2020's food books of the year

Published on 10 December 2020

Photo: Tokyo French toast from A Year of Simple Family Food (credit: Armelle Habib)

Our standout publishing picks from Victoria’s top food talent.

Somekind Press’s Takeaway Series

In March, as restaurants around the country were forced to shut up shop, great minds kicked into gear with ideas to help bring some cash through the door. Two of those minds included designer Vaughan Mossop of Geelong’s Neighbourhood Creative and Simon Davis, a freelance editor in Sydney, who launched a series of crowd-funded books that let you peek into your favourite venues. Recipes, musings from chef-owners, stories, sketches and more grace the pages of the Takeaway books, which have grown from a handful of Victorian restaurants to venues around Australia and now a series for restaurants in the US. Every book is crowd-funded and, while venues take the majority of the profits to support their business, other contributors, from the designers to the writers, are equally paid. As for you, dear reader? You get a nifty little paperback that’s full of tidbits for your dinner party conversation.

Go-to recipe: Pie Thief’s lasagne pie

Get yours: somekindpress.com or booksforcooks.com.au

A Year of Simple Family Food – Julia Busuttil Nishimura

A cookbook structured by season isn’t by any means a new idea, but it’s a concept that’s even more enjoyable when the author happens to live in your home town. Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s delight at the first tomatoes or stone fruit of summer, her recipe for gyoza that will keep you busy all day when it’s raining, and her intimate knowledge of the dishes that an unpredictable spring calls for in Melbourne are a comforting guide in the kitchen. Throughout the book, she urges you to cook what looks best and feels right as you move through the year. And, as we were all forced to slow down in Victoria, these words reached a whole new audience of eager home cooks. Although the book’s publication was delayed by the pandemic, in the end it feels like it couldn’t have been timed better.

Go-to recipe: weeknight baked maccheroni

Get yours: julia-ostro.com or booksforcooks.com.au

Cartilage recipe journals

It was the year of the micropublisher, as creative professionals and those who just wanted to help banded together to do something for our restaurants. Cartilage, founded by a trio of former hospitality staff and publishing maestros, taps restaurants and asks them to share a handful of their favourite recipes that are achievable for the home cook, pairing them with illustrations and diagrams by either the chef or their chosen collaborator. Marion, Napier Quarter, Bar Saracen, Sunda and five other Melbourne venues shared some of their signature dishes, bringing a bit of joy into home kitchens that got a serious workout this year. The journals are electronic, meaning you can cook from them the day you purchase, and for every one that’s sold, two-thirds of the money goes directly back to venues. The tally so far is up to $10,000, with close to half going to Victorian venues. Stay tuned for news of printed box-sets.

Go-to recipe: Bar Saracen’s chicken kebabs with toum, green chilli and parsley salad

Get yours: cartilagelocal.com

The Isol(Asian) Cookbook – Joanna Hu and Rosheen Kaul

If you’ve been to Etta lately you’ve doubtless been wowed by Rosheen Kaul’s cooking. But new menus at one of Brunswick East’s favourite addresses aren’t the only good things Kaul wrote this year by any stretch. Between jobs back in lockdown she and a friend, illustrator Joanna Hu, self-published The Isol(Asian) Cookbook, a gorgeously illustrated softback packed not just with smart, mostly Chinese home cooking (creamy tofu noodles, Sichuan sausage sangas, smashed cucumber salad) but also with pleasing asides on instant noodles, frozen seafood and quarantine productivity. It was such a hit that it spawned a sequel, and a vegan edition.

Go-to recipe: creamy tofu noodles

Get yours: theisolasiancookbook.com

Vegan with Bite – Shannon Martinez

As a child, writes Shannon Martinez, breakfast with the Spanish side of the family meant a bowl of torn stale bread with sugar, hot milk and a good splash of stovetop espresso. “It might explain why I’m so highly wired as an adult,” she adds. “And also why I am not a huge fan of breakfast.” The new book from the Smith & Daughters chef-restaurateur is never short of swagger, just as her food never wants for flavour. Martinez fights for the idea that vegan food need not be worthy, earnest or boring, making the case with vibrant takes on dan dan noodles, puttanesca (“sex work is real work… unlike this dish”) and her dad’s golden-syrup dumplings.

Go-to recipe: mapo tofu

Get yours: from Smith & Daughters or booksforcooks.com.au

Punch – Shaun Byrne and Nick Tesar

This might not have proven to be the perfect year, epidemiologically speaking, to publish a book extolling the virtues of many people drinking from a large communal vessel, but if anyone can get us to sit up and take notice regardless of global health concerns, it’s Victorian cocktail gurus Shaun Byrne and Nick Tesar. In Punch the big-bowl drinking traditions of the world are just the beginning as they leap from cups and gluhweins into the wide, blue-curaçao-flavoured yonder. They blitz pretzels into their beer-based Oktoberfest, create a no-alcohol tribute to the tomato fight of Spain accented with fennel, honey and olives, and load a Koh Phangan Full Moon concoction full of rum, mango, coconut vinegar and Red Bull (serving suggestion “straight from the bucket with crazy straws”).

Go-to recipe: the Oval Ball Punch

Get yours: from Hardie Grant or booksforcooks.com.au

Siciliano – Joe Vargetto

Joe Vargetto was born in Melbourne to Sicilian parents and went on to become one of the city’s best-loved Italian chef-restaurateurs. His mum came from Messina on the Sicilian coast, his dad from wheat-farming stock up in the mountains, and his own path led him through some of the most refined and ambitious restaurant kitchens in Italy’s north, so the food he presents in the dark and handsomely bound Siciliano is something he calls contemporary Sicilian. It starts, fittingly enough, with a chapter called The Lunch Box, before segueing into more restaurant-oriented food, arancine and ricotta cake giving way to the likes of prawns and couscous baked in a paper bag, green maccaruni with sea urchin and parsley root, and a (bloodless) cherry sanguinaccio.

Go-to recipe: handmade cavatelli with and yabbies – a dish Vargetto says is the culmination of his Sicilian-Australian upbringing

Get yours: from Melbourne Books or booksforcooks.com.au

Beatrix Bakes – Natalie Paull

This beautiful book from the North Melbourne cake landmark became one of the bona-fide breakout success stories of food books in 2020 even before iso-baking became A Thing. Nat Paull’s recipes are written in a winning maximal style, overflowing with wit, warmth and carefully observed detail – and let’s face it, when you’re talking baking instructions, more really is more. The “adaptrix” notes to each recipe multiply the possibilities and flexibility many times over. You don’t want a cheesecake layer in your carrot, toasted hazelnut and cheesecake layer cake? No problem. Want to try the almondjaws with salty dulce de leche as walnutjaws with tahini caramel? Here’s how. How about making rhum babas with seasonal citrus? Meet “the babas of Seville”. There’s also no shortage of tips on how to turn things around if they veer off-piste – a welcome bonus for novices and battle-hardened bakers alike.   

Go-to recipe: Calamity Janes, Paull’s winning flex on the Wagon Wheel

Get yours: from Beatrix Bakes or booksforcooks.com.au

In Praise of Veg – Alice Zaslavsky

Is there anything Alice Zaslavsky can’t do, in or out of frames? The Melbourne author, educator and broadcaster is, per Nigella Lawson’s blurb, “a force of nature”, bringing oomph and knowhow anywhere she trains her focus. But it’s vegetables that are her abiding passion and in her hefty new book, In Praise of Veg, that passion is given full rein. Coded by colour, starting with the “white” of garlic, daikon, parsnip, fennel and co, and tripping nearly 500 pages along to peas, lettuce, asparagus and their “light green” pals, it takes in everything from sticky Sichuan eggplant and silverbeet khachapuri to three approaches to tomatoes on toast. The constants? Zaslavsky never leaves a pun unturned or a word unplayed (sample subheadings: Scrap Medal; With Complements), and her chatty, personable style keeps things engaging right the way through the spectrum.

Go-to recipe: feel-good nachos

Get yours: inpraiseofveg.com or booksforcooks.com.au

Have a Go – Jo Barrett and Jana Langhorst

Okay technically it’s a magazine, and it’s really only one recipe per issue. But that’s what makes Have a Go so great: focus. Former Oakridge Estate chef (and now Greenhouse resident) Jo Barrett and photographer Jana Langhorst have now put out three issues of this title themselves, each edition diving deep into the technique behind a single food, zooming in both with the camera and with their attention: a simple white cheese in issue one, sourdough in issue two, and the croissant in issue three, with an examination of the making of mozzarella having just landed in the latest issue. Go on: have a go.

Go-to recipe: issue one’s fromage blanc is incredibly soothing just to look at, let alone prepare

Get yours: from haveagoseries.com or booksforcooks.com.au


By Emma Breheny and Pat Nourse

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