Recipes for Adventure: Top Travel Memoirs for Foodies
Food and travel have always made for a delicious combination in a book, fueling dreams of spectacular vacations—or early retirement—in faraway locales where a surprisingly perfect (or perfectly surprising) meal is just around the corner. To inspire your summer travel, whether it's abroad or to the deck chair nearest you, we've gathered an itinerary of foodie memoirs that will take you on a worldwide tour of the senses. The best part is, they include recipes, so you can recreate the reading—and eating—experience in your own kitchen.
What starker contrast to the hustle and bustle of your workweek could there be to the calm, contemplative rituals of a Japanese tea ceremony? Victoria Riccardi left her fast-paced advertising job in in New York and went to Kyoto to study kaiseki, the choreographed, multi-course Japanese meal. Riccardi had experience with intensive food study—she had a degree from the renowned French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu—but traditional Japanese cooking was on another level. As she writes in her memoir, Untangling My Chopsticks, even an everyday meal left her feeling like she had "visited a museum, heard a fascinating lecture, opened several gorgeously wrapped gifts and consumed the essence of spring in Kyoto."
Growing up in Oxford, England, Fuchsia Dunlop was always an adventurous eater: Her mother taught English as a foreign language, and her students would cook up their favorite foods from Sudan, Turkey, Iran, Colombia, and Japan. But, as Dunlop writes in her memoir about her years of travel in China and her obsession with its food, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, "nothing had prepared me for the gastronomic assaults of that first trip to Hong Kong and China." The Chinese eat everything—and she means everything: Scorpion, sea cucumber, civet cat, rabbit heads, and the ovarian fat of the snow frog are just a few of the ingredients Dunlop consumed during an apprenticeship at a Sichuanese cooking school. Now a renowned food writer, Dunlop's early gustatory adventures have led her to become an unlikely Western expert in Chinese cuisine.
When Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan was in her 20s and at the start of promising career as a fashion writer for the Baltimore Sun, she made the stomach-turning discovery that she had definitely not inherited her grandmother's legendary cooking skills. Even though Tan spent her first 18 years in Singapore inhaling her grandmother's dishes of soy-sauce-braised duck, hearty salted vegetable soups, and bak-zhang—pyramid-shaped rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves—when she tried to recreate them in America, Tan's kitchen experiments were unmitigated disasters. Instead of consigning herself to a lifetime of take-out, like any good journalist Tan decided to go to the original source. As she recounts in her memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, Tan went back to Singapore to explore her family history and to track down and master her culinary heritage.
Celebrated cookbook author, actress, and authority on Indian food Madhur Jaffrey will turn 80 this summer, and she can still remember the food of her childhood in Delhi so vividly that even her readers can practically taste it. In her 2005 memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, Jaffrey recounts a delicious ritual the children would engage in soon after the adults lay down for their afternoon nap: "the unsupervised children were on every branch of every mango tree, armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chilies and roasted cumin. The older children, on the higher branches, peeled and sliced the mangoes with penknives and passed the slices down to the smaller fry on the lower branches. We would dip the slices into our spice mixture and eat, our tingling mouths telling us that we had ceased to be babies." Those early, visceral food memories illuminate the pages of Jaffrey's memoir just as they have fueled her 29 cookbooks.
Luisa Weiss was born in Berlin to an American father and an Italian mother, so it's no surprise that her taste in food runs to the eclectic—liverwurst sandwiches, pizza al taglio, dan dan noodles, and char siu bao are all in her culinary arsenal. But her upbringing was a bumpy, if cosmopolitan one: After her parents' divorce, Weiss split her time between Boston, Berlin, and Italy, never feeling entirely settled. While living in New York after college, Weiss found a dream job editing cookbooks and she started a food blog called The Wednesday Chef. Still restless, Weiss gave up the job and a burgeoning relationship to return to Berlin once and for all. In her memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, Weiss recounts her journey, accompanied by recipes for the rich German meals she could never get out of her mind.
Nearly a quarter century after it was first published, Peter Mayle's memoir of moving from rainy England to sunny, southern France remains a paragon of the food-filled travel memoir genre. A Year in Provence details how Mayle, his wife and two dogs fell in love with a rustic, 200-year-old farmhouse set among cherry trees and vineyards. The pace was markedly different from his old life as an advertising creative director in Mad Men-era London. Having written a few educational books, Mayle set out to write a novel, but he found himself too distracted by the small details of life in Provence: "The daily dose of education I was receiving at the hands of the plumber, the farmer next door, the mushroom hunter and the lady with the frustrated donkey was infinitely more fascinating than anything I could invent." Perhaps ironically, the huge international success of Mayle's book has turned his tucked-away hamlet in the countryside into a miniature Mecca for food tourists.
Anyone who's watched a few episodes of Top Chef or Hell's Kitchen has seen that working in a restaurant kitchen can be, well, hellish. When former New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford volunteered to apprentice in the kitchen of Babbo, the popular Italian restaurant run by superstar chef Mario Batali, in the early 2000s, he had the excuse that those food reality shows had not yet aired. Buford was a disaster who would have made even the most hapless Top Chef contestant breathe a sigh of relief and recognition: he was burned by flames and hot oil, botched the proper cubing of carrots, destroyed a small school of expensive branzini—and worse. Knowing he had a lot to learn, Buford traveled to Italy to learn the basics from butchers and expert pasta makers. His memoir, Heat, is immersion writing at its best: Buford undergoes all the training and abuse, and the reader gets to enjoy the recipes and delicious reading.
Africa, South America
Julie Powell embarked on a crazy journey of sorts when she set out to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, an experience that Powell turned into a memoir (later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep), Julie and Julia. A few years later, her marriage on the rocks, Powell embarked on another crazy journey: learning how to butcher. As she recounts in her second memoir, Cleaving, Powell is "attracted to a butcher's intimate knowledge.... Most of all, I'm attracted to his authority. There's an absolute sureness to a butcher, whether he's chining lamb chops with a bandsaw or telling his customer just how to prepare a crown roast. He is more certain of meat than I've ever been about anything." Having gained confidence and stability after learning how to do the same, Powell embarked on a worldwide meat odyssey, visiting the legendary cattle markets and steak maestros of Buenos Aires and the Maasai herding villages of Tanzania.
After all of that far-flung food and adventure, you may want to settle back into familiar territory with one of America's most beloved food writers, Calvin Trillin. In The Tummy Trilogy, Trillin collects three of his classic books filled with homages to American home cooking: American Fried, Alice, Let's Eat, and Third Helpings. Food critic Craig Claiborne has called Trillin "the Walt Whitman of American eats, and these lovingly comic essays show us why.
This article was updated September 24, 2014