The novel follows the story of a young girl named Tita, who longs for her lover, Pedro, but can never have him because of her mother's upholding of the family tradition: the youngest daughter cannot marry, but instead must take care of her mother until she dies. Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks.
Esquivel employs magical realism to combine the supernatural with the ordinary throughout the novel.
The book is divided into 12 sections named after the months of the year, starting in January and ending in December. Each section begins with a Mexican recipe. The chapters connect each dish to an event in the protagonist's life.
Tita de la Garza, the novel's main protagonist, is 15 at the start of the story. She lives on a ranch near the Mexico—US border with her mother, Mamá Elena, and her older sisters Gertrudis and Rosaura.
Pedro is their neighbor, with whom Tita falls in love at first sight. The feeling turns out to be mutual, so Pedro asks Mamá Elena for Tita’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately, she forbids it, citing the de la Garza family tradition that the youngest daughter (in this case, Tita) must remain unmarried and take care of her mother until her mother's death. She suggests that Pedro marries Tita's sister, Rosaura, instead. In order to stay close to Tita, Pedro decides to follow this advice.