We live in a food-obsessed era. Instagram food porn, ASMR culinary vlogs, and the mukbang trend are just some of the gastronomically inclined flavours of the decade. We might say that we owe this fixation to a physical hunger or to an emotional hankering, a way to bridge today’s artificial interconnectedness through food’s materiality. Or perhaps there really are just some stories that can only be told through the prism of food.
A food memoir is one’s life story told through a culinary lens. As we shall see in this list for the 2021 Read Harder Challenge, food is more than just a biological necessity, it is also a necessary language. Through food-speak, these authors share, question, and negotiate their identity and experiences.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen
In this coming-of-age food memoir, we follow the story of Bich Nguyen. She and her family begin a life in America upon the 1975 Fall of Saigon. On the surface, Bich appears to have a simple fascination with American cuisine—among the chapters’ titles are “Pringles”, “American Meat” and “Dairy Cone”. But underneath is an emotional hunger, a desire to belong and lessen the distance between her Vietnamese identity and the prospect of assimilation. At the heart of Bich’s culinary journey is her acceptance of her identity, symbolised by her act of “stealing” the plum from Buddha’s statue.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
Culinary historian Twitty weaves food writing, academic research and personal life story in this informative yet moving food memoir. Tracing the roots of Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene brings its readers to the Old South from plantation kitchens to cotton fields. It illuminates the way enslavement, race, identity and food intersect. Its historical exploration is carefully intertwined with Twitty’s ancestral heritage as a gay, Jewish, African American culinary writer.
A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
How do you recreate your Singaporean home in the kitchen when you do not even know how to cook “basic fried rice”? After moving to America in her 20s, Tan has become a fashion writer. She decides to travel back to Singapore with the goal of recreating the dishes from her homeland. There, she rediscovers her heritage and pieces together her family’s food stories. Among the recipes included are pineapple tarts, salted vegetable and duck soup, and Teochew braised duck.
Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala
“A lot of its stories remain untold,” writes Aribisala, referring to Nigerian food. In this delectable collection of essays, she sets out to correct precisely that by celebrating Nigerian culinary culture through anecdotes and her personal memories. On the menu are a history of soup, eating dog meat, the Nigerian Civil War, and classic folktales, with a side of enticing recipes—jollof rice, peppered puff-puff, and akara fritters among others.
Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Far and Near by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan
This memoir is a comprehensive collection of recipes, peppered with stories, all from the Filipino kitchen. New York–based restaurateurs Besa and Dorotan write about their food histories: from summers spent with Besa’s grandmother, lovingly called “Nanay”, to Dorotan’s infatuation with the purple yam. Alongside, they present traditional dishes from the different regions of the country. The result is more than just a culinary history. This memoir is an account of the spirit of Philippine cuisine and an attempt to find continuity in the culinary variations of its more than 7000 islands.
Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi
By the time he was 30, Onwuachi had competed on Top Chef, had been recognised as the Rising Star Chef of the year by the James Beard Foundation, had cooked at the White House, and had opened a fine dining restaurant in DC. He had also had to close said restaurant. His climb to the top was not easy. From the Bronx to Nigeria to the American South, Onwuachi’s journey has been about sharing his own voice through food, without yielding to the culinary world’s expectations of people of color.
Kim was abandoned at a marketplace at a very young age. She was adopted by an American couple from New Orleans. After meeting a wealthy French businessman, she settles in Provence and begins a lavish life of travel and elaborate meals. But while everything seemed perfect, the feeling of homelessness remains. In this memoir, Kim leaves us a “trail of crumbs” as she searches for herself and a place she can call home.
Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende
Eros and food reunite in this culinary memoir filled with recipes that stimulate the senses. Drawing from love poems, Shakespearean sonnets, her mother’s recipes, and her personal anecdotes, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende writes about sensuality and love through the language of food. A history of aphrodisiacs, of herbs and spices, and of harem fantasy appears alongside a meditation on the senses and a manual on how to prepare recipes for an orgy.