The intersection of food, travel and culture is an endlessly interesting place. For many travelers, a meal can be a great way to break down barriers and share an experience even when language is a challenge. Whether it’s shopping in a local market and discovering a new ingredient or spice, finding the best street food, or maybe best of all, being invited home for some home-cooking, food brings people together. The Food for Thought series explores how the way people travel is influenced by food, and how what we eat is influenced by our travels. This week we chat with Tom and Jenny from Till the Money Runs Out. We share a love of “hot weather and spicy food” with this pair, and always enjoy reading their posts on everything from top “things to do” to detailed recipes as in their recent post, “A Tale of Two Baklava Recipes.” Read on to get their perspectives on food and travel in this week’s interview.
We are Tom and Jenny, we started traveling together in 2011 on savings and planned on traveling “till the money runs out” at which point we would go back and get “real jobs.” We started an app development company on the road and have been calling anywhere with an internet connection “the home office” for the last four years. Our mutual love of hot weather and spicy food means that we can usually be found close to the equatorial belt.
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?
Oh totally, though I do think the same can be said for many of the senses. Taste, smells, sounds and sights; traveling is so immersive it would be hard to get a full picture of any place without a combination of some of the senses. Food is also one of the easier ways to relate with people cross-culturally. We may not be able to speak Vietnamese, but in a Banh mi shop in Vietnam we can look over at other patrons with a big grin and a thumbs up and there is a great sense of camaraderie as we all enjoy the same meal.
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?
Jenny: I am from San Diego, CA and was raised by parents who met each other on a hippie commune so this may sound incongruous but, I relate Mexican food and vegetarian “hippie” food with home. I would say the two dishes that make me think the most of “home” are tofu sandwiches and burritos. One represents my family and the other the city I grew up in. I definitely crave Mexican food when I am not in San Diego. We are traveling in Mexico now so that is not currently an issue
Tom: Home is a tougher concept for me. I had very adventurous parents and while growing up we called many places “home.” I was born in Costa Rica where my parents learned to cook black beans and rice, called “El Casado” or “married” in Spanish. It is a dish that stuck with us, and though we moved away from Costa Rica when I was 5 we continued to cook it and if I had to associate one meal with “home” that would probably be it. I don’t necessarily crave it, but I would never turn down a plate of El Casado.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
We have found one of the things in common with many of our favorite dishes around the world is that they tend to have just a few ingredients. The key is using the right amount of each ingredient. We usually stick to places with a similar warm climate around the world and love seeing how different countries combine the same types of foods in different ways to make completely different meals. Travel has also taught me (Jenny) to be really open-minded about food. To try to approach every meal with an open mind without thinking that I don’t like one ingredient or another. It’s amazing how many different foods I thought I didn’t like or wouldn’t like that I have whole-heartedly enjoyed.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
We do attend cooking classes often, but our best technique is just looking for where the crowd is. If there is a line at one lady’s mushroom soup stall in a night market in Thailand, or if every seat at at a taco stand is taken with people standing behind them, you know it’s gotta be good.
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?
We always come back to the same meal when we talk about our most memorable. When we were traveling in Germany we were invited to come and stay with a couple who are old family friends of Tom’s parents. We stayed with Harald and Shoko for just a few days and each morning we would wake up and have the most amazing breakfasts. We would linger over the dining room table for an hour or more talking about travel, the world, music, books or anything else that came while enjoying soft-boiled eggs, fresh greens from the garden, different types of breads, cheeses, meats and butter, honey and jam. The classic German breakfast of a little of everything. These meals showed us that more than anything what often makes a wonderful meal is the company you have while you eat it, and taking the time to enjoy it slowly.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
That’s a tough question because I know many Europeans find it shocking how much I love peanut butter
What is shocking to some people is pretty common place somewhere else. We have eaten the usual “shockers,” from ants and grasshoppers all the way to guinea pigs and kangaroos. We also don’t shy away from heart, tongue or liver. Almost anything is good if it’s prepared well.
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?
Tom: Mexico. I never get sick of tacos.
Jenny: It’s a bit of toss up between Mexican and Thai. I think Thai wins out because of how many more vegetables are used. I could eat spicy, fish-saucy, vegetable combinations for every meal!