The best cookbooks for armchair travelers

Who am I?

I've been thinking and writing about food ever since I spent a year in the Soviet Union many decades ago and discovered that food is a wonderfully immediate way to enter into another culture. My first cookbook led to a stint as a spokesperson for Stolichnaya vodka when it was first introduced to the US—a fascinating exercise in cross-cultural communication during the Cold War. In 2001 I founded Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, which deepened my interest in culinary cultures around the world. Cookbooks aren't just about recipes. For me, the best ones include personal stories and history that transport you to other realms.


I wrote...

Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore

By Darra Goldstein,

Book cover of Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore

What is my book about?

I love the icy beauty of cold climates, which I've written about in several of my cookbooks. For Beyond the North Wind, I traveled to remote regions of the Russian North to explore the true heart of Russian food and show how foods from a harsh climate can be surprisingly sophisticated. The book celebrates whole grains, preserved and fermented foods, and straightforward but robust flavors, with recipes for a dazzling array of pickles and preserves; infused vodkas; homemade dairy products and baked cultured milk; a pantheon of pies; large, lacy blini; and seasonal vegetable soups.

Beyond the North Wind is a home-style cookbook with a strong sense of place that offers a rarely seen portrait of Russia, its people, and its palate.

The books I picked & why

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Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food

By Mary Taylor Simeti,

Book cover of Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food

Why this book?

This book immediately swept me up in its glorious evocation of Sicily: the island's ancient history, the ways of its people, and above all the flavors of the sun-kissed land. In gorgeous prose, American-born Mary Taylor Simeti combines the illuminating insights of an outside observer with a passion for her adopted homeland. The recipes range from the cucina povera that sustained most of Sicily's inhabitants over the centuries to the ornate court cuisine that developed in the 16th century. We also journey to Sicily's convents, where the nuns became famous for their wondrous confections with fanciful names like "Virgins' Breasts" and "Chancellor's Buttocks."


Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village

By Peter Graham,

Book cover of Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village

Why this book?

Few visitors to France venture to the Auvergne, the sparsely populated, south-central region where until recently most of the now-aging population still spoke the medieval language known as Occitan. Englishman Peter Graham moved there in 1978 and became captivated with the land and its inhabitants. Mourjou communicates his love for this little-known region and its hearty food. Graham collected extraordinary recipes that can't be found in other books about French food (an eggy pudding made with buckwheat flour, ham, Swiss chard, and prunes; a charlotte made with chestnut flour, chestnut cream, pumpkin, and quince). He intersperses recipes with beautifully crafted essays that dive deep into the region's history and culture, chronicling a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.


My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking

By Niloufer Ichaporia King,

Book cover of My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking

Why this book?

Until picking up this book I knew nothing about Parsi food, a distinctive way of cooking practiced by the descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India around the 8th century. And what a cuisine it is! This book engages all your senses, immersing you in the aromas, colors, and tastes of Parsi kitchens. Niloufer King's descriptions are beguiling, her language deft as she evokes dishes like the "wobbly" cauliflower custard of her childhood and its "trembling delicacy," or a hot green chutney that is "raucous" rather than refined. King brings family and friends to life through anecdotes that reveal the long history and continuing evolution of this distinctive manner of cooking.


Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light

By Caroline Eden,

Book cover of Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light

Why this book?

Caroline Eden is an intrepid traveler, and her culinary travelogue Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes through Darkness and Light beautifully captures the romance of the Black Sea region. You experience all the bumps and jolts of her journey as she moves along the coasts of Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, repeatedly forsaking comfort for more strenuous modes of conveyance and lodging. The book's shimmery cover is alluring, as are the generous photographs of people, places, and food. Eden's lyrical, evocative prose has an immediacy that communicates the distinctiveness of each place she visits. The book goes beyond history, culture, cuisine, and geopolitics to tell the personal stories of the people who inhabit the Black Sea coast.


The Cuisine of Hungary

By George Lang,

Book cover of The Cuisine of Hungary

Why this book?

The legendary restaurateur George Lang escaped from a labor camp under the Nazis and in 1946 managed to emigrate to New York City. This book is his love letter to his native land. I can't think of another writer who conveys the fascinating history of Hungarian cuisine with such detail and depth of feeling. The book features "Gastronomic Profiles" of the country's distinctive regions and contains excellent information on Hungarian wines. Lang's book is rich in literary quotations, including an ode "To a Fattened Goose" by József Berda. The recipes are excellent, many with enticing names like "Witches' Froth," which Lang describes as a "featherweight dessert" to offset the richness of an otherwise heavy meal.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in food, Sicily, and cooking?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about food, Sicily, and cooking.

Food Explore 43 books about food
Sicily Explore 25 books about Sicily
Cooking Explore 61 books about cooking

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland, The Oxford Companion to Food, and Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History if you like this list.