essential episodes

15 Essential Episodes of Parts Unknown

Photo: Pete Souza

“You’re going to have to walk me through this,” former president Barack Obama tells Anthony Bourdain as he perplexedly peers into a bowl of bun cha (grilled-pork noodles). Seated on plastic stools, the wily host and the onetime leader of the free world swap stories of past delicious meals.

It’s one of the most iconic scenes from CNN’s Peabody- and Emmy-winning show Parts Unknown, which captured the unfiltered truth of many lesser-known destinations. While other travel shows serve up aspirations with high gloss, Bourdain’s travelogue was gritty and raw. The directors had almost free rein to experiment with wacky animated sequences, black-and-white film, silly sketches, and more. In an interview with Adweek, Bourdain explained that several places he visited for the show had been previously inaccessible, but his move to CNN allowed for the “infrastructure and inclination to make those places doable.”

Out of all his series, Parts Unknown captured Bourdain at his best: compassionate about new cultures and consistently eager to embrace new experiences that were often out of his comfort zone. Most notably, he took some of the focus off the food to dive deeper into conversations about politics, culture, and the meaning of life.

Many viewers will want to revisit the show after seeing the new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. If you haven’t watched any of the 104 Parts Unknown episodes, getting started can be daunting without a guide; the episodes aren’t sequential, and you’ll probably want to start with the must-watch ones. Here are 15 essential episodes across all 12 seasons of Parts Unknown that showcase Bourdain’s pure joy of travel and may inspire yours.

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“Myanmar” (Season 1, Episode 1)

The series premiere sets the tone: We’re given access to a country not seen by most of the outside world for decades. Along for the journey is Bourdain’s former boss Philippe Lajaunie — owner of Brasserie Les Halles (now closed). They start in Yangon, chowing down on street food with the three-piece Burmese punk band Side Effect.

Next, they take on a human-powered Ferris wheel run by young men who hang off the wheels and the passenger cars to rotate the 20-foot contraption while dozens of children onboard squeal with delight. There’s also a rickety train ride that’s meant to take ten hours but ends up taking 19, on which Bourdain laughs and drinks through the terror. “Mishaps on both Burmese planes and trains are not, shall we say, unheard of,” he explains. They arrive in the ancient city of Bagan, a World Heritage site dotted with more than 3,000 Buddhist temples, most of which were built over 800 years ago. He’s touched by how freely the locals speak their mind to him, and he ends with the thought “How will the Burmese react to all the good and evils that come with tourism?”

“Congo” (Season 1, Episode 8)

As a longtime fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bourdain harbored a longtime dream to visit the Congo. In the first-season finale, he finally makes it happen — but not without hardships. “No show I’ve ever made has been more difficult, more frustrating, more uncertain, maddening, or dangerous,” he wrote on his Tumblr blog. “We were extorted, detained, and threatened daily.”

The episode’s lighter moments see a group of men in swimming trunks singing in unison as they climb and flip off of flimsy wooden poles into Boyoma Falls in Kisangani to fish. The meager catch they retrieve is made into tiger-fish limboke steamed in banana leaves. Next, it’s a treacherous trip down the Congo River, where the power repeatedly fails as Bourdain desperately tries to cook for the boat’s starving crew. Despite the Congo being what Bourdain calls “the most relentlessly fucked-over nation in the world,” he finds hope for a better future in the tireless library workers, railway volunteers, and passionate locals he meets there.

“Lyon” (Season 3, Episode 3)

At the start of the episode, Bourdain asks why this French city has churned out a tremendous number of the world’s greatest chefs: “Point, Chapel, Troisgros, Bocuse.” Coming along for the ride to help him answer the question is world-renowned Michelin-starred chef and Lyon native Daniel Boulud, who guides Bourdain to some of his favorite hometown haunts, including the culinary school Institut Paul Bocuse, where they enjoy the rare and expensive Bresse chicken (the “Rolls-Royce of chicken,” Bourdain narrates).

The episode ends at the Boulud family farm with duck hunting and a meal of Lyonnaise farmhouse classics, most notably a dinosauric pumpkin stuffed with day-old bread, sausage, fresh veggies, pumpkin meat, and cream. The answer to why the best chefs come from Lyon seems to be inside this pumpkin — a lifetime of working with the freshest of farm-grown ingredients.

“Thailand” (Season 3, Episode 7)

A yellow moon with an animated female face and cherry lips winks at Bourdain suggestively. Scantily clad women smirk and wiggle as Bourdain and a pal drive by in a tuk tuk in an imagined dream sequence featuring Thailand’s ladyboys. Fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, the scene is symbolic of the playful yet dark undertones of this episode set in Chiang Mai.

Chef Andy Ricker of the famed Pok Pok restaurants is Bourdain’s guide for an eating-and-drinking blitz that begins with khao kha moo (stewed pork leg) at the Chang Phueak night market, which is run by a lady who always wears a cowboy hat. Later at the restaurant Pa Daeng Jin Tup, they dine on a local specialty of hammered meat as the owner offers up her daughter as a potential wife for Ricker. Finally — and memorably — they head to a Chiang Mai cabaret show where Bourdain is tricked into kissing one of the performers on the lips. He commemorates the trip with a traditional Thai sak yant tattoo.

“Vietnam” (Season 4, Episode 4)

“It grabs you and doesn’t let you go,” Bourdain says gushingly of Vietnam. “Once you love it, you love it forever.” The episode exudes that joy throughout. For his first meal — eaten in the imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam — Bourdain’s six-foot-four frame is strikingly coiled into a red plastic children’s chair, but there are no complaints and he has a shit-eating grin on his face while enjoying a bowl of cơm hến, or clam rice. Cut to Bourdain atop a scooter, smiling ear to ear as he narrates, “One of the greatest joys in life is riding a scooter through Vietnam to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography.”

This joy is tempered by a quick voice-over history lesson informing us that Hue was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. At an elegant dinner featuring elaborate imperial Vietnamese dishes cooked by acclaimed artist and chef Madame Boi Tran, he learns that “every meter of Hue has a dead person.” Next, he descends into the Vịnh Mốc tunnels, where 90 families lived underground for almost six years of the war — much of that time in complete darkness. He emerges as if seeing the sun for the first time to enjoy a roasted local fish on the beach.

“Iran” (Season 4, Episode 6)

Many of the essential episodes of Parts Unknown surprised us. Bourdain and his crew tried for many years to film in Iran, which he calls “a big blank spot on nearly every traveler’s résumé.” He’s surprised that the locals welcome him with open arms in the capital city of Tehran despite their government’s views on the U.S., as they do in a local bowling alley, where hijab-wearing women dip manicured fingers into the bowling balls and joyfully fling them down the lanes. He then joins a family for a traditional stew of fried chicken and pomegranate, where he learns how much Iranians love guests. “You tend to kill your guests with kindness here,” he says.

After he heads south to Isfahan, the camera pans over thousands seated in prayer against the backdrop of the Imam Mosque. He’s served a home-cooked koofteh sabzi — a Persian-style meatball with an entire boiled egg stuffed inside, sour-cherry rice, and more — by Nazila Noebashari, the owner of Aaran Gallery in Tehran. Here, the guests share that they would love to be seen as humans and not as enemies. One jokes, “We’re not the axis of evil. Just normal evil like everyone else.”

“Marseille” (Season 6, Episode 2)

This episode opens with Bourdain and his good friend Eric Ripert, the French chef and author, goofing, guffawing, and cruising down a highway in Marseille on Vespas. “It’s a victim of bad reputation, bad history,” Bourdain says in voice-over. “Marseille — as it turns out, exactly the kind of place I like.” The meal at Le Petit Nice Passedat, a three-Michelin-star restaurant next to a nude beach, shows why. Chef Gérald Passedat serves the pair a deconstructed four-course menu of the region’s famous bouillabaisse. The dessert cart, piled with more than a dozen blocks of cheese, inspires Bourdain to deadpan, “I don’t care if naked breasts are on that beach right now because that is much more exciting.”

We find out that Marseille is the pizza-truck capital of France, and the pair teams up to cook on the Pizza JD truck. The episode is filled with silly banter showing the obvious bromance between Bourdain and Ripert. We’re left with the knowledge that the oft-maligned Marseille should be a beloved destination.

“Charleston” (Season 6, Episode 8)

“The South is not a monolith,” explains Bourdain, and he’s here with Sean Brock, the owner of McCrady’s, an award-winning restaurant in downtown Charleston, to prove it — at least in terms of cuisine. In a funny sequence at the cheap southern diner Waffle House, which Bourdain has never visited, the theme music of Netflix’s Chef’s Table — a show featuring multicourse menus by Michelin-star chefs — plays over dramatic shots of pecan waffles, patty melts, and green salads with Thousand Island dressing.

Afterward, they head to Brock’s downtown restaurant, Husk, which features elevated southern dishes such as paper-thin country-ham charcuterie and old-fashioned oyster pie. Next, Bourdain meets with chef BJ Dennis and learns about Gullah cuisine, West African–based foodways that have heavily influenced down-home southern cooking and American cooking in general.

“Borneo” (Season 6, Episode 6)

Ten years earlier, Bourdain promised the Iban tribe that he would return to Borneo for the annual Gawai Dayak festival; in this episode, he keeps his word. As he navigates up the Skrang River on a wooden boat, Bourdain notes the many changes that have occurred since his previous visit. Timbering has partially cleared much of the forest, and now there is reliable electricity, plumbing, and, as Bourdain describes it, “never-ending karaoke.”

But much remains the same, too — the slow rhythm of life, the respect for nature, and a love of guests. Cut to the squeals of a pig as blood gushes into the river and coats Bourdain’s feet; the host’s face is pensive, and he stares intently as the pig he just killed takes its last breath. Here, every bit of the pig is honored, and the tribal villagers in Sarawak join in to feast and drink copious amounts of alcohol until they all pass out.

“Hanoi” (Season 8, Episode 1)

The eighth-season premiere opens with Bourdain’s standard props in Vietnam: a plastic seat and a bowl of steaming noodles. This time, he’s enjoying bun oc, a snail noodle soup from Bun Oc Pho Co. We’re told that almost half of Hanoi’s residents are under 30 and that few remember what’s called the American War here. He also eats grilled squid in Ha Long Bay on a French-era-style steamer boat and is treated to a meal by a fishing family that has lived over the water for centuries.

Bourdain next heads to a local market as black limos adorned with Vietnamese flags glide by. Crowds of rain-soaked locals shriek and clap as the door opens and Barack Obama emerges smiling and waving. He’s greeted by Bourdain and shares that he grew up with similar markets in Jakarta. They head inside and slide their lanky bodies onto the blue plastic stools at Bun Cha Huong Lien. Bourdain guides the former president through the process of enjoying the local specialty, a bowl of $6 rice noodles called bun cha, which consists of grilled pork, Vietnamese fish sauce, and fresh vegetables. There’s a vulnerable moment when Bourdain asks, “As a father of a young girl, is everything going to be okay?” Obama reassures him, answering confidently, “Yes, progress is not a straight line. There will be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But having said all that, I think things are going to work out.”

“Japan With Masa” (Season 8, Episode 6)

Geishas, kaiseki cuisine, and sushi, all introduced by one of the best sushi chefs in the world — what’s not to like about Bourdain’s trip to Japan with Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama, chef and owner of Masa in New York, one of the most expensive restaurants in the world? They trace Masa’s footsteps as a sushi chef throughout Japan as Bourdain attempts to understand the forces that molded this three-Michelin-star chef who is famous for taking scrupulous records about his customers in order to offer them a custom treat at their next meal.

Later, the two men sit at the Fujinoya teahouse in Kanazawa to enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal of multiple carefully plated courses featuring seasonal ingredients like sea bream over rice and bamboo shoots, all served by a geisha. Another meal is enjoyed at Sugimura, Masa’s brother Kazuo’s restaurant. Over a dinner of eel’s liver, custard, and rice, Bourdain asks Kazuo if he expected his brother to be such a success. “Not particularly,” he replies. At Masa’s family home in Nasushiobara, they enjoy a heaping pile of fresh sushi. His mother quips, “This is better than Masa’s sushi.”

“West Virginia” (Season 11, Episode 1)

Each season premiere features a thought-provoking destination, and season 11 is no exception. In West Virginia, Bourdain seeks to look past the regional stereotypes to understand the complex local character. Over a dinner of spaghetti pizza and pumpkin-pie cake with a former coal miner’s family in Welsh, a town in the southern part of the state, Bourdain learns about the ways America was built on the backs of West Virginia coal miners.

Later, over biscuits and gravy with Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon at the Coffee Shop in the nearby city of War, Bourdain learns that West Virginians mostly want to be left alone after decades of exploitation by coal, timber, and pharmaceutical companies. Bourdain admits that he arrived with his own biases about the state but leaves urging viewers to explore beyond the stereotypes to meet these kind and loving people.

“Hong Kong” (Season 11, Episode 5)

“To fall in love with Asia is one thing; to fall in love in Asia is another. Both have happened to me,” Bourdain narrates. “The best thing, the happiest thing, and also the loneliest thing in the world.” It’s a strange quote to start an episode that was shot and directed by his girlfriend, Asia Argento.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle also joins the team for this episode. He’s the artist behind many haunting scenes in one of Bourdain’s favorite films, In the Mood for Love. Together they explore the disappearing Hong Kong of local artisans, handmade noodles, and fishing villages. Bourdain savors drunken chicken, clay-pot fish-tripe custard, and more at one of the remaining 28 dai pai dong, or open-air stalls.

A jarring scene of refugees from Somalia and India sobers the mood, especially during a heart-wrenching monologue by one when Doyle and Argento stop him mid-sentence to fiddle with lighting and framing. When filming resumes, we learn that refugees in Hong Kong live in limbo — they are not allowed to work or even to volunteer.

“Bhutan” (Season 11, Episode 8)

Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky is Bourdain’s traveling companion to remote Bhutan, where they discuss Aronofsky’s movie Mother!, a disturbing depiction of environmental carnage. Bhutan is an appropriate backdrop for exploring the opposite, since respect for the natural world is culturally inherent here. We learn that tourism is limited in the country to protect its environment and culture.

The pair dines at Folk Heritage Restaurant in the capital, Thimphu, with Dasho Benji Dorji, known as “Bhutan’s godfather of environmental preservation.” He shares the country’s concept of Gross Domestic Happiness: “Good governance, human rights, justice for all, education, health,” he explains. “Bhutan is a good welfare state where the people are taken care of.” Next, they head to a nomadic yak herder’s home in Pelela Pass, where every part of the yak is used; they sample yak butter, yak jerky, and yak cheese. At Burning Lake, they burn incense as an offering. Aronofsky remarks of Bhutan, “Glad it hasn’t been fucked up yet by the world.”

“Asturias” (Season 12, Episode 2)

Famed Spanish American chef José Andrés adores Bourdain, and it’s quite obvious as he guides him in Spain. After a grueling hike in Bulnes, a region in Asturias, they stuff their faces at Bar Guillermina with mountain fabada — an Asturian pork-and-beans stew. Andrés laughs hysterically at Bourdain’s jokes throughout but later is almost brought to tears when he tells the camera he’s proud to call him a friend.

Later, Andrés is thrilled to surprise Bourdain with one of the expensive, highly prized first salmon of the season. Bourdain remarks, “You bite into it, just a flood of flavor explodes.” Andrés points at him excitedly and mimes throwing dollar bills like a hype man, exclaiming, “Keep going, keep going!” Some of the best parts of the series are moments like this, when Bourdain is unquestionably loved.

15 Essential Episodes of Parts Unknown