In Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin (Berkley, Apr. 2021), the title character, a part-time waitress at a family-owned halal restaurant, watches with trepidation as a second, more upscale halal restaurant opens in her Toronto neighborhood, luring business from her employer and threatening her livelihood. (She is also inconveniently attracted to the rival restaurant’s young owner, Aydin.)
Jalaluddin’s first novel, 2019’s Ayesha at Last—an “excellent modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” per PW’s starred review—incorporated food as a central motif, and the author knew she wanted a culinary backdrop for her second. “The act of creating food for each other, of feeding each other, is such a sensual thing, especially when people are getting to know each other,” she says. “Food lends itself so well to the romance genre.”
Jalaluddin is far from alone in this assessment: several authors and editors told PW they find foodie romances thoroughly delectable. Here’s why.
Hana Khan Carries On includes savory details drawn from Jalaluddin’s Indian Canadian roots: Hana works at Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, a nod to both the regal North Indian rice casserole and the quintessential Quebecois curd-and-french-fry snack. The book also describes how waves of immigrants continue to transform the restaurant industry, and how heritage businesses in established ethnic enclaves, such as Three Sisters, change over time.
“I always want people to come to my books for entertainment, and to fall in love with the characters, and to be swept away by the love story, but also to learn something about a community they may not be familiar with,” Jalaluddin says. “Or, if they are familiar with it, then it’s something they recognize. Food is a way that different communities can share part of their experiences.”
Similarly, Sweet on You by Carla de Guzman (Carina, Jan. 2021) is steeped in Filipino food culture—mangoes, holiday cookies, and biko, a sweet rice cake. “I don’t think there’s ever a bad time or a rhyme or reason for writing food into romance,” she says. In this Christmas-themed tale set in Lipa City, outside Manila, barista and café owner Sari Tomas butts heads with a talented baker, Gabriel Capras, who has relocated from the Philippine capital.
“I don’t know if it’s a Filipino [romance writer] thing, to give as much importance to the food as we do to ambience and character, but it’s what I’ve been used to,” de Guzman says. “Every occasion in my life has had food involved.” Sweet on You’s January mass market release follows an October e-book edition; PW’s review noted its “mouthwatering descriptions of Filipino baked goods.”
To Nicole Fischer, editor at Avon, “Food can be used to convey emotions, humor, tension, friendship, honor and express culture and family and traditions. It’s a great way to build connections, in real life and in fiction.”
By way of example, Fischer describes a scene from Act Your Age, Eve Brown, which Avon will publish in March. It’s the third installment in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series; the first two received starred PW reviews. In Act Your Age, scatterbrained Eve meets the very in-control Jacob Wayne when she applies for the chef position at Jacob’s B&B. “He’s skeptical and doesn’t trust her, but then she feeds him some homemade French toast with her bare hands and he accidentally licks her finger because he’s so distracted by how great it tastes,” Fischer says. “It’s a bit of an ‘oh dear, I am inconveniently and alarmingly attracted to this person and their cooking makes me weak in the knees’ moment.”
Thien-Kim Lam’s debut, Happy Endings (May 2021), was acquired by Avon through an open call for unagented submissions. It pairs Trixie Nugyen, a Vietnamese American sex-toy purveyor, and her ex, Andre Walker, a Black soul food restaurateur. As gentrification upends their Washington, D.C., neighborhood, the former lovers turn his space into a vibrator pop-up shop in the hopes of satisfying two kinds of customer appetites and saving the struggling eatery.
Part of the impetus behind the plotline, Lam says, was her desire to explicate the complexity of Vietnamese food, and especially the evolution of the cuisine due to migration and immigration. “My version of pho is not my mother’s version of pho,” she explains.
The book details reimagined versions of the popular noodle soup and other foods Lam grew up with. It also draws from the author’s other vocation—she founded a book subscription box called Bawdy Bookworms, which pairs romance novels with sex toys—and her personal life. Her husband is Black, and she wanted this multiracial representation in a novel.
“Often in literature, and in romance, when there are characters of two different cultures, those cultures always seem in opposition,” Lam says. “In this book, the conflict doesn’t have to do with their cultures, but what they want from their careers and out of life. Food is their shared language.”
The Forever releases Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron (Mar. 2021) and Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall (May 2020) tap into the popularity of televised cooking and baking competitions. Hall’s book, which launches the Winner Bakes All series, features a young single mother vying to become a star baker; the landscape architect whom her erudite, physician parents prefer she partner with; and Harry, an electrician, whose class position at first makes him seem less than desirable.
“The success of cooking, and specifically baking, shows has really spoken to people—it’s teamwork, it’s congenial, it’s nice to see something that’s not divisive right now,” says Amy Pierpont, editor-in-chief of Forever and Forever Yours. Rosaline Palmer includes recipes tested by the author, and Pierpont hopes readers will cook along. “It’s a comfort read,” she says. “Rosaline muddles her way through her bakes and her relationships and really comes into her own.”
Heron’s book follows sourdough maven Reena Manji, who fakes an engagement with the literal boy next door. She resists falling for Nadim, because her South Asian Muslim parents have deemed him suitable, but she doesn’t mind partnering with him in order to compete in a couples’ cooking competition.
“Food allows people to connect, to break bread together, to share a meal, to feed each other,” Pierpont says. “And food can often bring together people who, on the surface, have nothing in common. Everyone needs to eat. These romances are about taking care of one another.”
Authors PW spoke with reflected on what it means to have a foodie romance out now, when people’s relationships with each other—and with food—have changed.
“I read to be captivated and to go to another place,” Jalaluddin says. “But as much as I want to escape, I also want stories that are willing to deal with the complexities of life. My book is escapist, but it also deals with some really tough issues about identity and Islamophobia and being young and navigating the world.”
Food is a human need, and it’s also a universal metaphor for love, comfort, and joy. “With every book I write, I share a little part of myself with the rest of the world,” de Guzman says. Her main characters “associate food with specific memories, and it’s the same for me.”
De Guzman references the concept of kilig, a Tagalog word meaning the thrill or rush of a romantic experience. “Books have always been a great source of comfort and happiness for me,” she says, “regardless of what’s going around in the world, and if I’m able to provide that for a reader, along with a heavy dose of kilig, then I’ve done my job.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
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