Through the “Food for Thought” interview series, we aim to explore the idea that “to truly experience a culture, you must taste it.” Through a country or region’s foods, we make meaningful connections that may never otherwise make. Each interview reveals details about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. A new installment is published each Friday for the duration of the series. This week we hear from Dave of Cook Sip Go. His current base in East Africa has given him unique opportunities to explore and share experiences in some less-visited places. His passion for getting to know new destinations deeply really shows through in his writing. We’re also big fans of Dave’s photography!
Dave Cole is a travel and food writer and photographer who is traveling around Africa and is currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has lived in Spain and Portugal, where he fell in love with each country’s cuisine, culture and language. Dave’s writing and photography currently focus on his interactions with the scenery, people and food he encounters in Africa.
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?
I agree wholeheartedly. Each emblematic dish in a culture has a few important components. First, the name of the dish in the culture’s language may help you learn about the culture. Second, the dish may exist because of certain historical circumstances, such as shortages of ingredients during a period or season. Third, the dish may help you learn about the living conditions of those who created it. For example, the original Valencian paella did not contain seafood as an ingredient. This is because the dish originated in Valencia’s orchards, where garden snails and rabbits were much more common and thus ripe for the paella pan.
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 identify holiday desserts with “home.” The cookies, bonbons, loaves and cakes my mother bakes annually are quintessentially American. She still has a cut-off date for requests and one not dare miss it. When I have not been around my family for the holidays, I have craved the peanut butter bonbons and pumpkin bread. I’ve inherited many of those recipes and can supply my own treats when circumstances prevent a holiday at “home.”
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Traveling to areas with limited resources or food availability has given me a greater appreciation of the bounty of food in the West. These experiences have taught me that flavorful and nutritious meals need only a few basic ingredients. And I no longer throw away food, as it can be repurposed or stored for later use. The more I travel, the more easily I see and understand food’s cultural ties with a place or people. This has enhanced my personal connection to many destinations.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
As with most aspects of travel, I put in a lot of research beforehand. When researching, I attempt to gain an understanding of the local cuisine from online sources or cook books. Once I feel comfortable with the main elements of the local cuisine, I will try to find a restaurant that serves the food of the country or region. Once I’ve arrived at the destination, I usually have some restaurants in mind, but seek out other options. I ask younger bartenders or waiters at a decent bar where the most authentic and affordable representative cuisine can be found, as they are not likely to send me to a tourist trap. But my proven way of finding and understanding local cuisine comes from wandering around the city. Nothing beats the meal you will have at a restaurant packed by locals which you spotted off the beaten path.
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?
When I was living in Portugal, one of my co-workers invited me back to his hometown for the weekend. We settled in at a fado house and were served an endless array of delicious food, from the local specialty of porco à Alentejana (pork with clams) and marinated beef to crisp cod fritters. As we drank wine from nearby vineyards, a woman sang beautiful fado with musical accompaniment. After our main courses and much to my surprise, my friend stood up and belted out a few classic fado songs! We dined and then went out until late that night with his childhood friends. It was one of those moments when you realize that a shared meal and cultural experience can really make you feel at home when abroad.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Kitfo. It’s an Ethiopian dish that consists of raw, minced meat, which is warmed briefly in a sauce of butter and spices. It is accompanied by cucumber and sour cheese spreads, as well as injera and kocho, a thick flatbread made from the false banana plant. I have kitfo about once every two weeks and will continue to eat it whenever I get the urge.
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?
Without a second thought, Spain. Spain’s cuisine excels from the simple plate of sliced, cured ham to inventive and otherworldly molecular gastronomy dishes. I have also been fortunate enough to sample many of the wines and know that few drinks are more pleasurable than chilled Basque txakoli on a warm summer afternoon or a tempranillo from Ribera del Duero with the snow falling outside. Spain’s range of dishes and the wines produced from the same lands would satisfy me for the remainder of my earthly existence.