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Book review: Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley

09 April 2020 by
Book review: Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley

There's a poignant story behind this cookery book. The author Ryan Riley was just 18 when his mother was diagnosed with terminal small cell lung cancer. Since her death, he has become a chef and co-founder of the UK's first cancer cookery school, Life Kitchen, supported by Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His debut cookery book of the same name features favourites from the school, created to tempt the palates of cancer patients who have lost their joy of eating. Having just undergone the rigours of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I know first-hand that side effects such as nausea, lack of energy and assaulted tastebuds can ruin appetite.

Among the recipes are pea fritters with preserved lemon mayonnaise, carbonara with mint and peas, and one pot chicken and rice. While they seem simple, there is science behind them. Riley tapped into the expertise of Professor Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London, who explains in one chapter why loss of smell (common in chemo patients) can ruin taste. This is why, he says, the recipes have strongly layered flavours, focusing on ingredients rich in umami, such as aged cheeses, mushrooms and soy sauce. We also learn about the trigeminal nerve between the eyes, nose and mouth, which is stimulated by zingier ingredients, such as mint and horseradish.

These clever tricks are explained in a chapter listing the 11 key ingredients – ranging from black garlic, Parmesan and citrus, to rose harissa, za'atar and sumac. While I might have struggled to source some of the more exotic flavourings during the worst of chemo, I like the fact Riley doesn't turn his nose up at quick fixes. For instance, next to paprika and shiitake fish pie, he says: "The tomato and basil mash on page 126 would be perfect as a topping, but store-bought mash is a great time-saver."

All in all, it's an inspirational, comforting book. And as the world struggles with a new virus, these recipes may just bring some simple joy into many more lives, too.

Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley (Bloomsbury, £20)

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