Cookbooks for Christmas: Not just recipes but reads to really savour

Ali Dunworth chooses cookbooks that go beyond recipes to tell fascinating stories of food and of life

To get a cookbook for Christmas is a wonderful thing – who doesn’t love the prospect of a whole new world of recipes? But among the many thousands on the market are ones that offer much more than just the food on their pages – books with stories and adventures, books you’re just as happy to read and pore over as to cook from. Here is my selection of some of the best.

The Rice Book

By Sri Owen

This book, first published 30 years ago, is considered a bible by many when it comes to perfecting and properly knowing rice. All the basics are here, with recipes, tips and techniques thoroughly tested by food writer Siri Owen. But you won’t just learn how to hone your rice cooking: Owen explores the fascinating history, mythology and even the economics of rice around the world, from the old rice of Asian farmers to the new rice on supermarket shelves.

Comprehensive recipes are given for both everyday and elaborate rice dishes, always with insightful introductions. This is a book as packed with information as a banana leaf full of lontong (compressed rice eaten in Indonesia and Malaysia).

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen: A Love Letter from Damascus

By Imad Alarnab

Written by Syrian chef, entrepreneur and refugee Imad Alarnab, this book gives an astounding perspective into not only the food of his country but also the historical and political events that have led to him living in the UK, cooking and writing about the food and family he misses from a Syria past.


Alarnab charts his journey from Damascus via Calais and on to Carnaby Street, where he now has his own restaurant, all the while sharing his knowledge and love for the vibrant, flavour-packed food of Syria. It’s a book that really celebrates how food has the power to bring people together no matter what.

Butter Boy

By Paul Flynn

There’s an intimacy to reading Paul Flynn’s new book that makes it so much more than a recipe book. Butter Boy chronicles Flynn’s time writing for The Irish Times from November 2019 to October 2022 and offers a complete collection of his articles and recipes from that time.

The recipes are great – approachable, seasonal dishes – but what really stands out is Flynn’s writing, which is honest and comforting, just like his cooking. You’ll laugh and maybe even tear up a bit as you read his diary-like entries and get to know his family, his likes, his fears, his love of music and festivals, his camper van and much more.

Manu: Recipes and Stories from My Brazil

By Manoella Buffara

Chef Manoella Buffara, better known as Manu, is a leading figure in a new generation of Brazilian chefs. Her captivating debut book tells the stories of the dishes in her eponymous restaurant in Curitiba, Brazil, through recipes and photography but more so through Buffara’s engaging writing.

She shares her childhood memories and brings us on her journey of falling in love with food and cooking while travelling. She introduces us to a rich tapestry of native Brazilian ingredients and writes passionately about using them sustainably. The recipes are certainly for the more intricate chef but the stories are food for the soul.

Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food

By Fuchsia Dunlop

The latest book from acclaimed food writer Fuschia Dunlop doesn’t offer any recipes but instead delivers incredible insights into understanding and eating Chinese food. It’s a mammoth subject matter, one that Dunlop herself admits should take three generations to fully understand.

She has spent almost three decades now immersed in Chinese food, exploring, eating, cooking, writing and researching, and this book is the result of that. The stories are told through a banquet of 30 dishes, delving into the ingredients, history, folklore and cultural elements of each dish. This is a book that will leave you hungry in more ways than one.

Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook

By Melissa Thompson

Motherland is a collection of recipes you’ll definitely want to cook, but along with that, Melissa Thompson unfolds the story of Jamaican food through its history and ingredients. She explores the island’s vivid larder, dishes and food from the indigenous people and the diaspora.

You’ll learn how the Spanish and British colonisations left an indelible mark on the island and the influence enslaved men and women from west and central Africa had on the cuisine and culture. It’s a brilliant pairing of recipes and essays that gives excellent context to this treasured Caribbean cuisine.


By Richie Castillo and Alex O’Neill

Masarap is the latest addition to the small but mighty Blasta Book series. These books are all about telling food stories and this time it’s the turn of Richie Castillo and Alex O’Neill, owners of Bahay, a pop-up Filipino-Irish restaurant business.

Together they showcase Castillo’s Filipino-Irish heritage through ingredients, stories and recipes. They write about the salty, sour and sweet tastes, Filipino pantry staples, and feasting, and explore how colonisation and migration have shaped the food they cook and eat. It’s a joy to read, topped off with beautiful illustrations by Nicky Hooper.

Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many

By Jeremey Lee

Don’t let the title fool you – this book is about so much more than cooking. Jeremy Lee is one of London’s favourite chefs and has been at the heart of modern British food for decades. Here he has created a real keeper of a book, full of doable, decadent seasonal recipes.

It’s loosely divided by ingredient, each section opening with Lee’s eloquent and entertaining musings. His food and writing somehow manage to be both delightfully old fashioned and thoroughly modern and chic – just like the chef himself. It’s made all the more special by John Broadley’s “decorations”, or illustrations to you and me.