Not sure what to buy your loved ones and besties for Christmas? A cookbook is the gift that keeps on giving.
Yes, it's that time of year again – shops get busy, weekends get full, presents remain difficult to buy, and the right answer is always a cookbook. They're fun to choose, easy to wrap and they look substantial. For the recipient, they are the very definition of the gift that keeps on giving. They suggest the cleverness of reading, the community of cooking, the health and wealth of food. And they tell the recipient that you see them as a brilliant, generous person, capable of following a recipe and putting on a spread. Consult this year-end up wrap-up before you start wrapping for some of the biggest hits of 2019.
Antoni in the Kitchen
Antoni Porowski, Bluebird, $39.99
He's the cook that launched a thousand (OK, half a dozen) think pieces, when he was unjustly critiqued in the first season of Netflix's rebooted Queer Eye for teaching guests on the show to make ridiculously simple things – avocado on toast being the prime offender. Columnists wondered: was he really an expert? With Antoni in the Kitchen, he is very much himself, with lots of photos of him going market shopping in blue jeans and white shirts, but it's packed with dishes that should put the debates to rest. He's even snuck in one sly mention of avocado, in an "Aussie breakfast sammie" that he suggests you have for dinner.
Best bit: Everything has a little twist, a little bit fancy and a little bit dude-food, like asparagus with oozy eggs and poutine with tater tots.
Good for: People who like pop culture as much as they like food.
Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over
Alison Roman, HardieGrant, $45
Alison Roman, of The New York Times, Bon Appetit and our own Good Food Magazine, hates anything so fraught as throwing dinner parties or entertaining guests, but loves 'having people over' and that makes all the difference. If you follow Roman's lead, you might greet your friends with your very own marinated artichoke hearts or fancy citrusy olives; the main could be swordfish with crushed olives and oregano; and you might send them home with crispy chocolate cake with hazelnut and sour cream.
Best bit: Roman has a perfect eye for word and flavour combos that set your taste buds singing, and a retro flair that makes this cookbook feel both serious and fun.
Good for: Busy people who lavish the time they have on the people they love.
Bake Australia Great
Katherine Sabbath, Murdoch Books, $39.99
Finally, someone's zeroed in on the rich potential of our most Aussie images and most Aussie tastes, and found a way to dial them up to eleven. In Katherine Sabbath's book, you'll find kitschy watermelon jelly that looks like watermelon itself, cookies that look like flip-flops, and pavlova made in the style of the Sydney Opera House. None of it is very serious – witness the "anti-Valentine cake", with little candy hearts that say 'nah mate', 'can u not' and 'ugh' – and this contrasts perfectly with the exact science of baking, where the stakes are too high not to have a good time.
Best bit: Nothing is sacred. Mad Max, Priscilla, and the elusive 'Aussie dream home' are all things that appear here, in cake form.
Good for: Ambitious people with a sense of humour – bucking the 2019 trend of easy weeknight meals, this is a set of recipes that will really test your skills.
East: 120 Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing
Meera Sodha, Penguin, $45
The recipe maestro whose name has become as synonymous with the Guardian as Ottolenghi's, Meera Sodha's food features Western ingredients and an Eastern slant. For the Guardian it's all vegan, here it's a mix of vegan and veg. Along with a pilau for every season, kung pao cauliflower and a Sodha family omelette, East includes two of the most fastidiously attentive noodle and tofu sections we've ever seen. In particular, the noodle section does not assume that every noodle is created equally, and designs recipes for different noodly substances in thoughtful ways that always call attention to the base ingredient.
Best bit: A dish made of udon, egg yolks, soy sauce, nori and that's it – a quick, tasty, addictive path to malnutrition.
Good for: People who like sharp flavours, bright colours, crunchy toppings, and real depth.
Warndu Mai (Good Food)
Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan, Hachette, $45
While a few nice books have been trying to bring native ingredients to the fore, Warndu Mai feels like a step up in terms of care and thought. With a foreword by Bruce Pascoe, it assumes most readers are more familiar with imported goods and takes pains to introduce its ingredients with baby steps, but if you spend enough time with this cookbook you'll transform your whole diet. Start with sweet and sour bushfood brittle, move to roo meatballs and lemon myrtle pasta, and finish up with rainforest and bush fruit sorbets.
Best bit: Damper and soda bread, always.
Good for: Anyone who's interested in Australian history, food sustainability, or ramping up their technique.
The Food of Sichuan
Fuchsia Dunlop, Bloomsbury, $55
"Writing a cookbook that attempts to encapsulate the cuisine of a place is like pitching a tent on quicksand" – so says Fuchsia Dunlop. With this in mind, Dunlop has fully revised and updated this already-definitive book published in 2001 (as Sichuan Cookery), based on fresh advice, research and testing. From steamed egg custard with minced pork topping to chicken with ginkgo nuts, each recipe comes with the story of how the author learnt to make it – often featuring descriptions of life in China as it's no longer lived.
Best bit: Sheer love and exactness – this is a hefty book written with purpose and care.
Good for: Thorough people who like things done right.
A Basket by the Door: Recipes for Comforting Gifts and Joyful Gatherings
Sophie Hansen, Murdoch Books, $39.99
Oh, to be the friends, neighbours, workmates, or family of Sophie Hansen, whose book is dedicated to the generous art of giving food. It's personal and passionate, but deadly serious in its commitment to finding the perfect present for the right occasion. Instead of a hamper, make a spring nourish basket with pistachio, cardamom and rose balls; for better camping trips, she has you sorted for lasagnes, puddings and soups.
Best bit: The recipes, of course, can be extracted from their suggested uses and are equally good eaten while watching TV on a Tuesday night.
Good for: Anyone who's ever wrapped cellophane around some chocolates and wondered if they could do better.
Week Light: Super-Fast Meals to Make You Feel Good
Donna Hay, 4th Estate, $45
This kitchen hero returns with a bullseye of a cookbook that nails everything we liked to cook in 2019: quick things that don't cost a mint, familiar but not too familiar, lots of flavour and mostly veg. Here is a book that goes crispy on the kale and heavy on the fritters, and splashes many of its dishes with salmon or chicken the way other people sprinkle on croutons.
Best bit: Lots of the recipes include tips for how you can reuse for lunches, or get extra creative with variations and additions – a practical book par excellence.
Good for: The person you can't pick for, but only want the best for.
The Whole Fish Cookbook: New Ways to Cook, Eat and Think
Josh Niland, Hardie Grant, $55
The cookbook that fish-lovers were waiting for, or the fish book that home cooks didn't know they needed? Either way, this is a groundbreaking book that focuses on sustainable sourcing, "scale-to-tail" eating, technical competence, and pure zingy imagination. It will be admired for its section on fish offal and its list of "fishues", which breaks down the issues that stop people from cooking with fish. It will be treasured for its sheer range of inventive meals, from swordfish bacon to salt and vinegar blue mackerel and cucumbers with fried rye bread. It does have to be seen to be believed.
Best bit: Attention to detail, from the shiny photography to the meticulous guide to getting crispy skin on your fried fish.
Good for: People who like to understand their food.
Veg: Easy and Delicious Meals for Everyone
Jamie Oliver, Penguin, $49.99
Jamie Oliver gets in on the veg craze, the only game in town, in a book that would pair very well with Donna Hay's – for an especially beloved relative, you may want to double up. Here, there's a focus on nice big flavours, like asparagus quiche with asparagus soup, and there's a fine chaos energy, best exemplified by the "odds and ends pasta on toast". Jamie says it's "seriously satisfying", and he isn't wrong.
Best bit: There's a Friday night nibbles section where this book really shines, with a cheesy kimchi toastie and bang bang cucumber.
Good for: The Jamie Oliver completist – this is his 23rd (!!) book.