Fuck it, I’m biased. I have a cookbook coming out next year. But I cannot hold it in. Cookbooks are the best possible holiday gift around. Just the best. That is because in the year 2015, cookbooks are not just cookbooks. They are not simply hardcover editions that help you get from grocery store to dinner table. That’s what The Internet is for. No, cookbooks, when done right—and many have done it right this year—give you more than recipes. They offer rich stories of lands far away. They teach you how to eat in restaurants, and shop in the market. There are photos too, and not just a bunch of circle dishes on pretty tablecloths. The photos in many cookbooks have heart and personality. And maybe you will cook from a book until the cover is unrecognizable and splattered with mirin and soy sauce. But more than likely, the book is going to stay clean. And maybe it won’t even make it to the kitchen. Maybe it lands on the nightstand stack. That is OK. Nightstands are meant for cookbooks. In fact, maybe a cookbook can be added to your friend’s nightstand stack after you give her a book this holiday season. Because, cookbooks are the best possible holiday gift. Also, they are like $18-$26. Cheaper than a holiday round. Here are 12 standout titles.
The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia | By Felicia Campbell
Campbell is a former editor at Saveur and since serving as a 17-year-old private in the United States Army, has grown a deep connection with people and culture of the Middle East. In his breakthrough book, Campbell looks at the food on the coastal Arabian sultanate of Oman (not to be confused with the capital of Jordan) in telling a story of a mix of cultures (Indian, East African, Persian) and the Bedouin oath of hospitality. The recipes jump off the page, be it a beef and day-old flatbread stew called thareed, or a fiery tamarind barbecue sauce — accompanied with a photos of camels walking down a lonely highway. Campbell writes with a personal and conversational style that breaks through the many barriers standing in the way of you cooking the most delicious lamb and date stew from a little-known part of the world. Buy it.
Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes | By Peter Meehan
For more than a decade journalist Peter Meehan has documented the inner circle of progressive Asian-American cooking (he co-wrote the Momofuku cookbook with David Chang and is the editor of Lucky Peach, the unofficial yearbook for hipster Asian cuisine). But he’s also worked on the New York Times cheap eats beat, scouring the outer fringes of Flushing food courts and Sunset Park noodle shops to honestly report on little-known kitchen cultures. With that background, he’s written one kickass cookbook that is fun to read, and even better to cook from. Meehan has two ground rules going in: No frying and no sub-recipes (those sometimes annoying “see page 125” that can bog down the cooking process). And the “easy” in the title is not taken lightly—you’ll have dishes like the scallion pancakes and squash roasted with ginger, garlic and mirin on the table in short order. The noodles chapter is a favorite, with the concept of “Asian ragu” soon to take over kitchens during these dark winter months. Buy it.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations | By Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman
You didn’t know you needed an expansive, thoroughly researched and smartly written book about tacos, did you? You do. Alex Stupak is the chef-owner behind New York’s Empellón Taqueria, but also one hell of an opinionated MF in regards to cooking, eating and thinking about Mexican food. So it’s in this book, which includes recipes and many essays, that we find out that the most important aspect of the taco is the tortilla itself. So, make it fresh whenever you can (there’s extensive instruction on nixtamalizing corn, grinding masa and pressing and manipulating tortillas). But, also, we learn about salsas and adventures with chicken, beef, pork, lamb and plenty of vegetarian offerings. Stupak’s writing is personal, and the photography from Evan Sung is gorgeous as usual. Plus, your apartment will smell like your favorite taco stand for an afternoon. The neighbors are going to be jealous. Buy it.
Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking | By Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton
The Japanese are masters of many food things—cutting raw seafood, grilled and fried bar snacks, convenience store sandwiches served on the most pillow-like white bread. Cooking with earthenware pots is another of them, and this book is a masterwork on the subject—vividly photographed by and written with the precision and detail of a culinary school instructor (that would be co-author Takei). The donabe, which you can pick up for as little as $40, is not simply a fancy soup pot. It’s used to cook rice, steam, braise and smoke. The recipes, accordingly, vary in scope and difficulty. Buy it.
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe | By Olia Hercules
Before moving to London, writer Olia Hercules (SWEET name alert) was born in Ukraine and lived in Cyprus. This book tells the story of the blurring of borders and the foods of a pre-and-post Soviet Eastern Europe. There are Soviet goose noodles, with a story about a doctor uncle who worked during the peak of autocratic rule and and was “bribed” for faster services with fresh goose. What’s a wife to do with a surplus of fresh mallards? Make some bomb-ass pasta. The photography is particularly strong, as is Hercules’ gift for tight storytelling and sticking with the food details, rather than lengthy history lessons. Buy it.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science | By J. Kenji López-Alt
Kenji, like Julia or Mario, is all you need to say these days to get people’s attention. Here Serious Eats editor J. Kenji López-Alt has risen to single-name status on the back of this authoritative, 900+ page tome inspired by the popular Food Lab column. The premise is simple: Teach readers how to cook better through meticulous tested recipes and techniques. Write the thing in simple language. Go long when necessary, but not too long. Offer a lot of photos, a few charts and graphs. And do everything in your power to no scare people away. Mission accomplished. Paging through you’ll learn how to slice an onion, the science behind cooking ground beer (hamburger 101!), a concise definition for “umami bomb” and how to make the best salad dressing straight up. Buy it.
Benu | By Cory Lee
San Francisco’s three Michelin starred restaurant Benu is run by a Thomas Keller protégé named Cory Lee, a quiet and cerebral Korean-American chef who blends the flavors and techniques of east and west in his elaborate tasting menus. This book is a document of a typical (but hardly the definition of typical) 33-course menu. The recipes, the stories, the mood, all of it is there. With help from fans like David Chang, and a richly photographed trip back to South Korea, readers enter Lee’s measured and thoughtful cooking universe. Will you make all of these recipes in your small home kitchen? Maybe not. But this is a book more for the nightstand anyway. Buy it.
Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine | By Lidia Bastianich
Like Julia Child decades before, Lidia Bastianich has taught millions of Sunday afternoon PBS fans the proper way to make a pot of risotto alla Milanese, while telling the story behind the dish in a wholesome, sing-songy way that both educates and sooths the hangover you might also be battling on the sofa. This book documents the mastering of some basics, and modeled after Child’s landmark Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. But in some respects this is hardly Italian 101 territory. There are 400 recipes here, many inspired by the cook’s home in the northern Italian territory of Istria and Trieste. So, more wine braised short ribs then crimson tomato sauces found throughout the south. Butter is the choice over olive oil, etc. That said, pasta is most certainly top of mind. Because not fine Italian cookbook can skip out on that. Buy it.
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture | By Matt Goulding
Japan’s meticulous food culture is no secret, with the award-winning documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi yet another reminder of culture’s obsession to detail. In Japan, the concept is called shokunin, and Roads and Kingdoms co-founder Matt Goulding latches on with the intensity of the subjects themselves, choosing to illuminate cities like Osaka and Hiroshima not through the aseptic 36 Hours listicle model, but with colorfully reported stories of the ramen critic eating his way through the porky tonkotsu of Fukuoka, or the Guatemalan immigrant banging on the teppan like Roy Haynes, as his slowly learns to master okonomiaki in Hiroshima. Goulding, with the help of his publisher Anthony Bourdain, has re-imagined the travel book, and Rice, Noodle, Fish is essential reading for anybody planning a Japanese eating adventure. That is, everybody order this book. Buy it.
The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All | By Richard Betts
Richard Betts is a longtime spirits and wine writer and gained an incredible following with scratch and sniff wine guide. He returns here with the same passion, and fun, in a follow-up that aims to teach whiskey novices a thing or two about the different styles of aged brown liquid on the market. Note: this is not for people who know their Eagle Rare from Elijah Craig, instead targeted at folks looking to break into bourbon drinking. That is, not just ordering that junk with the red candle wax. The book is setup like a children’s book, where different notes describe different products. “Smoky iodine” is more Scoland, while sweeter caramel is more Tennessee whiskey. Playful illustrations describe the production process surprisingly well. Buy it.
The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook | By Danny Bowien and Chris Ying
Danny Bowien, you know this guy. Chef of Mission Chinese Food in New York City. Punk rock drummer. Awesome haircut. But do you really know this guy? This book—which is more memoir than cookbook—reveals much about a complicated figure, who grew up in Oklahoma and later cooked in New York and San Francisco in some pretty difficult situations. His honest stories about drugs and tyrant assholes running his early kitchens goes just short of naming names, but are still refreshing to read in day where kitchen culture is more and more being portrayed as just the opposite: warm and fuzzy. Read for detailed chapters about Bowien’s wild times cooking in Italy and China, and opening a restaurant (well, two actually) with a lot of hope and prayers, many of them answered. Most of the recipes approach pro-only level. But, it doesn’t matter. This story-rich narrative (steered by the very capable Chris Ying) is a great example of where cookbooks are heading. And that’s exciting. Buy it.