No big-trip tickets? No reservations at a hip new bistro? No problem. When you can’t eat your way around the world, the next best thing might be pulling a stool up to your kitchen counter and cracking open a globetrotting, gastro-obsessed book. From culinary memoirs (with recipes on the side) to a comic novel that gorges on Italian cooking, these 10 books should satisfy your hunger for words—and the food destinations beyond your doorstep.
This is the latest entry (or perhaps, entrée?) in our series “Around the World in Books,” and it serves up tomes with prose so detailed and deliciously wrought, you can almost taste what’s on their pages. Just don’t start reading on an empty stomach; you might end up taking a bite of your book.
Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), by James Hamilton Paterson. Razor-sharp wit, abject absurdity, and ridiculous recipes (Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream!?) power this farcical novel as it romps through the Italian countryside. The over-the-top misadventures are a hilarious contrast to overly picturesque and highly caloric travelogues set in the country, including Under A Tuscan Sun or Eat, Pray, Love.
The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats (2018), by Daniel Stone. This visceral biography traces the adventures of 19th-century botanist David Fairchild as he travels the world sourcing now-beloved plant varietals for American farmers, including peaches, avocados, and cashews. He even brought back kale from Austria-Hungary, inadvertently powering a trend more than a century after his death.
Dirt (2020), by Bill Buford. After befriending the always great (now late) French chef Michel Richard, the Italophile-turned-Francophile writer winds up at a cooking school in Lyon studying the country’s gastronomic secrets. Ultimately, he walks away having “learned the taste of good food. That comes from a place, as it has for thousands of years, from a soil that is a testament to its ancient history.”
Like Water for Chocolate (1989), by Laura Esquivel. Set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico, this novel blends magical realism with food sensualism to tell the tragicomic story of Tita De La Garza, a rancher’s daughter with mad kitchen skills—but no luck at love. Each chapter starts with a traditional recipe (oxtail soup, turkey molé) tied to the storyline.
The Spice Necklace: A Food-Lover’s Caribbean Adventure (2010), by Anne Vanderhoof. As an intrepid couple pilots their sailboat, the Receta (Spanish for recipe), around the Caribbean, they dig into local delicacies along the way. The breezy memoir-cookbook will make you want to head to the tropics—or at least your kitchen—to try chilled curried pumpkin soup or toothsome coconut-custard tarts.
Bon Appetit: Travels with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew through France (2001), by Peter Mayle. Snails and truffles and gallons of rosé, oh my! After a childhood spent enduring British cooking, Mayle fell hard for France’s culinary culture. It was a lifelong journey he affably and knowledgably documented in this mouthwatering memoir, the most food-focused of his many books.
Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds (2016), by Yemisi Aribisala. This lip-smacking, fact-filled deep dive into Nigerian cuisine also richly explores the country’s culture and history. If the vividly etched essays make you hungry (they will!), the accompanying recipes will satiate your cravings for fare like thick egusi (melon seed) soup or isi ewu (spicy goat head).
Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (2008), by Fuchsia Dunlop. By immersing herself in Chinese culinary culture, London-based Dunlop confronts her own preconceptions and squeamishness—one pig’s kidney and live caterpillar at a time.
The Man Who Ate Everything (1997) by Jeffrey Steingarten. The Vogue writer jet sets around the globe in search of epicurean epiphanies, ultimately winding up at a diet retreat to lose the weight he gains along the way. Through it all, Steingarten remains a keen, self-deprecating observer, so even low points make for high humor. Case in point: “Subsistence, I am happy to report, is not much of a problem for me. I could probably subsist for a decade or more on the food energy I have thriftily wrapped around various parts of my body.”
Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine (2018) by Edward Lee. The award-winning American chef turned James Beard Award-winning writer travels to left-of-the-dial locations in the United States to gain a better understanding of the diverse food traditions and culinary creators that bind us together—from a Lebanese–Christian community in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Cambodian restaurants in Lowell, Massachusetts.
What tasty, travel-inspiring books are you reading? Share with our well-read community by tagging us on Twitter with the hashtag #natgeotravelbookclub or email email@example.com, and we’ll include some of your favorites in our weekly Travel newsletter.