7 International Novels for Food Lovers
From an Indonesian foodie road trip to the rhapsodies of a Parisian food critic, gorge yourself on these literary delicacies
With the holidays upon us, tables across America and the world will be heaving with delights. Your Thanksgiving banquet and company might hit the commercially-sanctioned “happy” mark. However, if you’re less than enthusiastic about the season of forced gratitude and have all kinds of feelings about its settler colonialism origins, we have suggest (naturally!) literary escape. Here’s a list of yummy prose with generous sides of dysfunction and lavish sprinklings of hilarity to get you through the season. With zero sugar, gluten, cholesterol, and no animals hurt in its making (we hope), this reading list should easily and seriously indulge your literary appetite.
Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery
“I am the greatest food critic. It is I who has taken this minor art and raised it to a rank of utmost prestige,” claims Gourmet Rhapsody’s dying protagonist. In his final hours, he is trying to recall a taste that is the “final and ultimate truth of my entire life and that holds the key to the heart that I have since silenced.” Barbery’s novel explores the food critic’s quest through his upper bourgeoisie Parisian eyes and via those with the less savory perspectives of him, in some seriously delectable prose. Of his first memory of Japanese food, he writes: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.” His take on a side is something you might find at your holiday dinner table: “A few green asparagus stems, plum and tender enough to make you swoon.”
The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak
A dreamy — each chapter begins with the main character’s sleep time adventures — offering from Indonesian author Laksmi Pamuntjak, this novel trails an epidemiologist Aruna who’s tackling bird flu. Of the original outbreak, Pamuntjak writes: “It is worth noting that there was at this time a conspicuous upsurge in the production of homemade abon ayam — dry-fried shredded chicken. Simply to die for when sprinkled over rice or toast.” Pamuntjak charms with Aruna’s chattiness and the unlikely pairing of a bird flu investigation and a foodie road trip across the Indonesian archipelago. The Birdwoman’s Palate is a buffet of diverse delicacies with some regional politics thrown in the wok.
Umami by Laia Jufresa
In the Mexico City of Umami, a building layout mimics the map of the human tongue — Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Umami — while its residents grapple with grief and loss. No major banquets here but instead, there’s an urban milpa (the varied, cultivated fields of the Mesoamericans), the pseudo-cereal amaranth, MSG, and meditations on tastes via Alf, the building’s owner who’s written a book on Umami, the fifth undefinable sensation of deliciousness. A taster of Alf’s thoughts on the matter: “Umami starts in the mouth, in the middle of the tongue, activating salivation. Your molars wake up and feel the urge to bite, beg to move. Not that different in fact, albeit less powerful, from the instinct that drives your hips to move almost of their own accord during sex. In that moment, you only know how to obey your body.” And then: “If we delve back to the beginning, perhaps umami doesn’t start in the mouth at all, but rather as a craving, at first sight.”
Pow! by Mo Yan
Meat, the pumped-up industrial animal kind and the fleshy, desirous human sort, are fixations of Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s 2010 novel, Pow! Lustful and lavish, the narrative charts the changing times in an archetypal Chinese village through a tale told by a young novice to an older monk. Depending on your persuasion, the book will either cause indigestion or remedy it with its hilarious and ever-hallucinatory turns. Vegetarians and the squeamish, however, might want to pass.
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
Poet, playwright, and novelist, Ntozake Shange was most known for her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. In this novel, Shange follows three eponymous South Carolina sisters as they navigate womanhood and make their way in their worlds as artists. Interspersed are darling letters written to them from their mother. Beginning with the baby Indigo and “a moon falling from her mouth,” Shange in her delectable, incantatory prose peppers the novel with recipes such as “Cypress’ Sweetbread: The Goodness” and “My Mama & Her Mama ‘Fore Her: Codfish Cakes,” plus an epic Christmas breakfast menu. For later reading, pick up Shange’s culinary memoir of African diaspora food traditions, If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, which features recipes from her travels in Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong
Monique Truong’s tale of Linda, a Vietnamese adoptee’s life in North Carolina, is stuffed with traditional American fare, as well as its attendant 1980s fusion attempts. She writes of her white mother’s cooking ventures: “when DeAnne was experimenting with ‘exotic’ flavors, her weekly menu also included a three-layer taco casserole (one of the layers was the contents of a small bag of corn chips) and a chow mein surprise casserole (the surprise was several hot dogs cut up into matchstick-size strips, which when cooked, would curl up into little pink rubber bands). No matter the recipe, a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, the All-American binding agent of disparate foodstuff, was mixed in. The Great Assimilator, as I call it now, was responsible for the uniform taste of all of DeAnne’s casserole.” Throughout the novel, Truong serves up sensorially-layered turns of prose, stirring Linda’s word-tasting synesthesia quirk, such as “Nograpejelly desert for selfishcornonthecob.”
The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff
The chef of exacting gastronome Dodin-Bouffant dies and he has to find a replacement. Since he’s a very thorough gourmand, this is no easy task but he succeeds — only to gain a rival for his chef Adèle’s culinary charms. Also, Dodin-Bouffant prefers to eat alone to properly enjoy the epic gastronomy. Whether you wish you were alone this holidays or are alone but wish you weren’t, this slender novel should satisfy, and will certainly, educate with its erotica of French cuisine, including the humble (but apparently elevated in Adèle’s pan) pot-au-feu, or beef stew.
About the Writer
J.R. Ramakrishnan is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Electric Literature, Style.com, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s, amongst other publications. Her fiction has appeared in [PANK] and the Mixed Company, an anthology of work by New Orleans-based Women of Color. Previously, she was the director of literary programs for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.