clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Deep Dives: The Biggest New Cookbooks of 2016

Restaurant history, food science, and more

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Ready to take your cooking to another level? Want to dive into a specific subject, a regional cuisine, or the art of the cocktail? These books are here for the dedicated cook and food obsessive. With big releases from Lucky Peach, Fuchsia Dunlop, and the late Sasha Petraske, there's a lot more to learn.

Check out every essential new cookbook to snap up in 2016.

Ten Restaurants That Changed America

Paul Freedman
Liveright, September 2016

Even in our somewhat recent past, many of the dishes that people paid considerable sums to eat in restaurants were at best inoffensive and at worst inedible — while still somehow incredibly vexing to prepare.

For a book that sounds like an overgrown listicle, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a surprisingly dense history of the United States over the last 200 years, one that touches on the evolution of not just food, taste, and culture, but also race, gender, and class. Written by Paul Freedman, a medieval historian and the chair of the History of Science and the History of Medicine program at Yale — whose two prior volumes, Food: The History of Taste and Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, indicate his more recent interest in the history of how we eat — Ten Restaurants more or less begins with the opening of Delmonico's, generally if arguably considered the first proper restaurant in the United States, in 1827, establishing 150 years of French hegemony over American fine dining, and essentially ends, in the late 1970s, with the rise of Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, and all they have come to represent.

Most of the restaurants chosen by Freedman encapsulate a distinct issue in American history: Antoine's, the cultural legacy of slavery and the erasure of Black labor; Schrafft's, white, mostly middle-class women's rights, particularly the right to consume like men; Howard Johnson, the emerging middle class, blooming suburban hellscapes, and the chains that followed; Mamma Leone's and Mandarin, immigration, exoticism, assimilation, and xenophobia; Sylvia's, the Great Migration, Black culture, and "soul food"; and the Four Seasons, the emergence of the thing we now recognize as the modern American restaurant. To be clear, even as these issues emerge in the text — and they are generally handled with unusual care and consideration — the book remains firmly grounded in its rigorous accounting of the history of each restaurant, most of which span around 40 pages.

That's also where its sole flaw lies: The generous littering trivia can be thrilling, particularly the details covering what and how people used to eat in restaurants — do you even know how much rich people fucking loved to eat turtles? — but occasionally it gets bogged down in swamps of minutiae. I never quite fully ingested its detailed stenograph of the various owners and branches of Delmonico's, for example. As a result, while Ten Restaurants generally delivered what I want in a popular history book — scenes of everyday life combined with sweeping social history — it might be denser reading than what some sign on for.

Anyway, in the back, there is short appendix of recipes. They mostly serve to confirm that even in our somewhat recent past, recipes were often atrociously written, and that many of the dishes that people paid considerable sums to eat in restaurants were at best inoffensive and at worst inedible — while still somehow being incredibly vexing to prepare. One of the simpler dishes to cook, Schrafft's chicken a la king, had a reputation for being "dainty and elegant in its original context" as a popular entree for women. But when I made it, it turned out as billed (or warned): "simultaneously bland, hearty, and fattening." I highly suspect that the most delicious is Cecilia Chiang's Sichuan twice-cooked pork — pretty much every iteration of the dish I’ve had at Sichuan restaurants is great — but I don't have a wok. Interestingly, Alice Water's curly endive salad still seems of-the-moment, so making it for the purposes of culinary time travel would seem to evade the point entirely.

It's hard to call this anything but a must-read for anyone who thinks — and especially, writes — about American restaurants with any kind of depth. But maybe spare yourself the inclination to taste that history. —Matt Buchanan

BUY: Amazon

Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China

Fuchsia Dunlop
Norton, October 2016

Dunlop masterfully guides readers through the centuries of gastronomy in Jiangnan underpinning the recipes.

When Fuchsia Dunlop writes about Chinese food, you pay attention. She trained in a Sichuan culinary school and has written numerous books and articles on Chinese cuisine, including the James Beard Award-winning Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking.

In her new cookbook, Land of Fish and Rice, she lends the same thorough, detailed approach to Jiangnan, the "culinary heart of China" encompassing the lower Yangtze region. Though you'll have heard of some of the region's major cities —  Shanghai (with a population of more than 24 million), Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Ningbo — the cuisine doesn't have the same level of recognition in the United States as Cantonese and Sichuan cooking.

A region nicknamed "the land of fish and rice" (yu mi zhi xiang) deserves its due, and Dunlop aims to introduce traditional Jiangnan dishes to a new audience. "All over Jiangnan, delicious food, rich in lore and legend, is made by farmers, snack-sellers, and ordinary domestic cooks," she writes at the end of the book's introduction. "In China, the love of good food is not just the preserve of the rich, but permeates the whole of society from the palace and the mansion down to the farmhouse and the city street."

The 15-page introduction serves as a primer on the region's culinary history, approaches to food and flavor, and dining traditions. Likewise, the long recipe headnotes are essential: They entertain with little stories about the histories of the food or Dunlop's experiences with them, and they contain incredibly helpful tips about how to shop, use up, and substitute ingredients, often with an eye toward vegetarians or difficult-to-source components. Dunlop masterfully guides readers through the centuries of gastronomy in Jiangnan underpinning the recipes.

As for the recipes, most embody the "respect for ingredients that lies at the heart of Jiangnan cookery." Dunlop writes, "Seasonings are added not to dazzle the sense but to frame the quiet beauty of the ingredients themselves." This holds true in preparations as simple as pak choy (bok choy) stir-fried in nothing but oil with a little salt or in the chrysanthemum leaves — curly kale can be subbed in a pinch, but I did manage to find the chrysanthemum leaves in Manhattan's Chinatown without much trouble — made with pine nuts and tofu. Seafood from fresh and salt waters, called "river delicacies" (he xian) and "sea delicacies" (hai xian) in the region, are staples. This book includes fresh clam custard, oil-exploded prawns, fish fillets in seaweed batter, and a variety of other seafood, steamed, pan-fried, or sauced.

There are richer meals, too: red-braised meats, Dongpo pork — "one of the finest dishes in the whole pantheon of Chinese cooking" — and the "crowning glory" that is lion's head meatballs. One of the dishes most distinctive to the region is a pure vegetarian facsimile of crabmeat favored by Buddhist monks. As Dunlop writes, "The food of Jiangnan is both so varied that one never tires of it and so harmonious that it calms the mind as well as the palate." No matter what's on the menu, these recipes, with their emphasis on seasonality, invite cooks to highlight and celebrate, but never overwhelm, the stars of a dish. —Sonia Chopra

BUY: Amazon

Other Notable Books

A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World

Robert Simonson
Ten Speed

From prominent drinks writer Robert Simonson comes an answer to the question all cocktail lovers have asked themselves: How did we end up with a craft cocktail revival, anyway? Simonson dives head first into this question and interviews over 200 movers, shakers (forgive me), and doers in the 25-year march to better cocktails. While this book leans more toward cultural history than a barman's how-to, Simonson does offer a list of 40 cocktails that epitomize the craft movement as we now know it. —HD

BUY: Amazon

Regarding Cocktails

Sasha Petraske

By the age of 42, Sasha Petraske had done more for the concept of the modern bar and mixology than most people could ever hope. Petraske — who opened New York’s Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side in 1999 and went on to open many other famed bars, like Dutch Kills — introduced an attention to detail that changed the cocktail industry. Petraske died in August 2015, but his wife, Georgette, will release Regarding Cocktails this Halloween. It’s Petraske’s only recipe book, comprising many of his personal musings and cocktail instructions along with 85 recipes, tried and tested by his bartenders — who continue to shape the industry — plus illustrations and stories of businesses that transformed the role of cocktails in gastronomy today. —ZK

BUY: Amazon

Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food

Ali Bouzari

Ali Bouzari has influenced menus at places like Napa Valley’s the French Laundry and San Fran’s Benu, and the 20-something biochemist is now at the helm of Pilot R+D, a culinary development company based in Northern California. In Ingredient, he’s taking time to share insights from restaurants and from what he knows about the pure science of food. A mix between recipes and commentary on biochemistry in the kitchen, in this unconventional cookbook, Bouzari focuses on what he calls "Ingredients," — the fundamental building blocks of all cooking: water, sugars, carbs, lipids, proteins, minerals, gases, and heat. Every recipe you’ve ever consulted involves these bare basics, Bouzari says, and he’s going to break them down one by one in late September. —ZK

BUY: Amazon

Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables! 102 Turbocharged Recipes for Vegetables with Guts

Peter Meehan

The Lucky Peach cookbook juggernaut is undeniable. Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables! is the second cookbook from the team this year alone — and they have another on the way (the first this year was about sausages; the next will be dedicated to eggs). Editor Peter Meehan takes the lead on this one, as he did on the magazine's very first cookbook: Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes. The goal here is to create "mostly vegetarian" recipes for the home cook, with an Amazon description promising "BIG-LEAGUE FLAVOR to your WEEKNIGHT COOKING" (caps as seen on Amazon). —HD

BUY: Amazon

Taste of Persia

Naomi Duguid

Culinary wanderer Naomi Duguid, whose previous book chronicles the food and culture of Burma, invites readers into kitchens around the world not just for nourishment, but for a deeper understanding of culture. Taste of Persia mixes history, travel, and expert recipes from the Caucasus mountains to the southern tip of Iran, tracing the impact of spices like saffron which unify such a wide array of culinary traditions. Individual portraits and stories offer ample context for the recipes. —MM

BUY: Amazon

Stir, Sizzle, Bake

Charlotte Druckman
Clarkson Potter

The cast iron pan has become a symbol of rustic authenticity, but is it actually worth the trouble? Charlotte Druckman answers with a resounding (and convincing) yes in her book on the unique culinary possibilities and advantages of cast iron. In her review for Eater, Emily Gould writes, “Cast iron and all related tricks and techniques aside, what this book is really about is Druckman’s innovative and ecumenical approach to flavors.” —MM

BUY: Amazon


Brad Thomas Parsons
Ten Speed Press

Do you finish a meal with a glass of Averna? Are you a devotee of the herbacious bite of Fernet? Time to get to know amari, bittersweet liqueurs made for hundreds of years across Europe, especially in Italy. Beyond adding the bitter flavors fashionable in American cocktails, the digestif offers a wide array of pleasures to its devotees. Parsons mixes the history of the spirit with over 100 cocktail and other recipes for this most zeitgeisty of booze. —MM

BUY: Amazon

All Under Heaven

Carolyn Phillips
Ten Speed Press

Perhaps the deepest possible deep dive in this list, All Under Heaven tackles thirty-five of China’s regional cuisines and thousands of years of culinary history. The massive, encyclopedic book will appeal to readers whose cookbook collections function not just as recipe inspiration but reference libraries to the world’s great food traditions. English language cookbooks rarely cover Chinese cuisine with such depth and breadth, making this an especially welcome addition. —MM

BUY: Amazon

China:The Cookbook

Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan

The latest edition of Phaidon's series on national cuisines (including Mexico and The Nordic Cookbook) tackles China with the publisher's unique mix of history, a wealth of recipes, and input from international chefs. The husband and wife team behind the book are considered to be culinary authorities in China, and the book offers another approach to defining the cuisine of such a massive and diverse country. Clearly, this is the year to deeply explore one of the world's most popular and influential foodways. —MM

BUY: Amazon

The Spice Companion

Lior Lev Sercarz
Clarkson Potter

If you want to cook like your favorite restaurant chef, start by focusing on your spice cabinet. With Spice Companion, trained chef and spice vendor to the stars Lior Lev Sercarz of New York City's La Boîte offers a guide to stepping your flavor game. The book leans towards reference, with encyclopedic breadth. —HD

BUY: Amazon

Grape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulding
Harper Wave/Anthony Bourdain

Last year Eater raved about Matt Goulding’s debut travel book, Rice, Noodle, Fish. What that book did for traveling and eating in Japan, Grape, Olive, Pig aims to do for Spain. Brace for tales of tapas, modernist cuisine, and all the jamón the region can offer. —HD

BUY: Amazon

Lead image: Helen Rosner


Emily Meggett Embodied the Beauty of Gullah Geechee Life and Cuisine

The New Guard

How I Got My Job: Leading the Dining Program at a Working Farm and Writing Cookbooks

Eater at Home

For Hetty Lui McKinnon, ‘Salads Are Very Much My Soul Food’

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day