Cookbooks have offered us some small solace during this abysmal year, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread unabated. They've been a source of inspiration and escape, giving new life to the same humdrum ingredients (we've eaten SO MUCH chicken!) and grounding daydreams of eating in restaurants or traveling abroad with the very real flavors of some of our favorite dishes around the world.
There were many excellent cookbooks and pieces of food-related writing published in 2020, and finalizing our recommendations was no easy feat. For the list below, we decided to highlight the works of authors and food industry figures we've long admired or collaborated with, with a particular emphasis on Serious Eats contributors past and present. All are resources we'll treasure for years to come.
If you're interested in buying any of these books, please consider patronizing a local bookstore; Indie Bound and Bookshop both offer an easy way to shop from independent bookstores, whether in person or online. While the affiliate links below all direct you to Amazon, and any purchase made using those links will put money in Serious Eats coffers (and we truly appreciate it!), independent bookstores need your help more than ever before.
The Flavor Equation
You're likely familiar with Nik Sharma's latest book, The Flavor Equation, since it seems to be on every "best cookbook" list of 2020. Nik began writing regularly for our site earlier this year—if you've been entranced by Nik's crazily aromatic lamb biryani or if you've decided to always keep a deli container of his carrot raita in the fridge, then you've probably already picked up a copy, but for anyone who's still on the fence, this book is a food geek's dream. Not only are there over 100 recipes, all as meticulously tested as any on our site, but there are incredible photos (also taken by Nik), tables and charts galore, and a wealth of information about how to harness the science of flavors to produce incredibly tasty and visually stunning food. In just this last week, Serious Eats staff members have raved about the burrata with chili oil, the lamb chops with scallion and mint salsa, and the masala parathas. We really can't recommend it enough.
Every Night Is Pizza Night
Kenji López-Alt's new children's book, Every Night Is Pizza Night, illustrated wonderfully by Gianna Ruggiero, presumably needs no introduction to our readers. After all, Kenji announced its publication right here on the site, and he's written a column on cooking with kids to satisfy the curiosity of any young readers who might be tempted to expand their culinary horizons in the same way Pipo, the protagonist of the book, does in her quest to determine whether pizza is in fact the best food in the entire world.
Each and every parent on the Serious Eats staff knows this book intimately, since our kids all love it and demand that we read it to them near nightly, and the rest of us are very thankful to have a no-brainer gift for all the little ones in our lives.
Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill
Longtime readers should remember Leela Punyaratabandhu, the blogger-turned-cookbook author. While her blog, SheSimmers, continues to be a valuable resource for Thai recipes, her previous cookbook, Bangkok, is a must-have for any cook who's visited the city and wants to recreate some of its most iconic dishes.
Punyaratabandhu has followed up that book with one that focuses on the grilling techniques of Southeast Asia, drawing inspiration from her memories of eating delicious grilled foods across the region as a child. As with Bangkok, Punyaratabandhu notes that she makes all of the recipes in the book in her home in Chicago, and helpfully offers up appropriate substitutions for ingredients that may be difficult or impossible to find in the US. The book is perfect for cooks who love the flavors of Southeast Asia, no matter how skilled or ambitious. For the serious kitchen tinkerers, there are recipes for smoked sausages and grilled stuffed chicken wings. For the more laid back cooks, there are simple but delicious recipes like grilled oysters with crispy shallots, green onion oil, and peanuts; or the pork and crabmeat crepinettes.
The Best American Food Writing 2020
Edited by Silvia Killingsworth and J. Kenji López-Alt, the annual compendium of the best food writing of 2019 is a must-have for any and all food nerds who value the written word. While many of the pieces contained within the book exist online in one form or another, reading them one after another in a bound volume offers a time capsule of the concerns and trends of food media in 2019, which has only become more poignant and affecting when read in the context of the ongoing pandemic.
On a personal note, we're pleased as punch that the editors chose to include Sho Spaeth's essay on Benihana in the collection, and included Miranda Kaplan's essay on Medieval Times in their list of other notable food writing for the year. Congrats, Miranda and Sho! Yay, Serious Eats!
Bryant Terry has numerous accolades, both as a chef and an author, and we here at Serious Eats follow his work rather closely (in 2014, we picked his book AfroVegan as one of our favorite reads of the year). But we are especially excited about Vegetable Kingdom, if only because it's a cookbook that's designed to get readers to cook. Each section begins with a relatively easier recipe, and Terry is a wonderful proponent of the ways in which proper technique translates into delicious food.
Yes, the recipes are vegan, which might be off-putting to our more carnivorous readers. But even the biggest meathead knows that vegetables, when treated with care and prepared properly, are stars that deserve their own turn in the spotlight, and this book provides a steady parade of star turns. If you've ever gotten bored of cauliflower or you've found yourself staring at kohlrabi in the produce section, wondering whether or not today is the day the weirdly beautiful root is going to make it into your kitchen, let alone onto your plate, this is the book for you.
Harold McGee, the patron saint of food science geeks, has published another book...do we really need to say anything else? McGee's On Food and Cooking is a sacred text for Serious Eats staffers (we're all issued a copy upon hiring, and are required to keep it on hand at all times lest we risk firing), so as soon as it was announced he'd written a book about smells, all of our nostrils pricked up.
This isn't strictly a culinary book; while aroma is an important element of food and cooking, what McGee offers is a comprehensive guide to the world of odors that exist, both pleasant and disgusting and everything in between. He refers to this world as the osmocosm, (from osme, the ancient Greek word for odor) and he explores the osmocosm in minute detail, offering tables and lists and explanations for the smells of edible greens and herbs (useful, for sure, for the curious cook), but also for the smells of trees and moss, dead bodies and sex organs, toxic chemicals and the fragrances used in perfume.
In Bibi's Kitchen
A book dedicated to the cooking of grandmas? Written by model-turned-recipe-developer-extraordinaire Hawa Hassan, with the incomparable Julia Turshen? We were sold on this book before it was ever published, and once we got the book in our hands, we were delighted at our good judgment.
The book's recipes and stories are siloed into eight chapters, each focusing on the cuisine of African countries (Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, and Comoros) that lie along the coastline of the Indian Ocean. These countries also share a common language, Swahili, which also provides the operative word in the book's title: "bibi," which means grandmother.
Hassan and Turshen have written an intimate, revealing, and, above all, educational book. Not only is it a pleasure to read, but it's even more rewarding to cook out of, to experience the privilege of tasting recipes that have been handed down for generations, all made possible by the diligence and care Hassan and Turshen have amply demonstrated elsewhere.
Xi'An Famous Foods
It's no secret that Xi'An Famous Foods is one of our favorite restaurants in New York City. Discussions about heading over to one of the mini-chain's locations to pick up a quick bite quickly devolve into a cacophony of indecision, with people lamenting that anything they order (say, the liang pi cold skin noodles) necessarily means they can't order something else they desperately want (say, the cumin lamb noodle soup). But now, Jason Wang, the CEO and owner of Xi'An Famous Foods, along with his co-author Jessica K. Chou, have decided to let the restaurants fans have whatever they want, whenever they want it, by publishing this book of recipes.
While we wait to see what the ravages of the pandemic and its attendant economic crisis will do to our favorite restaurants, this book can only be described as a boon during these troubled times, when popping into a Xi'An Famous Foods location is relatively impossible for those of us who live far away from the locations that are still open. So we'll be cooking our way through this entire dang book until we can all safely reconvene at some Xi'An Famous Foods spot in the future, when we'll basically order everything on the menu all at once to celebrate.
Meals, Music, and Muses
As Ed Levine noted in his Alexander Smalls following the publication of Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen, Smalls is the only person in the world who's been awarded a Tony, a Grammy, and a James Beard. This book, written with Veronica Chambers (an award-winning author in her own right) combines Smalls's life passions in a single, beautiful volume.
Smalls describes the recipes as a playlist of the best dishes he's eaten, cooked, or imagined, and they are as enticing on the page as they are on the plate. While that may seem silly to say to a stunner like Smalls's sherry she-crab soup, it equally applies to simple recipes like the fried sweet white corn kernels with nutmeg, and to the seven okra recipes he includes, which will make a believer of even the worst okra-phobe.
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