More food for thought and Christmas gift ideas from Bury St Edmunds-based food writer Nicola Miller
India: The World Vegetarian by Roopa Gulati (Bloomsbury Absolute £20)
The first recipe I cooked from Roopa’s book was her butterbean and cashew masala. After posting my photo on Facebook, it inspired New Orleans-based chef Chris De Barr to include it in a restaurant dinner, albeit with his own unique spin. Roopa has led an incredible life working on TV shows, in food media and as chef and consultant to major hotel groups and this shows in her food, which showcases regional Indian cookery from well-written and easily followed recipes inspired by street hawkers and India’s colonial past, to maharajahs in palaces and everyday home cooks. I love her spiced chilli cheese on toast; a primer on the proper frying of onions and the making of browned onion paste, both of them handy embellishments for dals and biryanis; coconut and pea pancakes served with a red onion, chilli and tomato rasam; a southern-style mango curry, and cute little ginger and green chilli doughnuts, called vadas.
In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life (Daunt Books Publishing, £9.99)
This is a little handful of a book, perfect for slipping into the stocking of anyone who loves a good food essay from writers drawn not only from the ‘genre of food’ but short-form fiction, poetry, and lifestyle journalism, too. There’s 13 pieces to savour from The Guardian’s Rachel Roddy who traces a punctured appetite and the growth to adulthood through the ovens in her life; Ruby Tandoh on the learning, unlearning and remaking of her ‘haphazard’ schooling in food and the work of writer Doreen Fernandez; Daisy Johnson on the food rituals which might be secret “even from ourselves”, until they unravel in a series of memories and images, repeated over time, again and again; and Yemisi Aribisala on a love affair in which food failed to work as a language: “Food was how we articulated the things that were too volatile to pass through lips,” she writes adding, “we were not fluent in the language we had invented.”
Red Sands by Caroline Eden (Quadrille, £25)
Caroline’s books are a genre of their own; they are not quite cookbooks or ‘travel writing’, but are the work of a writer who is deeply committed to representing those parts of the world beloved to her, in a manner that is not so bucolic that it skates over the challenges faced by the people she meets on her travels as a lone female. She is peerless and her books are epic in scope and deeply personal in tone and she does not get in the way of the stories of the people she spends time with. In Red Sands we travel through the central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, spending time in the world’s largest walnut forest, a remote place of “mystery and cult” where families pitch their tents and wagons for the harvest; the “black, oily heart” of the Ozen oil fields where locals hoard water to get them through the hot months; and in people’s homes and workplaces and social spaces. Her recipes are deeply located. A bygone Uzbek salad of black radish, pink pickled onions and pistachios predates the arrival of New World ingredients; Caroline’s version of a bread pudding from Tashkent’s “legendary bread bakers” is flavoured with cardamom and studded with dried apricots, cranberries and pear and speaks of the influence of the Silk Road; a Soviet ‘sanitorium appetiser’ places the nutrient-rich beetroot at centre stage; a lamb and quince plov by Imenjon is similar to the version he made for Soviet mountaineers at Peak Lenin close to the border of Tajikistan; whilst an apple vanilla vodka comes courtesy of a bartender in Almaty called Chingiz.
The Food Almanac by Miranda York (Pavilion Books £16.99)
This gentle walk through the words of great writers, organised by month and season is lovely and the kind of book one returns to again and again. It is packed with good reading which nonetheless retains a sense of calmness and space in its design and editing. There’s guides to seasonal ingredients, and recipes and menus by Zoe Adjonyoh, Meera Sodha and Rachel Roddy among others, and a feast of essays and poetry and monthly reading lists all delicately illustrated by Louise Sheeran. I particularly enjoyed Simon Thibault’s magical diorama about maple sugaring in Canada where “warm and dewy steam” billows from sap boilers, Lolis Eric Elie on the making of calas in New Orleans (a food unfairly cast into the shade by the more well-known beignets), Jessica Andrews on “the silt and cream and softness of crab” and the fabulous Kit De Waal whose essay about her father’s Antiguan Christmas cake shows that some of the best writing on food can come from authors who are not known for ‘formal’ food writing.
Oats in the North, Wheat From the South: The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet by Regula Ysewijn (Murdoch Books, £25)
Sometimes it takes a person who is not from the UK – Regula is Belgian – to truly appreciate our baking traditions and in this, her second book to focus on British heritage cooking, Regula’s meticulous research and what she describes as her “insatiable interest” has produced an absolute treasury of recipes. Culture, landscape, legend, tradition and climate underpin her exploration of our greatest baking traditions with essays about bread, fruit cake, pie and mash shops, griddle cakes, buns (and more!) and 100 classic recipes illustrated by her atmospheric photographs. I learned so much from the book and its incredible portal of a bibliography. I had never heard of Isle of Wight doughnuts, Cumbrian clap cake, Cumberland rum nicky, or Whitby lemon buns and I did not know that Brighton has its own local version of rock cakes where they are sold to this day at the Pavilion Gardens Café. Regula also acknowledges the painful history of our sugar trade: “Sugar has a cost, and that cost was paid by those held in bondage,” she writes, which is not something you see very often at the start of a baking book. I applaud this.
A book for devoted bakers and beginners alike.
Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou by Melissa M Martin (Artisan, £26)
I make no apologies for including this wonderful book published much earlier in the year which did not get the attention in the UK that it deserved. A story of a land under threat (Louisiana is estimated to be losing an American football field of wetlands to the ocean every hour) with attendant loss of culture, traditions and industry (75 per cent of commercial fish and shellfish species depend on the state’s wetlands for survival), this book documents the history of the Cajun culture through a series of essays, recipes and photo-journalism. And it is deeply moving and urgent. Melissa writes about the oyster, the state’s pearl, which “can’t move away from danger” and are therefore totally dependent on healthy water reefs as are – to a great degree – the Cajun people who have grown up on the bayou before giving us recipes for bisque, oyster butter, and oysters fried on toast, alongside a handy guide on how to eat them on the half shell. There’s crawfish hand pies, primers on how to make your gumbo roux, duck jambalaya, a recipe for l’il green peas and small red potatoes seasoned with cayenne and butter, and the famous red beans, smothered okra, bread custards, beignets, and pecan macaroons of the state. There is even a salad made from thistles. A caveat: here in the UK, some classic Cajun ingredients are not easily available, but there are enough do-able recipes in this book to make it a worthwhile purchase for those of us not fortunate enough to live in Louisiana.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020