ought really be the *second* book that you give to another or ink on your own wish list. The first being my most recent cookbook, Crave: recipes arranged by flavour to suit your mood and appetite. Should be in/near everyone’s stocking. Prettier than candy canes. More useful than chocolate money. Tastes better than charcoal. Probably minimises the impact of Omicron. Definitely ensures better sex.

Crave on Bookshop / Amazon

More inspo needed?

Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora by Bryant Terrry – afraid I have not yet got hold of a copy of this but the premise, the editor, the publishers, the premise … seem important. I will rectify and in the meantime see if you can take a look yourself.

Three by Selin Kiazim – so much inspiration here for the keen cook. Big on flavour; and smart combinations (the premise is every dish flies when there’s ‘acid, texture and contrast’)

Bowls and Broths by Pippa Middlehurst – I loved her (of the brilliant @Pippyeats fame) book Dumplings and Noodles last year, and this is more on a similar theme and some quality. Improve your soupy noodle and dumpling game.

Ripe Figs, by Yasmin Khan – a dive into the food culture and history of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. A class act, Yasmin’s recipes are tantalising, the stories, interviews, context in which she places them thoughtful and thought provoking.

Cook this Book by Molly Baz – omfg this bk is rly v gd yo

Chetna’s 30 minute Indian; quick and easy everyday meals – super useful, absolutely true to the title and a really good myth buster that cooking flavourful meals full of spice and fragrance needs to be any more admin thst whatever your normal staple faff free meals entail.

Next to each book mentioned are affiliate links to and Full transparency: I get a 10% kicker from both, which helps a tiny bit towards the costs related to running also sends 10% to its network of independent shops. Your call. Of course if you’re up for physical shopping, please make your local independent bookshop or Waterstones a priority visit.