“Deconstructing the layout of China was difficult, but food showed me the way.” At the Chinese Table is memoir by Carolyn Phillips, whose previous book cataloguing 35 regional cuisines of China was nominated for a James Beard award. Books on Chinese cuisine abound, and recently Fuschia Dunlop lay claim to being the Westerner most embedded and prolific on regional Chinese cuisine through attending cooking school in Chengdu, so it was fascinating to learn how Phillips became intrigued by Asia enough to become a self-taught expert in Chinese food, under the tutelage of her very particular epicure husband.

Like clockwork, every year around the spring equinox, as the ducks and egrets return to the rivers and sprigs of green grass begin sprouting in lawns, people in Japan take to the hills to pick mountain vegetables, herbs and other wild foods. As translator and writer Winifred Bird explains in her new book, Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, with a Guide to Plants and Recipes, there is no common Japanese phrase that corresponds precisely to the English terms “wild food” or “foraged food”.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once described his idea of absolute hospitality as follows:

 

Absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only the foreigner, but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering in a pact) or even their names.

 

Although conceived well before the advent of the pandemic, Priya Basil’s Be My Guest: Reflections on food, community, and the meaning of generosity, ends up particularly appropriate to this time of reflection, winter holidays, and the much hoped-for re-emergence from the current cloud under which we live. For anyone who enjoyed the travelogues of Anthony Bourdain, Be My Guest is a deeper and weightier exposition of the themes he explored—starting with food and extending to the movements of governments, and the meaning of self and other—and Basil similarly shares the joys of both writing and eating.

A common saying in China is: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of hot chiles; no degree of heat will frighten off the people of Guizhou; but those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot!” From this old saw, one might be forgiven for thinking chiles native to China. In The Chile Pepper in China, historian Brian Dott seeks to show how “foreign” chiles were introduced and explores how vital they became to these regions’ identity, with spiciness linked to the energy of “revolutionary men and passionate women”.