10 Fiction Books Featuring Food

If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food [in books]. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation” (Terry Eagleton). Below is the list of 10 fiction books that include food as part of their narrative/descriptions or revolve around food/its preparation. Food can play different roles in a book, such as emphasise the character’s belonging to a particular culture or simply be there to stress the coming of people together, such as at a dinner table, where they can form or cement their relationships.

Sweet-Bean-Paste-coverI. Sweet Bean Paste [2013] by Durian Sukegawa

Food/its preparation is everywhere in this heart-warming novel by Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. In this case, it is delicious home-made dorayaki (Japanese red-bean pancakes), which the main character decides to cook at his street stall and employs an elderly woman with a secret to help him. Both subtle and powerful, this short novel stresses the love for good food, as well as the importance of friendship and the fight against societal discrimination. 

chocolat novelII. Chocolat [1999] by Joanne Harris 

This book is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother who arrives to one provincial French town and opens there a chocolaterie. The novel explores such themes as the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination and  hypocrisy, and all in the background of sumptuous chocolate and chocolate-making descriptions. The film of 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench is a perfect companion to this book. 

Pachinko Book CoverIII. Pachinko [2017] by Min Jin Lee

You may wonder what food has to do with this novel about three generations of one family torn between their native Korea (and its roots) and their life in Japan. I simply thought that food played an important role in this novel, especially in showing Sunja’s link to her home in Korea. In this story, Sunja makes a start in Japan by making some excellent kimchi, a classic Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage and carrots in a spicy sauce, and there are also descriptions of a restaurant culture in the novel.  

the belly of parisIV. The Belly of Paris [1873] by Emile Zola

This book centres on Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and is instantly drawn into the affairs of its main food market, Les Halles. Zola describes the market in colourful terms, but also food shops that are in the vicinity of the market. There are sumptuous descriptions of cheeses, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, and the personages that frequent the market are as colourful as the produce they sell.

Harry Potter Book CoverV. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [1997] (+ other books in the series) by J. K. Rowling 

I love food and its presentation in the Harry Potter series (who doesn’t, right?). Even before Harry Potter gets to Hogwarts, he and Ron indulge in sweets so common in the wizarding world. On the train, they eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, as well as Chocolate Frogs, but probably also Cauldron Cakes, Liquorice Wands and Sugar Quills, among other sweets. Later, there are descriptions of lavish banquets at the Great Hall, Fred and George’s sweets, cooking at the Burrow and at Hagrid’s place, the Three Broomsticks’ butterbeer, among so many other food descriptions. 

Fried Green Tomatoes Book CoverVI. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café [1987] by Fannie Flagg

This books revolves around one café in Whistle Stop, Alabama, run by two extraordinary women. That café is known for its food, coffee and friendly atmosphere. The parallel story set in the present time also revolves around food because the two women at the nursing home share their stories and form their friendship through the sharing of their food, such as Butterfingers and chocolates. At the end of the book, one can find cooking recipes for skillet cornbread, pecan pie, coconut cream pie, sipsey’s black-eyed peas, fried okra, and, of course, fried green tomatoes. 

Como Agua Para Chocolate Book CoverVII. Like Water for Chocolate [1992] by Laura Esquivel

Romantic passion and food are interlinked magically in this short novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. In this story, Tita has a talent for cooking deliciously, and seduces her beloved with the dishes seemingly from heaven. This is a poignant tale of tragic and forbidden love, and it is through recipes that Tita’s story is told. Each chapter starts with a different month, and, for example, in January, we read how to make Tortas de Navidad (a Christmas cake), in February, we learn how to make Pastel Chabela (a wedding cake), and, in September, there is recipe for Chocolate Rosca de Reyes (sweet bread shaped in the form of a wreath with candied fruit on top and chocolate), etc.

with the fire on high book coverVIII. With the Fire on High [2019] by Elizabeth Acevedo

Cooking and food form much of this YA novel because the main character here is Emoni Santiago, a seventeen year old mother who dreams of becoming a chef while honing her culinary skills in her kitchen. The book starts with Emoni’s Lemon Verbena Tembleque recipe (tembleque is a Puerto Rican dessert pudding made from coconut milk), and frequently references food throughout. Much of the food mentioned reflects Emoni’s Afro-Puerto Rican roots. 

kitchen book coverIX. Kitchen [1988] by Banana Yoshimoto

This book explores grief and loss as the main character experienced the death of her grandmother and now has to find her own path in the world. The main character’s love of kitchens means there are culinary descriptions, and tofu, pork and rice (katsudon) (pork and eggs cooked in a broth and placed over rice), and green tea are all mentioned in the story. It seems that food and kitchens provide a relief for the depressed or still grieving Mikage, as well as help her relate to others.

the joy luck clubX. The Joy Luck Club [1989] by Amy Tan

This novel focuses on four Chinese American immigrant families in San Francisco who begin a club – The Joy Luck Club. They play a Chinese game of mahjong there, as well as feast on diverse food (long rice noodles, dumplings, etc.) There are stories that emphasise the immigrants’ experience (Chinese-American traditions), generation gaps and mother-daughter relationships. American and Chinese food, as well as table-manners of both countries, are contrasted in the story. 

Do you have favourite books that feature food? Given the quote above, what do you think can be the significance of food in books?

35 thoughts on “10 Fiction Books Featuring Food

  1. Before I ever had children, I read about how fragile life feels to a young mother in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, and a friend and I still quote one line of that novel whenever we suspect we’re fussing too much over something that concerns our (now adult) children: “The only really safe way to eat potato salad is with your head in the refrigerator.”

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  2. Great post, this is such an interesting idea!
    I tend to feel mostly indifferent about food in books; it just doesn’t evoke the sensory experience for me that I feel it’s supposed to, and so I find myself feeling shut outside of the atmosphere/story. But I did like the mentions of fantastical food in Harry Potter, and I loved Pachinko food and all, so perhaps I just haven’t been focusing on the right food books otherwise!

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I guess it depends on a book and narrative, and, in most cases, I simply notice that food provides a sense of “cosiness” (and fraternity?) when people gather together in stories.

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  3. I must not pay too much attention to food in books, except the role it plays in individual scenes. The food scene that I still remember after many, many years is from Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. In the scene, two young brothers have been left alone in their Harlem apartment for several days with no food. They go to a store and steal some shrimp, but when they get it home, there is nothing to cook it with, so they fry it in hair pomade. That one scene showed so vividly what kind of poverty and neglect those two children were living in. I’ve never forgotten it.

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    1. Thank you for the comment, and yes, that is a curious scene you described. Poverty can definitely be shown best through food (its lack). I recall that in Pachinko there are also scenes where characters talk about the scarcity of rice, with rice being food that only rich or well-off people could afford (or occasionally poor people at their weddings) at that period and place in the novel.

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  4. Great list. It includes several of my favourite books: ‘Like Water for Chocolate’, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes…’ and ‘Chocolat’. I think I’m drawn to books with food in the title. As far as I can remember, these three books were all the first I read by these authors, and since I’ve gone on to read and enjoy more of their work. I loved the Harry Potter books too, but not so much for the food!

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  5. Wonderful list! I want to read Kitchen and Sweet Bean Paste. Two other food based books I can think of are The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa and The Food of Love by Anthony Capella. Thanks for sharing your list 🙂

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  6. Fantastic post! I love the books you’ve picked to feature here. It’s pretty fun to see Harry Potter get a spot for those candies; I read the first book last month for the first time ever too! Got to admit that food in literature is probably the one thing that can tell so much about an author’s writing.

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    1. Definitely. When she left home, Sunja still felt connected to her home and culture through food and I also thought it was important. And, of course, poverty is shown through the lack of certain food. It is a very good novel.

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