If you’re hungry for a tasty pairing of good food and great writing, the menu’s pretty extensive. Cookbooks can be illuminating and educational—although food prep is a lotta work (it’ll cut into your reading time). There’s never a shortage of food memoirs, but while Bourdain’s kitchen confidences are savory and Child’s reminiscences salty and sweet, I’d rather nosh on novels. In honor of the year’s biggest meal, coming up this Thursday, here’s a sampling of fine foodie fiction from around the world.
The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais
Hassan Haji’s earliest memory is “the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards” above the restaurant his grandfather opened in bustling 1930s Bombay (after earning the startup cash selling lunches and sweets by bicycle and from a roadside tent). Young Hassan’s a natural chef. His father moves the family to England and eventually France, where he converts a chateau into a restaurant across the road from austere, autocratic Madame Mallory’s double-Michelin-starred fine dining establishment. In Mallory’s kitchen, and later in Paris, Hassan masters the art of French cooking. Morais writes about food in delicious detail, and the film adaptation of his novel—starring Helen Mirren and directed by Chocolat’s Lasse Hallström—is due out next summer. I’m trying not to drool.
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
A tour of the world’s food fiction would be incomplete without a stop in Mexico, at the de la Garza’s ranch. The full title of Esquivel’s brilliant first novel is Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies, but it also includes regret, revolution, magic, and the most emotionally gripping cooking scenes I’ve ever read. If you’ve yet to sample the book’s literary and culinary delights, go forth—learn in Nacha’s kitchen, burn with Gertrudis, simmer (ache, roast, and bake) with Tita, and beware of Rosaura’s gas and Mama Elena’s ghost.
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen’s a fantastic choice for anyone in the mood to: cry, eat, reflect, and feel strengthened and taken aback by simple, elegant prose. This book made Yoshimoto a star in Japan and the U.S., and it’s short—you could make multiple meals of it, or devour it one sitting. Either way, you probably won’t look at a kitchen the same way again.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky
Food-centered novels often feature a dominant female character—and Bronsky’s matriarch, Rosalinda Achmetowna, is dominant and domineering, disgruntled, proud, vain, and frequently disappointed by her daughter, granddaughters, and life in general. Redeeming Rosa (somewhat) is her tenacity and the strength she draws from a culture she longs to escape—so much so that she offers her granddaughter to a creep pretending to be interested in Tartan cooking for a chance to move to Germany. Food is a powerful tool for Rosa. She cooks to seduce, manipulate, heal, and protect—and anyone that can do those things with horsemeat sausage and sour pickles is some kind of genius.
The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones
Don’t read Mones’ book unless you’re prepared to compulsively crave Chinese food for every meal as you follow recently widowed food writer Maggie McElroy from L.A. to Beijing to face both personal and professional challenges—determining if her husband fathered a daughter with his mistress, Gao Lan, and profiling handsome, talented chef Sam Liang, whose grandfather wrote the (fictitious) culinary masterwork The Last Chinese Chef. Sam’s also auditioning for the Chinese national cooking team (I’m still not sure if that’s a real thing). Maggie’s emotional baggage and budding romance with Sam, insider details about Chinese culture and history (Mones worked there for two decades), and intriguing minor characters like Gao Lan are really just garnish for the food bits. How do you say bon appétit in Mandarin?
The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins
What does Katniss Everdeen like about being imprisoned in a training center awaiting a brutal death match far from her beloved woods and baby sister? Nothing. Oh, wait—the lamb stew. The fattening-the-lamb-before-the-slaughter parallel isn’t lost on Katniss, but she needs the calories, and after a childhood spent in repressed, starving District 12, it’s understandable that she accepts the food jackpot that comes with winning the death lottery. I guess you could call the cuisine in Collins’ series “dystopian future American,” and although it’s uncomfortable (considering only Capitol residents get those sumptuous multi-course meals), it also sounds super delicious.
What’s your favorite fictional foodie read?