So many of the good times traveling this world relate directly to finding a human face to associate with your destination, the food you eat, and the memories you’ll keep with you forever. The best times are when it’s impossible to be cynical about anything. When you find yourself letting go of the past, and your preconceptions, and feel yourself and your basic nature, the snarkiness and suspicion, the irony and doubt, disappear, at least for a time. When, for a few moments or a few hours, you change.
This quote from Anthony Bourdain opens up the South Korea chapter of World Travel: An Irreverent Guide. It also perfectly sums up Bourdain’s attitude toward travel and what I believe to be the most important aspect: human connections.
The newly released book was originally planned by Bourdain, whose untimely death 3 years ago shocked the world and the team at Cookly. It was then compiled by his assistant and long-time collaborator, Laurie Woolever. The book is written as a country by country, city by city, travel guide, and contains quotes from Bourdain (always highlighted in blue).
Each country and/or city starts with an introductory section, mainly of Bourdain’s words. Then there is usually an “arrival/getting around” section which usually comes across as very unnecessary (you know, with the internet accessible to most readers). Following that is the main event: recommendations for eating in each location.
The recommendations are varied from location to location; sometimes they’re fancy restaurants with famous chefs, other times they’re local markets or food stands. Either way, the included places are what Bourdain wanted his readers to know about and his passion for each place comes across every time.
A few of the cities will have the hotels Bourdain would usually stay at while visiting. These seemed less of a recommendation since most of them were surprisingly expensive. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have CNN or book publishers paying for our accommodations. But some locations will have both options; for example, he mentions both an $83 per night and a $500 per night hotel in Rome (Hotel Raffaello and Hotel de Russie, respectively).
Throughout the book, there are essays written by those with a personal connection to Bourdain and his legacy. Even with two from Bourdain’s brother, the most important one was written by Nari Kye, a production manager on Bourdain’s show, No Reservations.
He fundamentally changed me. Thank you, Tony.
Her essay perfectly encapsulates the type of impact he could have on somebody. Working on the South Korea episode with Bourdain, with the focus on her family, made her stop being embarrassed by her Korean heritage:
“Before making the Korea episode of No Reservations with Tony, I was a different person: I was ashamed and embarrassed to be different. I just wanted to fit in. All my life, I felt like I really didn’t belong. It wasn’t until after that experience that I realized this is what makes me who I am.”
Kye ends her essay with two simple sentences: “He fundamentally changed me. Thank you, Tony.”
One thing that Bourdain and I share is an unabashed, love-at-first-sight devotion to Vietnam. His writings and TV shows captured Bourdain’s love over and over and it was never not thrilling entertainment. In the introduction to the Ho Chi Minh City section, his feelings are perfectly summed up:
From the very first minute that I came to this country, I knew my life had changed. My old life was suddenly never gonna be good enough. I needed a new one, where I could keep coming back here. The streets, the stop, start, stop of negotiating the never-ending traffic. The seemingly impenetrable patterns. The mental preparedness necessary for simply crossing the street. A sensory overload, a caffeine-like rush of heightened perception, one that always leads to good things.
What does Bourdain Recommend?
In the central Vietnamese city of Hue, the book talks about what Bourdain says is “the greatest soup in the world“: Bún bò Huế, purchased at Kim Chau’s restaurant in Dong Ba Market. “Here, Kim Chau creates an elaborate broth of mixed bones scented with lemongrass, spice, and fermented shrimp paste. At the bottom, rice noodles, garnished—nay, heaped—with tender slow-cooked beef shank, crabmeat dumplings, pigs’ foot, and huyết—blood cake.“
Spain: “outside of Asia, this is it: the best and most exciting place to eat in the world.” His favorite place to visit in Spain was the city of San Sebastian, his favorite restaurant was Ganbara. “I come here every time, like a heat-seeking missile. The house specialty, what they’re most famous for, is the be all and end all for me: seared wild mushrooms and foie gras with a raw egg yolk gently draped over the top to sizzle and commingle with the hot fungi.“
For lovers of Mexican cuisine, head to Oaxaca, where “ancient indigenous traditions and ingredients define not only the mescal, but also the food. I haven’t been anywhere in Mexico where the cooking is better than here…It is, in fact, old; older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated.” For an episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain spent a day at the large, semi-enclosed market Central de Abastos. He was there for the barbacoa tacos and tlayudas, a traditional Oaxacan dish served with zucchini flowers and cheese and cooked on a clay comal.
So, is the book worth purchasing?
If you’re traveling and want to know what Bourdain did in certain locations, most of this information and more can be found on the different episodes of his 16 years of TV shows. But depending on what streaming services you have and what you’re able to find online, you might not always have access to a particular episode.
Having the book on the nearest bookshelf, quickly reachable to look up Bourdain’s favorite cities and where he recommends eating, might not be indispensable. But it is thoroughly enjoyable. And I believe it’s worth it for any who love to travel and love to listen to Bourdain’s wit, wisdom, and direction.