The Best Guidebooks to Learning a Culture Through Its Cuisine
Eating is about immersing yourself in the local culture. Eating involves participating in a local ritual, sometimes a sacred event but most often a necessary human need. And for the traveler looking to taste culture through cuisine, print guidebooks, or eBooks listing restaurants and descriptions of places, are often not everything in this age of the app, reviews, and social media, but they are still a great places to start.
Culture and Cuisine
To be quite honest, some of the best places to get information about local food are either published by country, available online, or shared in online communities. As such, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of fine culinary guidebooks and information published in print, eBooks, and available as apps, via social media communities, or other formats. Many of these books, apps, and communities are either created or curated by locals or by expats who have lived long enough in the host country to have a strong appreciation for the local cuisine. Likewise, articles and photo essays on local foods worldwide on the web provide extensive information about local foods and rituals. We even have a rapidly growing collection of our own articles in our a section we call Travel to Eat.
We are assuming here you are not already abroad, in which case, eating where the locals eat, or following your nose, is usually the wisest option.
The Guide Michelin, updated yearly, has expanded its coverage beyond its core expertise in France, including Paris, the Main Cities in Europe, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland, Eating Out in Pubs 2014: Great Britain & Ireland Good Food in Informal Surroundings. the Netherlands, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. The method of sending anonymous, very experienced tasters has scarcely ever gone wrong for us over the many years of travel. Note that some of the books have only an English introduction to describes the symbols used to describe the quality of the food. You will have to know the language to read the precise descriptions. But the key is always the indication of quality, and no guidebook does it better than them in my experience, which is one reason so many chefs seek the coveted and not easily acquired stars. A legitimate criticism is that it does not cover food worldwide, has a Euro-centric view, and many of the restaurants are not for those on a tight budget.
Joan Peterson has written or published guidebooks and eBooks for the cuisines of Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Sicily, Morocco, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, Peru, and Poland. Her company leads culinary tours to Turkey and Morocco. Visit www.ginkgopress.com to order her books and for more information.
Travelers' Tales by Foodies
In 1996 Richard Sterling edited a mouth-watering anthology called Travelers' Tales Food: True Stories of Life on the Road. The book proved so popular that Sterling followed up a few years later with The Adventure of Food: True Stories of Eating Everything, an equally tasty collection drawing on authors such as Jan Morris, Frances Mayes, and Jonathan Raban. The most recent release in the series, Her Fork in the Road: Women Celebrate Food and Travel, edited by Lisa Bach, is a sensitive and savory selection of stories by women from the warmth of their kitchens to the corners of the globe.
Julia Child says: "Be a fearless cook!" Richard Sterling is a fearless diner. In his pocket-size book, The Fearless Diner: Travel Tips and Wisdom for Eating Around the World, he shares personal eating adventures and a wealth of advice and interesting tips. His book, The Fire Never Dies: One Man's Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure, takes us through his culinary adventures on the road from Mexico to Vietnam and beyond.
More Travelers' Tales
Chef Anthony Bourdain is a veteran of over 30 years in professional kitchens (editors note: now the host of Parts Unknown on CNN). He is also a traveler. In A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, Bourdain weaves his way around the world sampling local delicacies in Japan, Vietnam, Portugal, Russia, Mexico, among many other locations. He recognizes the importance food has on drawing people together into communities and preaches immersion travel and respect for local cultures in his own unique style.
Several authors offer wonderful narratives about food and place in the vein of M.F.K. Fisher, one of the first food and travel writers (see especially Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon). Peter Mayle, Frances Mayes, and Susan Hermann Loomis, to name a few, delightfully recount their transition to a new location in the context of food.
See Mayle's well-known A Year in Provence, an introduction to French country life and wonderful meals and food forages. His book, French Lessons, is subtitled Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew.
Susan Hermann Loomis charms the reader with her love of France and French cuisine and her eventual move to Normandy, where she renovates a house in a small town. She makes readers feel they are sharing meals with her, more so because she provides such mouth-watering recipes, in her book On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town .
Serious chefs, looking for more than a cooking vacation, should consult The Guide to Cooking Schools. The edition contains descriptions of over 1,000 culinary schools and apprenticeships plus food and wine organizations worldwide. But the most updated information can be found online on the cookingcareer.shawguides.com.
Mastering the Menu
There are many published menu phrase books remaining in print or via eBook which tend to be more country-specific. You can find them online through simple searches of Amazon or the like or by visiting your local bookstore. Print phrase books are a great way to prepare for a culinary tour. But online phrase books and apps are probably the way to go these days for quickest access in the translation of your menu items abroad, absent total fluency. Of course, once abroad you can always ask the restaurant host to explain a dish to you, sometimes resulting in some variations on charades which may prove amusing to all parties concerned! I recall a waiter who hopped like a rabbit when we could not make out a local traditional reference to a dish (yes, I did feel sorry for the rabbit, but "When in Rome"). We shared a good laugh at the lack of communication. In another instance, a dignified Italian waiter at 2-star Michelin restaurant in Bologna mimicked how a particular pasta was made when we said we were not familiar with one of the thousands of variations in a land where everyone has their own unique form, salivating noticeably even as he gestured with his hands in a circular motion.
No matter which approach you choose, preparing for your culinary travels abroad through some research into print publications, or even web searches, is a great way to discover more about the cuisine of a country or region, while recognizing the tight interconnection between food and culture. The research is also part of the necessary preparation to speak enough of the local language to get to know your hosts at eating establishments where the menus are not translated into English—as that is a bad sign when it comes to the quality of the food!
Bon appétit et bon voyage!
Food and Travel Quiz
How far have your taste buds traveled? Can you identify the following foods and drinks and their country or region of origin?
- Nasi goreng
- Bubble & Squeak
- Gaeng Daeng
Food and Travel Quiz Answers
Editor's Note: Kathy Widing says they're easy.
- Large fruit with a spiky exterior and pungent smell. South East Asia
- Sheep's milk cheese. Spain
- Guinea pig (Inca delicacy). Andes
- Meringue and cream cake created in honor of ballerina Anna Pavlova. Australia
- Fried rice. Indonesia and Malaysia
- Spirit distilled from the pomace of grapes. Italy
- Thin potato based flatbread. Scandinavia
- Rice porridge. China/Hong Kong
- Savory spread with olives as the main ingredient. France
- Horseradish. Japan
- Typically fried dish made from leftover cabbage and potatoes. England
- Ceremonial herbal drink. South Pacific, especially Fiji, Samoa, Tonga
- Tajarin is a type of thin ribbon pasta made with egg. Especially delicious when topped with truffles. Piemonte, Italy.
- Red curry in a spicy coconut sauce. Thailand.