Too many cookbooks have had a cushy time sitting on coffee tables and enjoying the quiet life. This year, things changed and they really had to earn their keep. They became life manuals and mood-lifters, helping us to travel when we couldn’t and show our love for people around us. More than anything, they allowed us to escape.
Who would have guessed that so many of us would respond to a pandemic by baking? Impressive-looking pastries made by disciples of former St John pastry chef Ravneet Gill have lit up Instagram most days. In The Pastry Chef’s Guide (Pavilion), Gill has taken a hellishly complex area of food and, blending a no-nonsense approach with solid experience, has written a guide with just the right amount of detail that will help you navigate choux pastry, ganache and creme anglaise with ease. The only surprising thing is how few photos there are but if you need visuals, they are available online.
Even the most enthusiastic baker will have experienced fatigue, and everyone needs fuss-free recipes from time to time. Edd Kimber’s One Tin Bakes (Kyle) perfectly fits the bill. It pulsates with enthusiasm, great writing and beautiful photography, with classics cleverly adapted to fit a 9 x 13in tin and plenty of new ideas to get stuck into too.
This year, I replaced my passport with cookbooks and of all the transportative ones, Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley’s collection of Palestinian food, Falastin (Ebury), was my favourite. I saw its recipes being shared online in the same breathless way that kids swap notes at the back of a classroom. “Try the chicken musakhan!” “The aubergine pilaf!” Here Tamimi returns home after a 17-year hiatus to reunite with his family and, although not filled with personal stories, it feels like a dedication to a long lost love.
Indonesian-Australian Lara Lee’s book on Indonesian food, Coconut & Sambal (Bloomsbury), feels alive in my hands. It is clear through the beautiful photographs and Lee’s excitable voice that she is enthusiastic to introduce you to the food and culture of her homeland. The recipes are a mix of the well known – rendang, nasi goreng, martabak, satay – combined with family favourites and some lesser-known dishes researched on her travels across the Indonesian Archipelago.
A book that felt groundbreaking while also long overdue is In Bibi’s Kitchen (Ten Speed), in which Somali-born chef Hawa Hassan and cookbook author Julia Turshen teamed up with African Bibis, or grandmothers, from countries bordering the Indian Ocean to present their recipes and stories. Despite my having two east Africa-born parents, nearly all the recipes are new to me and leave me with that thrill of having just discovered something that was there all along.
The Girl from Tel Aviv (Savyon) by Limi Robinson feels like a genuine family cookbook created by a mother for her family – but available for us all to read. It’s written with such clarity that you imagine you could jump between the pages and into Limi’s kitchen to hear her talking about her 1970s childhood in Israel, life in London’s Stamford Hill, and real family recipes.
On the Regent’s Canal in London is a jewel of a cafe called Towpath (Chelsea Green), which has recently brought out a book of the same name. In it, you’ll find chef Laura Jackson’s much sought-after recipes for simple dishes that are homely and special. There are meatballs, Turkish eggs and confit garlic as well as the spirit, stories and photos of canal-side life.
If 2020 has taught us anything then it’s that no skills are too advanced for a lockdown kitchen. Usually I’ll order food in a restaurant that I cannot make at home, but with Xi’an Famous Foods (Abrams), I feel empowered to stretch my abilities to making hand-ripped noodles. Unlike most restaurant cookbooks, it offers truly cookable recipes, and captures a personal journey, too, as it charts the Wang family’s migration from China to New York and from a bubble tea shop to a restaurant chain with 15 outlets.
We can always rely on Yotam Ottolenghi to help us upgrade our skills in the kitchen, as he does in Flavour, written with Ixta Belfrage, whose American-Mexican-Brazilian-Italian influences are visible throughout. We still have a lot to learn about how to make the most of our vegetables, and this book takes us on that journey. It’s broken down into three P’s: produce, process and pairing, and there’s a focus on 20 ingredients that do some heavy lifting in the flavour department. It’s the culinary equivalent of being on a boat with Marco Polo.
And finally, a new Nigella book will always have me doing heel clicks and Cook, Eat, Repeat (Chatto) is no exception. It’s surprising that she has embraced kefir-marinated fried chicken and vegan dishes. What’s not surprising, however, is Nigella’s beautiful writing. This isn’t any old TV tie-in book, it’s a rapturous account of wonderful food and a joyful antidote to everything else.
• Meera Sodha’s East: 120 Vegetarian and Vegan recipes from Bangalore to Beijing is published by Fig Tree. Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.