Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan)

Travel is a bottomless pit of addiction, airline tickets are expensive, and carbon footprints are becoming an overriding concern for many who used to hop on a plane without a qualm. Faced with these incontrovertible facts while feeling the distinct symptoms of what in some parts of the world is called "cabin fever," what is a wanderlust-plagued and housebound creature to do? Pick up a cookbook, of course--but not just any cookbook.

For desperate times like these, it's essential to turn to Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, the husband and wife who have spent more than twenty years roaming the world with their two children, their cameras, their culinary curiosity and their spirit of adventure. They choose a spot and move in, exploring it through its food--eating, making friends with cooks, and then learning from them. These are not slash-and-burn adventurers; they are pioneer practitioners of Slow Travel and when they leave a place, they take with them far more than recipes. Any cookbook that comes from Alford and Duguid is a finely distilled mixture of stories and photographs that brings an entire world to their readers, rather than a simple collection of exotic dishes and how to prepare them. To open any of their books is to embark on an adventure that is almost as satisfying as making a real-life journey, and to feast upon words and images that are every bit as seductive and as satisfying as the food that they describe.

Anyone who turns the first page of Hot Sour Salty Sweet is immediately carried off on a journey along the Mekong river, swept through China's province of Yunnan, into Burma's Shan State, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, ending in Vietnam, where the river meets the sea. While following the river, Duguid and Alford find " a shared approach to food, as well as a common palate" among the people of these widely divergent cultures. The countries of the Mekong are tied together by a common thread. "Food is for fun, for joy."

Food is celebrated in these pages, and through this festive approach toward nutritional fuel is a celebration of the places and people who produce it. Although there is no recipe for fish heads and fat, Jeffrey Alford's story of being the only man in a group of several hundred Chinese women who spent the day rhythmically chanting in a dry riverbed, stopping at midday to picnic on a fish head and a chunk of fat washed down with tea, leaves an unforgettable image and questions that inevitably lead to cultural exploration. If readers want to know how the fish heads were prepared, or what kind of fat was eaten, that particular journey of discovery is left for them to pursue. What Alford makes clear is the welcoming and generous hospitality that allowed him to be part of something that otherwise would never be part of his experience, which is what every traveler yearns for.

That same generosity permeates every part of this food odyssey. Noodles are photographed only after the photographer has spent hours watching soaked rice being ground between two millstones by hand, to turn to flour, then a wet dough, then squeezed through holes in a bag into boiling water to become "beautiful white coils." The fish in a photograph was probably caught between the palms of two agile hands in a pond, and the smiling child who is embracing a chicken will doubtless eat it with equal happiness soon. Duguid and Alford's own children are awakened early one morning in Northern Laos by a water buffalo peering at them through the door of their hotel room, in a town where they will later breakfast on freshly made noodles at a market stall--and then a recipe is given to bring the flavor and fragrance of a Laos breakfast to a table somewhere on the other side of the world.

This is a cookbook that may never be used in a kitchen. It's the kind of book that captures readers for hours and then sends them away from their sheltering walls, ravenous and eager to explore their corner of the world for its own particular sights and scents and explosions of taste.