Already established as an author thanks to his smash hit Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain convinced an editor to next let him wander the world searching for the perfect meal. Bourdain refreshingly admits to selling out by having a TV crew follow him around, noting that when he’s writing about being scared and lonely, there’s a crew in another hotel room down the hall. The Snow Leopard this is not, but at least it’s not pretending otherwise.
Nestled between accounts of eating and adventuring in places as far flung as Portugal, California and Morocco, are Bourdain’s descriptions of eating his way around pockets of Vietnam (Saigon, the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang) and Cambodia (Angkor Wat, Pailin, Battambang).
It might be easy to dismiss Bourdain’s writing as commercial and merely a tie-in with his TV shows, but he does encourage his readers to not be lazy. Exhibit A: Encouraging them to read Bao Ninh’s stunning The Sorrow of War, describing it as “a remarkable book, mostly for its eerie parallels to similar American works. It’s a Vietnam book—like so many Vietnam books—only told from the other side.” (So yes, you should read it if you haven’t yet.)
Naturally, Bourdain hones in on the “exotic”, but his delight in Vietnam leaps off the page as he tucks into everything from lobster “blood” (a while liquid from the lobster’s sexual organs, mixed with vodka… actually this is served to him, but we’re not sure whether he drinks it or not) to far more appealing dishes. These dishes may not sound too exotic to us in 2018, but they certainly did to readers in 2001:
“I order a spring roll at another stall, watch as the owner wraps freshly hacked cooked prawn, mint, basil, lotus root, and sprouts in rice paper, then eat that and order a shrimp kebab, a sort of shrimp cake wrapped around a stick of sugarcane and grilled. It’s a wonderland of food here. Tiny intricately wrapped and shaped banh—triangular bundles of rice cake and pork inside carefully tied banana leaves—dangle from stalls, like the hanging salami and cheese you see in Italian markets. I try some. Smashing. There’s food everywhere, inside the market, outside on the street; anyone not selling or cooking food seems to be eating, kneeling or squatting against walls, on the floor, in the street, tucking into something that looks wonderful.”
It’s not just about the food though. Bourdain meets a beggar horribly disfigured, likely from napalm: “Suddenly, this is not fun anymore. I’m ashamed. How could I come to this city, to this country, filled with enthusiasm for something so . . . so . . . meaningless as flavor, texture, cuisine? This man’s family has very possibly been vaporized, the man himself transformed into a ruined figurine like some Madame Tussaud’s exhibit, his skin dripping like molten wax. What am I doing here? Writing a fucking book? About food? Making a petty, useless, lighter-than-air television fucking show?”
Then there’s Cambodia, an even bleaker enterprise than Vietnam, and one Bourdain doesn’t shy away from admitting America’s role in stuffing up: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.”
The food is somewhat less of an attraction here, and it’s more about the reality of life in a post-conflict society: the Khmer Rouge, weapons, brothels, ancient ruins and disappointment. Still, durian makes an appearance: “God it stank! it smelled like you’d buried somebody holding a big wheel of Stilton in his arms, then dug him up a few weeks later,” Bourdain writes. “It was fantastic. Cheesy, fruity, rich, with a slightly smoky background. Imagine a mix of Camembert cheese, avocado and smoked Gouda. OK, don’t. That’s not a very good description. But tasting the stuff, one struggles for words.”
Bourdain’s best book, we reckon, easily remains Kitchen Confidential, but for Southeast Asia travellers interested in the experiences of yesteryear, A Cook’s Tour is a breezy read that successfully captures the vibe of the late 1990s when he was on the road. And it’s a reminder, in this time of slick listicles and Instagrammable restaurant interiors, that the best bits of a trip are in fact when you just go off-piste, meet people, open yourself up to experiences and try something new (stinky or otherwise). Bourdain taught a lot of people the value in engaging with other cultures, and it remains worth remembering that travel can be approached with humility and can be an education.
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