Through a country or region’s foods, we make meaningful connections that we might never otherwise. Whether it’s learning a new recipe or sharing a meal with new friends, food memories are powerful. Culinary travel is becoming more and more popular, and with good reason. Food influences the way we experience the destinations we visit. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. A new installment will be published each Friday for the duration of the series. This week’s interview is with Margherita of The Crowded Planet. We loved her recent post, Penang in Ten Hawker Dishes. If you don’t already have Penang on your list of top food destinations, this post will quickly convince you!
Margherita Ragg is an animal-loving, coffee-drinking travel writer, founder of The Crowded Planet, a blog about adventure travel on a budget. At the moment she is based in Milan, Italy; then we’ll see. When she’s not travelling, you can find her playing with her cat Tappo or exploring the Italian Alps.
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 totally agree with the statement. I believe food really reveals the soul of a country, its traditions and heritage. For example, Chinese food reflects the idea of balance, which is a key concept of Chinese culture of a whole, from architecture, to medicine, to art. I also love dishes that can be related to a place’s history, like the currywurst.
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?
That’s an easy one! Whenever I think of home, I think of cured meats. Parma ham and salami mostly. My grandmother comes from Modena, a town where the tradition of cured meats is very strong. She used to give me a breadroll filled with salami or ham every day for a snack; now it’s my ultimate comfort food. I don’t usually crave ham and salami much when I’m away, but when the craving comes, it’s terrible, especially because finding good Parma ham and salami is near impossible outside of Italy. And when I do find it, it’s soooo expensive!
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
I have always been very adventurous about food, ever since I was a child. Travelling just made me more adventurous. I don’t mind trying new foods, even weird stuff like offal or insects, but I do draw a line at dogs, cats and monkey. Having said that, I’m reasonably sure I ate cat without knowing, once.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
We’re budget travellers, so we have two techniques to try and experience local food. The first is street food, and by extension also hole-in-the-wall restaurants. My top tip here is following the queues. The second tip is trying to score an invitation at locals’ homes, which is usually easy, especially if you have local friends or speak a bit of the language.
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?
There have been so many! So hard to answer! Some street food feasts in Penang, a roast duck dinner in Beijing, ceviche on the coast in Peru… If I do have to choose, though, I would say a dinner we had in Istanbul with our Couchsurfing hosts. We were staying in a neighbourhood on the Asian side and they took us to their favourite restaurant. The place was nothing special, but the food was delicious. We had an array of mezes, some grilled kebabs and cig kofte, a raw meat dish. The flavours were just outstanding, so deep and fresh. And, of course, I lost the restaurant’s business card!
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Definitely durian! Most people generally find the infamous Southeast Asian fruit disgusting. It has a weird, creamy texture and very strong smell, so pungent that it is forbidden to take it into hotels and on public transport. Most people think I’m crazy when I tell them I adore durian. I honestly do love it, and I would eat it every day if I could!
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?
Malaysia! There are so many specialties, I would never get bored.