I’m having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year. I’m not sure why. I like Christmas, and I like Christmas food, and I especially like Christmas music, but yesterday at the supermarket the smell of ripening Stilton combined with the sound of Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews howling “Baby It’s Cold Outside” stirred in me a sensation I can only describe as homicidal queasiness.
Today we put up the Christmas tree and listened to Alvin and the Chipmunks and Vince Guaraldi, and that made me feel better. But then we switched on the TV. I was raised to be skeptical of advertising; I didn’t trust it as a kid, and as an adult I find most of it insulting and obnoxious. This time of year it’s even worse than usual: bizarre, faux-artistic and borderline-pornographic perfume ads interspersed between Iceland commercials hawking a “luxury” hog roast and Waitrose commercials claiming they’ve spared expenses in their advertising budget in order to give more money to charity – as explained by two of the country’s most highly paid celebrity chefs.
And yet, I’m not against the commercialization of Christmas. In fact, it feels weird to refer to it as such, because I’ve not known a time when Christmas wasn’t commercial. I went to Catholic church as a child, but the the “true meaning” of Christmas never moved me much, and I’ve always mainly thought of it as a time when people get together, eat, drink, be merry, and give each other gifts. And what’s not to like about that? It’s such an appealing notion that it transcends religious allegiances. Many of my friends back in high school who were brought up in Hindu homes exchanged presents at Christmas, and even the outspokenly anti-religion celebrity zoologist Richard Dawkins celebrates with his family and enjoys traditional carols. The social/familial aspect of Christmas is what has always appealed to me, and the commercial aspect is inextricably tied to that. Shared indulgence in food and drink and the giving of gifts are both acts of pure consumption – and they’re what I love most about Christmas.
On that note, I give you my holiday gift guide. While the TV ads do their damnedest to convince us that Christmas shopping is a mindless endeavor oriented towards impersonal items intended for interchangeable, imaginary recipients, I believe there is still a special joy in finding just the right gift for just the right person (especially if that person is you). Here’s hoping you find that gift.
It is not an overstatement to say that the AeroPress has changed my life. I no longer make coffee any other way; my moka pot is now strictly ornamental, and my dual-function filter/espresso machine sits, neglected and sad, in my attic. Both have been wholly replaced by the AeroPress, which works like a cafetière under pressure, and makes impeccably full-flavored and nuanced coffee in 30 seconds – faster than brewing a cup of tea. For full-on coffee enlightenment, I recommend trying it with Ethiopian Guji coffee, which has a remarkable, distinct aroma of blueberry muffins.
Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen
I met Barak Kushner, the author of the first comprehensive English-language history of ramen, earlier this year after being introduced via e-mail by Emma Reynolds of Tonkotsu fame. The guy’s amazing, and so is his book. Straddling the line between academic text and popular history, it delves deep (like 10,000 years deep) to tell a very comprehensive, rightfully complicated story of what is arguably contemporary Japan’s national dish.
Japanophilia starts at home, and at an early age. Ensure your youngster develops a fondness for the aesthetics and literary themes of modern Japanese culture with this pairing of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece and a cuddly toy version of its titular character. Actually, who needs youngsters? Both gifts are awesome even for fully grown adults. (I bought these for my 2 year old nephew and I’m kinda jealous.)
Dashi and Umami
Eat Japan, £25
People often ask me to recommend a Japanese cookbook. It’s usually this one. It covers fundamentals and classic dishes as well as more creative, refined recipes from some of Japan’s top kaiseki chefs. Plus, it contains a lengthy appendix explaining key ingredients and the science of umami, and how it’s integrated into Japanese and other cuisines.
Macarons and More
Macarons & More, £3-17
The original Tim from MasterChef is Dr. Tim Kinnaird, who was a finalist in the series before mine. The good doctor has since quit his job as a pediatrician and now runs a pastry business in Norfolk. The first time I met him he got tipsy and repeatedly informed me that I’m “living the dream” – and so is he, by the looks of things. His macarons are the best I’ve had anywhere, with an immaculate texture and a range of delightful flavors. My current favorites are chocolate orange and rose (but he should really bring back matcha).
Mince Pies for Charity
The Mince Pie Project
Mince pies are awesome, and you have to eat as many as possible around Christmas because they’re inappropriate any other time of year. Like making jack-0-lanterns in March. Just weird. The best way to get your mince pie fix is by bidding on a batch contributed by any of the 100 awesome chefs in this year’s Mince Pie Project, which auctions them off in support of the charities Galvin’s Chance and Crisis. I’m making my pies under the Nanban banner, with a Kyushu theme: a crust made with green tea from Yame; Kagoshima sweet potato filling with shochu and umeshu; and a soft caramel topping spiked with Oita yuzu-kosho. The auction ends at noon on Friday, so hurry up and bid while you can!
McSweeney’s; single issues, £7; four-issue subscription, £17 (plus shipping)
Too much food writing these days plays it safe and dumbs it down. We should be exploring and celebrating the infinite complexity and diversity of food, but so many mainstream chefs and journalists are still bent on making food ever more simplistic and innocuous. Not so with the publishers of Lucky Peach, who cover a huge range of topics in a variety of intriguing formats. It is a delightful and stimulating cacophony of art, science, history, journalism, and recipes; issue 3 features an essay on contemporary foodways in Mali, a recipe for chicken and waffles, and an impassioned editorial arguing that “cooking is dying” all within the span of a few pages. One issue contains a Choose Your Own Adventure-style travelogue about tacos. Another has a recipe using monkfish stomach. Its list of contributors reads like a culinary Lollapalooza lineup: Anthony Bourdain, Fuchsia Dunlop, David Chang, Jonathan Gold, Ferran Adrià, Harold McGee, Mario Batali, etc. What do you get for the foodie who has everything? Probably this.
Japanese Kit Kat “Flavor Journey” Collection
Is it silly to spend £60 on thirty miniature Kit Kat bars? Of course it is. But what if said Kit Kat bars came in exotic Japanese flavors like red bean sandwich, wasabi, purple sweet potato, hōjicha tea, and ichimi chilli? If anything can justify spending £2 on 12.3 grams of industrially made chocolate, I reckon this is it. This rare and unusual box set, which includes 15 different flavors representing various regions and cities around the country, is a fascinating and delicious artifact of Japanese souvenir culture and the country’s fetish for local foods.