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Yum Yum: Armchair Travelling with Asian Foodie Memoirs

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Food memoirs are one of my favorite ways to experience a different culture — or learn more about my own. They transport you completely, often doubling as travelogues that allow the hardiest armchair traveler to visit new places. But food memoirs can also be a new way to appreciate the places and cultures you know well; it’s all about perspective. With that in mind, here are six different autobiographies that explore the myriad cuisines of Asia. These foodie memoirs take you from Japan and China to Singapore through Central Asia and India, all exploring a love of eating and the influence of food on culture and history.

On the Noodle Road

Travelogues are great fun to read, so it’s incredibly exciting when foodie literature is combined with epic travel experiences. That’s just what Jen Lin-Liu did in her foodie memoir cum travelogue across Asia and Europe. In this book, she follows the noodle across the Silk Road, starting in China and moving through Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and the Mediterranean, finally making her way to Italy. It’s not just a book of delectable sights and tastes; Lin-Liu learns quite a bit about herself on the journey as well.

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Climbing the Mango Trees

Madhur Jaffrey is a giant when it comes to the history of Indian food and cooking in the West. In fact, Jaffrey is credited with bringing Indian cooking to the United States with her 1973 release of An Invitation to Indian Cooking. Her credits really are endless, from TV personality to critic to restaurant consultant, and she’s written countless cookbooks, but it’s her memoir I really want to highlight here. Climbing the Mango Trees is a memoir of Jaffrey’s childhood in India, during the final years of the British Raj. In it, she uses food as a vehicle for memory, with lush descriptions of the scents and tastes of her childhood.

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A Tiger in the Kitchen

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left Singapore at the age of 18 for New York City and never expected to look back. But in her 30s, home begin to call to her. Specifically, she wanted to know more about the food of her homeland. This memoir chronicles Lu-Lien Tan’s journey back to Singapore and her quest to learn about her childhood dishes made by her grandmothers and aunties. But, as is so often the case, her family’s recipes were intertwined with the history of her family. As Lu-Lien Tan searches for these pieces of her personal past, she uncovers unexpected secrets about her family that help her on a journey of personal discovery.

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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

How has Chinese food shaped America? More than you might think. The phenomenon of Chinese food in America is puzzling, to say the least, because it doesn’t bear much resemblance to actual food you find in China. In this book, author Jennifer Lee takes readers on a culinary tour of Chinese food within the United States, and searches for the origins of these dishes: who, exactly, was General Tso? Where did fortune cookies originate? Lee also takes a close look at the Chinese immigrant experience, and how food has affected her personal Chinese-American identity.

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Love, Loss, and What We Ate

Padma Lakshmi is best known for two different reasons: As the host of the hit Bravo cooking competition reality show Top Chef and as the ex-wife of literary superstar Salman Rushdie. But in this memoir, she is simply a woman who has an incredible love for food. Lakshmi is honest about her imposter syndrome, as well as the challenges of her marriage. But the real star of her book is food; it’s the tie that binds her entire narrative together. She chronicles her journey from her family’s kitchen in India, discussing the strong personalities who shaped her and how food was so central to her upbringing and to where she is now.

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Bento Box in the Heartland

Linda Furiya might have grown up in Versailles, Indiana, but her parents kept to their Japanese traditions. She wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take to school, but rice balls and chopsticks were what she got. To her, childhood was a blur of hunting for traditional Japanese food ingredients, which were difficult to come by in her part of the Midwest. It’s a memoir of how food can define us as being a part of a culture (or in the case of many immigrant communities to the United States, setting us apart from those around us), but it also can provide a sense of home and belonging.

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Swapna Krishna writes for Engadget, Syfy Wire, and the LA Times. Her work has been published at Paste Magazine, Bustle, Newsweek, and many other outlets.