Through our ongoing series, Food for Thought, we explore the complex relationship between food and culture, as seen through the eyes of travelers. As we travel, our minds are opened, and our understanding of how peoples’ relationship with food shapes their (and our) perspectives deepens. With each new interview, we feel more connected to a community of travelers who seek to explore the world more profoundly. Though there are certainly many ways to experience culture, eating traditional dishes, sharing a meal with local friends and shopping in the market have become some of our favorite ways to start the exploration. We have been following the adventures of Dan and Audrey at Uncornered Market for years, almost since we started traveling together. We count on their blog for real, useful information wrapped in beautiful storytelling, and illustrated with amazing photography. As a couple we truly admire, we’re honored to have them share their perspectives. If for some crazy reason, you hadn’t discovered Uncornered Market yet, we’re happy you’ve found them here!
Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott are the husband-and-wife storytelling team behind Uncornered Market. At the end of 2006, they left their office jobs for what was meant to be a 12-18 month creative sabbatical to travel the world. Over 90 countries and eight years later, they are still going…and still married.
Food for Thought
The underlying idea of the “Food for Thought” series is that to truly experience a culture you must taste it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
People whose interests and hot buttons are other living cultural dimensions (e.g., religion, music, etc.) might disagree. For me, however, food is among the most effective experience dimensions and conduits to a culture because of the range of senses it engages. Playing devil’s culinary advocate, however, you could go to the market and get a sense of the way a culture interacts, does business, relates to food — all without ever having tasted anything. So it’s not only about the taste of the food, but also the backstory of the culture’s relationship with it, from ingredients to table. Perhaps most importantly, food is one of the best ways to connect to local people – everyone needs to eat and we find that local people love talking about and sharing their cuisine.
What food do you identify with “home?” Does it reflect something about your own culture or upbringing? Do you crave it while you’re away?
I suppose pizza, but that’s a little too easy. American food, if there is such a thing, is difficult to characterize because it’s such a melting pot and clearinghouse of cuisines. I arrived at adulthood just as the U.S. began its multicultural food thing and began to come out of the dark ages in terms of beer and wine. There’s no food I really crave while away, particularly now that you can get just about anything, anywhere. What I might crave from the United States, if I don’t have it, is variety. Having said all that, the American meal I tend to consistently enjoy most is Thanksgiving, not only for the terrific flavors, but also for the notion of a holiday that’s not about buying gifts but about getting friends and family together to eat and be thankful.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Travel has affected the way I think about food as much as food has affected the way I think about travel. I point back to my first answer, that it’s a key experience dimension and a conduit to understanding a culture. Travel can open the mind, so it makes sense that the more one travels, the more evolved their thinking is regarding food and how fundamental a culture’s relationship to food is to the core of who they are.
As for my background, even before I began writing about travel, I had an instinctual feeling for the importance of food. This is due in great part to how I grew up. Generally, my family was pretty thoughtful regarding food choices, I was exposed to vegetarians, my mother spoke of her time growing up on a farm, my father recently launched a community supported agriculture project. Stuff like that helps. The places I lived just out of university — Washington DC and San Francisco — were also important in framing and developing my understanding of food and world cuisine.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Get in there. Follow your curiosity and ask questions. Lean in with an open mind and without judgement. When you show genuine interest you’ll not only make inroads to understanding the local cuisine, you’ll also often make some friends. When we ask locals for recommendations, we ask them specifically for a place where they would eat. Otherwise, some people will recommend places they think tourists want to eat.
We are big fans of using street food as a tool for exploration. A street food adventure will often take you to places outside the normal tourist zones and you’ll be up close to the action – the cooking and eating with locals on tiny plastic chairs.
Cooking classes, especially those that include a market visit and are very hands on, can be really useful in demystifying seemingly complex cuisines and providing great background to the cultural context of certain dishes. The cooking class we took in Bali, for example, really opened our eyes to the wonders of traditional Balinese cuisine (compared to what was often served in restaurants).
Tell us about a memorable meal that was so special it is forever ingrained in your memory. Where was it and what set it apart? What was served, and who shared it with you?
I think there are several hundred. Here’s one (OK, two) that scores on context. Back in 2008, Audrey and I traveled through India. Along the way, we got a message from one of the programmers who helped me with an especially technical bit with the first incarnation of Uncornered Market. He asked (on Facebook, if I remember correctly) whether we had planned to visit his hometown, Chandigarh. We really didn’t, but who were we to say no.
Anyhow, we showed up in town, saw the office space he shared with his business partner. For lunch, they took us back to their apartment. Pretty sparse bachelor pad, they asked their live-in cook to make malai kofte, a classic northern Indian Punjabi dish with paneer and vegetable dumplings in a cream gravy. It was terrific — and kind of unbelievable that we’d brought the story full circle.
Earlier that morning, we’d had some of the world’s best channa batura (masala spiced chickpeas with a puri-like fried, puffed flatbread) at a sweets shop below our hotel. I’d poked my nose into the kitchen and began photographing. One thing led to another. This is my answer to #4 in action.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Here’s one from a recent trip: Lyonnais andouillette. It’s just a sausage made entirely of visible chunks of offal. Even locals in Lyon will tell you it’s hard to take. I found the smell profound, especially after it had been warmed in red wine. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think I need to do it again. That is, unless I’m invited to a farm or a restaurant where, under the circumstances, it must be tried again.
And just for fun, if you had to choose one country’s cuisine to eat for the rest of your life what would it be?
I go back and forth on this one. Italy, Thailand, and Japan are all contenders. But in the end, probably India. The variety is astounding and even in my fairly wide-ranging travels of the country, I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface.