Sweden, Egypt, Lebanon, Peru, France, Mozambique, Belgium, Thailand, Mexico, Ethiopia: what might these diverse places have in common?
Food. It’s not that they share similar dishes, though some do; it’s not that they work with the same foodstuffs, though some do that, too. It is that, along with thirty eight other nations, they are countries that the editors of travel publishing house Lonely Planet have chosen as sites of the world’s great cuisines. They are all featured in the Lonely Planet publication called The Food Book. .
At a bit over eight hundred pages, you may not choose this chunky book to take along as light reading for the road. Reading it, or even just looking through the photographs, may well inspire you to travel, though, whether that’ll be to take off across the world, or down the street to your neighborhood ethnic restaurant or grocer. Though it’s not a recipe book, there are recipes included from time to time, as well, and the food and culture information itself is enough to have you looking up and creating recipes on your own.
The photographs themselves are inspiring, whether they are of herring in Norway, pilau (a rice dish) from Sri Lanka, a hillside vineyard in Portugal, a range of spices from Mexico, or a field of pumpkins in Canada. Connections among landscape, culture, people, and food are created in the photographs as well as through the text.
Each country chapter is in fact rather short, and further divided into short sections. After a bit of introductory material, each chapter has a paragraph about culture, and then the structures vary a bit. Iconic produce, dealing with the basic food sources, is commonly included. Notes about etiquette, about mealtimes, cooking methods, signature dishes, food regions and their differences, drinks both alcoholic and not, and feasts, festivals, and food events are choices which often appear. Each chapter makes a taster, if you will, of the the food culture and cuisine of the given nation.
How reliable is the information, and how engaging is it? To look into these aspects, I first chose to read about several countries whose food I know well (the United States, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Mexico were several of my choices), then several about which I have some knowledge but not in depth (Sweden, Thailand, Switzerland, were three of my choices here) and others about which I knew little (Mozambique came up for me here, along with Iran and Sri Lanka).
From this method of exploration I learned that condensing information and choices about what to include and not are a matter of taste, so to speak. I’d not have characterized the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States as only a gut busting extravaganza, for example, but I did think the very short comments on regional food difference across the United States and also in Canada were fair enough. Choice of iconic produce and signature dishes across most countries seemed fair enough as well. The iconic dishes and local produce are named in both English and the language of the country, a useful addition. It was interesting to see how countries in the same part of the world and even different ones have the same sorts of staple foods — beans (pulses), varied sorts of grains, and such, and to read about and see the differing ways bread is made and served from Lebanon to India to Argentina. At times the grammar gave me pause, but perhaps these were choices to make conveying so much information read in an informal way. If so, some choices worked and others called at bit too much attention to themselves.
The few drawbacks aside, this is a book that is useful, inspiring, and filled with information. It’d make a fine way to explore parts of the world in imagination, and to prepare for or remember visits on the ground. Travelers and cooks (and photographers as well) will find much to enjoy in The Food Book.
Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, and occasionally about such things as butternut squash pizza and fireballs being hurled into the sea.
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