Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tasting the World One Dish at a Time

Causa Rellena - One of Peru's specialties

There are many reasons why I love traveling and one of my favorite reasons is food. Yes, food. Food is as diverse as people, and as exciting as the next adventure you have planned on your trip.

Food is a great way of better get to know the places you visit. A country’s cuisine is directly related to the country’s geography and cultural traditions. Traditional recipes originate from ingredients that are found in each town, city or country where those recipes were created. This is easy to forget in the globalized world we live in. In our world, getting a ripe papaya in Minnesota during the winter is almost as easy as finding a good Yemeni restaurant in San Francisco.  Flavors have traveled a long ways and you can pretty much taste the world’s best cuisines simply by traveling to a cosmopolitan city. Sometimes, you don’t even have to go that far.

Juice lady at the Cusco market (Peru)
I think, however, that the best way to sample certain ingredients or traditional dishes is when you travel to the places where these ingredients are from or where these recipes originated. I know this because even though I can find great Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, I don’t think I have ever tasted Peruvian food as good as what I eat while in Peru.

Sarawak Laksa - Malaysia
Every single country has its own ingredients and its own ways of mixing them to create fabulous dishes. These combinations can take many shapes and can be cooked in many ways.  Some countries, like Malaysia, have an endless variety of noodle dishes. Spain has a million ways of stuffing a piece of baguette to create mouth watering bocadillos. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, it’s hard to keep track of the many ways in which fish can be seasoned and cooked.

Bocadillo in Pamplona, Spain
The more you travel, the more comfortable you get about discovering what’s inside that deep friend pastry roll, or what those noodles will taste with that colorful sauce, or what those foreign words in the menu mean. Will you always get something you love? Maybe not, but, is it worth giving it a try? Absolutely!

Fish at Top Spot, Kuching, Malaysia

No matter where you travel to, you have to eat something. Now, there are the people who are McDonald’s lovers and who will only eat burgers during a trip to other countries. In some cases, people are wary that if they try to eat at a local restaurant, there will be something terribly foreign, disgusting, or poisonous on their plates.

That’s too bad for them. If you don’t try, you will never know. And, the reality is that your chances of getting sick from food are very slim.

Fresh catch - Togian Islands, Indonesia

I can’t remember a single time I’ve gotten sick while traveling. Well, I can remember one time in recent history but, when looking back, I can totally see why it happened.  Joe and I both got a bit sick after drinking palm wine (Arak), locally distilled in the Togian Islands, and packaged in a handy plastic bag by the quarter liter. We didn’t get sick from drinking the wine, but from drinking the last bits of it. By drinking whatever had settled down in the bottle where we poured the 4 plastic bags of Arak that were delivered to us.
Jungle Fern, Kuching, Malaysia

Would I try the local wine again in a new country? Yes. Was it a total bummer to be sick? Yes. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, but what I am sure about is that it was not enough to scare me away from trying new flavors in the near or far future!

Pad Thai cart in Bangkok, Thailand

I, personally, have come a long ways in terms of food and in terms of trying new things. I still remember when Joe and I were in Cambodia and how hard he had to push me to try Indian food at a local restaurant in Sihanoukville. I was resistant to the idea mainly because I had never tried it before. Was that a good reason? No. And that is probably why I caved in and we ended up going to the restaurant. Not surprisingly, I loved the food! In fact, I loved it so much that I learned how to make it from scratch and even went through a stage where I cooked Indian food once every week at home!

Deep dish in Bangkok, Thailand

That day in Sihanoukville got me over my insecurities about trying new foods, and an entire world of flavors and fabulous food sensations opened its doors to me.

Lunch to go, Indonesia
Nowadays, I am always trying to discover new flavors and new dishes both while cooking meals at home and while traveling to different countries. I’m not as good as Joe, however; he is the most adventurous person I have met, especially when it comes to food. He has eaten deep fried bugs and, one time, when we were traveling in the Amazon jungle, he even ate a live worm!

Ramadan Bazaar, Kuching, Malaysia

It’s funny, I was the one who was supposed to eat the worm but, because of obvious reasons, I asked Joe to eat half first and told him I would eat the other half after him. Well, he ate half and I simply couldn’t bring myself to put the worm in my mouth.

Yeah, I’m not that adventurous, but I still like trying out new things!

Saving it for later? - Indonesia

Last year, when we were traveling for 3 months between South East Asia and Europe, we made a point of sampling the local cuisine as much as possible in every town and city we visited. In some cases, like in Indonesia, where we stayed in family-run establishments, eating local recipes was our only option. Every day our food would be delivered to the cooks in its natural form (e.g. fish) or we would see it tied up to a tree (e.g. chicken). Our food there was always fresh, natural, and served family style!

Chilis, Malaysia
In Singapore we didn’t eat Singaporean cuisine, but we discovered that we could find any kind of food we wanted, from anywhere in the world, and that it would be delicious! While in Singapore we ate Korean, Japanese, Italian and Moroccan, just to name a few!

In Thailand I took matters into my own hands, and took a cooking class at a local school! The results: a three course Thai meal to die for!

Malaysia taught us that fast food is not always a bad thing. In Kuching, we discovered that fast food actually meant perfectly healthy Malay food that was ready to be served!

Fisherman on vacation -  Indonesia
In Malaysia, we discovered kopis and became totally addicted to them and the many combinations that result from it. Kopi means coffee in Malay. Kopi is hot coffee that has been sweetened with a high dose of condensed milk. If you want your coffee prepared a different way, then you have to learn the lexicon of words that can be added to the word “kopi” in order to tailor it to your taste. I usually ordered Kopi Oh Peng, to get a cold, sweetened cup of coffee. The combinations are endlessly delicious!

Spices and Grains in Dubai, UAE

The coffee “addiction” did not stop there but it only grew stronger when we arrived to Paris to spend the next 5 weeks traveling across Northern Spain and into Portugal.

Nepali lunch, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Steak tartar in Paris, France

In Europe the tastes were not as extreme, or maybe that’s what my mind told me as a result of being more familiar with the ingredients and the names of the dishes. But the dining experience was also fabulous. In Paris I tried steak tartar for the first time and I actually really liked it. If you don’t know what steak tartar is, picture a hamburger patty of the highest quality, served on a plate without ever having touched a grill, a pan or an oven. Yes, raw beef mixed with an egg and some seasoning. Sounds weird but it was actually quite tasty!

Ice cream coffee and bica in Porto, Portugal
Pasteis de Nata, Portugal

When it comes to what really won us over, it was Portuguese sweets. Never heard of the wonderful sweets that are made and sold everywhere in Portugal? We hadn’t either. Apparently a well-kept secret, delightfully sweet pastries are sold all over Portugal, with one of the specialties being Pasteis de Nata. We had one of these every day in addition to whatever new sweet we were trying during each day of the 2 weeks we spent in the country. Delicious!

Meat cuts in Pamplona, Spain
Sometimes I feel I remember more about the food I ate than I do about the sites I visited. It must be because meals are not only about food, but they are as much about culture and about traditions as they are about flavors.  By getting out and trying food, you put yourself out there to meet new people and see new things and, as a result, you end up experiencing a very different side of the place you are visiting.

Portuguese sweets!

Next time you are abroad, don’t settle for the foreigner (farang, mzungu, gringo) menu, but walk down an alley and find a lady with a basket of fried dough, or find a vendor selling fried meat. If you see lots of people in the street, sitting around a plastic table in short plastic chairs, see if you can also get in and grab a bite to eat. You will not regret it, not only for the amazing flavors you’ll experience, but because you’ll be happy you strayed away from the path and actually tasted the flavors of the place you are visiting!

Every dish you eat can turn into a wonderful adventure!

Would you try this out?
For more fun photos from around the world, check out my Etsy store at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldPhotosByPaola -  if you want a photo you saw on my blog, but can't find it on my Etsy store, please feel free to contact me.

Corn variety in Cusco, Peru 

"Fast Food" in Malaysia

Francesinha and Pork Stew in Porto, Portugal

Gyros in Singapore

Hot Pot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Gang at Kao Cooking School

Limes for cooking, Bangkok, Thailand

Moroccan Food in Singapore

Cheese, veggies and more, St. Jean Pied du Port, France

Kuching specialty

Wedding treats, Indonesia

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful post! The colours in your photos and in your writing come to life with so much charm, Pao! You are amazing as always <3