As travelers, we make meaningful connections through food that we might never otherwise. Food brings us together, and sharing a meal or learning how to cook a dish using local ingredients is a great way to break down barriers and make new friends. Taking a long walk, chowing down on street food along the way, visiting local markets and talking to people is one of our favorite ways to get to know a new city. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about the role food plays in other travelers’ journeys. A new installment is published each Friday for the duration of the series.
This week we had the chance to catch up with Tom from Eat Rio. We first met Tom through his role as a Skype Brand Ambassador when one of our photos on Instagram earned us some sweet swag from the Skype Moment Makers group earlier this year. We had a great chat with Tom in a food and travel-related Skype meet-up, during which we realized our outlook on these topics are quite similar. Since then, we’ve enjoyed following along on Eat Rio. I was excited to learn recently that Tom had been experimenting with the delicious níspero fruit in Brazil. It’s one of my favorites. We’ve also been drooling over photos and stories of his recent trip to Peru! We’ve been wanting to visit Brazil for what seems like forever, so we can’t wait to get there explore, maybe starting with an Eat Rio food tour!
Tom Le Mesurier grew up in England, but from an early age developed a love of food and travel, spending a month each year in various locations across Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands. After graduating with degrees in Zoology and Ecology, Tom spent the next 8 years living in London before taking a ‘short trip’ to South America. That short trip never ended and today Tom works as a food and travel writer and culinary guide based in Rio de Janeiro. Since 2011 he has been blogging at Eat Rio.
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 100%. From an early age I travelled with my family across Europe and the Middle East and then during my teenage years, we made it to Africa and the Pacific Islands. Every new location was seen as an opportunity to taste new dishes and ingredients. The rule in our house was “You can’t say you don’t like it until you’ve tried it” and that meant that while my friends back in England were still thinking hummus and pitta bread was pretty exotic, I was eating sheep eyeballs with Bedouin Arabs in Israel, chewing up betel nuts in Papua New Guinea and eating fried partridge heads in Ghana. Food is that universal thing which transcends language and cultural barriers and I wouldn’t dream of going somewhere new without getting heavily involved in the 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?
Of course there are the classics that all British expats miss – Marmite, certain brands of tea, HP Sauce – but top of my list is the cheese. British food gets a lot of criticism (mostly due to our sins of the 1960s and 1970s which thankfully no longer apply), but those pouring scorn on our cuisine seem oblivious to the fact that Britain produces more varieties of cheese than any other nation on in the world – over 800! On trips back to England, I still marvel at the huge amount of shelf space that is taken up with high quality cheeses (many of which find their way into my suitcase on my way home to Rio!).
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Travel has opened my eyes to the potential of food. At its most basic level, of course, it is the sustenance that keeps us alive. For those of us lucky enough to have been brought up in a comfortable environment, this is something we often forget, but I found that travelling through parts of Africa and Latin America was a powerful reminder. On a more positive note, travel has highlighted the way that food builds links and cements communities – from small cacau farming collectives in Peru to craft beer brewers in Brazil and countless other projects, small groups are bound together and strengthened through the love and care that they put into farming, processing, cooking and (the best bit) eating food.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
I always hunt down a street market/farmers’ market. I love the way street markets are such a riot of sounds, smells and colours and that’s before I even start eating all the lovely fruits and snacks on offer! Browsing stalls is a great way to get an overview of what fruits, vegetables and other goods are available in a city and it’s also a really fun way to get an insight into the people in general by interacting with the stall holders. And of course, as a food tour guide myself, I try to go on at least one food tour in every location I visit – I call it ‘research’, but really I’m just enjoying myself!
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 had never been a huge fan of Italian food, but when I was in my early 20s, my girlfriend and I spent a week in southern Italy, staying in a small town called Maratea in the Basilicata region. It was my first trip to Italy and the food in town was fine but not spectacular. Then a local tipped us off about a restaurant away from the tourist hoards, located about 30 minutes’ drive up in the hills away from the coast. After getting lost about 10 times, we finally pulled up at the address we’d been given, only to find that it looked nothing like a restaurant – just someone’s house.
We were just about to leave when a middle aged guy came out and took us through to the rear of his house and sat us down at a table on a vine covered terrace overlooking a beautiful garden. What followed was 3 hours of Italian food enlightenment – a gorgeous bean and pasta soup, bruschetta, whole baked seabass, home-made pasta and salad, all served up with a wine made from the grapes growing on the trellis above our heads. The finale was an incredible (and enormous!) T-bone steak that was cooked on a pietra calda (hot stone). I never felt the same way about Italian food again.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
In August I went on a 2 week trip to Mexico, splitting my time equally between Mexico City and Oaxaca. Insects are used heavily in Mexican cuisine and I tried everything that came my way: spicy, tangy chapulines (grasshoppers), escamoles (ant larvae) and chinicuiles (moth larvae better known as the Maguey Worm. I loved the grasshoppers and would definitely have them again, but probably wouldn’t bother with the ant larvae or the Maguey worms. I’m still glad I tried them all though!
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?
Spain, France and Italy are all vying for the top spot, but as I have just got back from a 5 day trip to Lima, I will choose Peru. Sure everyone knows about ceviche (which I love), but Peru has so much more to offer: unbelievable fruits from the Amazon, thousands of different varieties of potato, some of the world’s best chocolate, pisco, rich comforting meaty stews and world class seafood. It’s one of the world’s great dining destinations and less than 5 hours from Rio by plane.