Wherever we go, our journey somehow involves food. It’s more than sustenance, a way to keep our bodies moving, it’s part of the joy we get through travel. As time goes on, we think more and more about what we’re eating and why. Not everything we consume is healthy, not by any means, but there is great pleasure to be found in discovering fresh, local ingredients and watching (or participating in) them being prepared. The whole process is linked closely to history and to culture. Sharing a meal breaks down boundaries, and people are almost always excited to help you understand more about the food they’re preparing. This week’s Food for Thought interview is with Robyn Eckhardt of the award-winning blog, EatingAsia. EatingAsia is one of the blogs we started following very early on. When I’m researching a topic, I like to know all the details, and EatingAsia is an excellent source. Robyn doesn’t gloss over things. She gets right down to the nitty gritty, and that’s something I love (and admire)! Her posts include the human stories behind the what, where, when and how. Her husband, David Hagerman is an amazing photographer, and his photography can be seen not only on EatingAsia, but on his own blog as well as in many other publications. We hope to someday visit Penang while this creative couple is there, so we can join one of Robyn’s customized street food excursions there. We also can’t wait for their first book!
Robyn Eckhardt covers food and travel in Asia and Turkey for The New York Times, Saveur, SBS Feast and other publications. She writes a column on street food for Wall Street Journal Asia and is a contributor to the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Sweets. Since 2005 Robyn has co-published, with her photographer husband David Hagerman, the food blog EatingAsia, which was named Editor’s Choice, Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur magazine Food Blog Awards. Though Robyn has lived in Asia for over 18 years and calls a refurbished shop house in George Town, Penang home, these days she and David can most often be found traveling eastern Turkey’s back roads collecting recipes, stories and images for their first book: “Istanbul and Beyond” will be published in the USA by Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2016.
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?
As a writer who focuses on food and food cultures I have to agree. Eating is something we all do every day, and eating locally is a (usually) neutral, unthreatening way to connect with people. From my earliest experience overseas (as a uni grad living in Chengdu, Sichuan in the 80s) to my most recent travels food has been my entre into the kitchens, homes, and lives of strangers. Exploring local specialties, delving into street food scenes and sharing meals with locals has deepened my understanding of Malaysian, Asian and Turkish cultures; I can’t imagine getting as much out of travel as I do without an interest in food.
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?
How does one define “home” if you’ve moved around as much and lived away from your native country as long as I have (18+ years)? I guess the word makes me think of my parents’ house, growing up in Michigan in the seventies and my mom’s wonderfully adventurous (for the Midwest, at that time) cooking. I am nostalgic for her fabulous sort-of Bolognese sauce with loads of dried herbs and a whole bottle of red wine, cooked for 1 or 2 hours, which she served over a nest of spaghetti embedded with little chunks of (admittedly not top-quality) mozzarella that melted and got stringy when you mixed the pasta with the sauce. It was a dinner that always made me happy, and it’s usually the first thing I cook when my husband and I move into a new house (sans the mozzarella; I serve it with parmesan reggiano).
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
It’s made me conscious of origins (of dishes) and connections (between dishes in different countries and regions). Especially traveling in Turkey as much as I have been lately — I no longer dine “in a vacuum” in Istanbul because so many dishes that I eat there prompt memories of “ancestor” dishes eaten way out east. [[ http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2010/07/kristal-lokanta-kars-turkey-piti.html ]]
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
I immediately hit a market and, depending on its size, spend 3 or more hours there. First, a quick walk-through to get an overall view of ingredients. Then, a slower walk-through with notebook in hand. Then I’ll usually find a place to eat or have a drink …. a stall in the market, preferably, from where I can observe. And then I’ll walk through one more time and try to talk to people — vendors, shoppers — asking what is this or that ingredient, how is it used? It really takes only basic language skills to pose these kind of questions. If I can’t understand answers I’ll write them down as spoken to me and seek out translation help elsewhere, later. And then if I linger in town I’ll revisit the market almost every morning that I’m there, just to see if different ingredients are showing up, etc. The market is always where I begin building “definitions” (not very strict ones, of course) of local cuisines. I almost never take cooking classes but if I’m on assignment or researching for my book I’ll inevitably end up in home and restaurant kitchens and in bakeries, recording recipes.
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?
Winter of 2011, fresh-off-the-boat anchovies dipped in corn flour and fried in a skillet, cooked for Dave and me by a fishmonger in his shop in Sinop, a sweet little town on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. We shared that meal with each other, of course, and with Mert the fishmonger-cook (who has since become a friend whom we visit every year — cue your first question about food as a means of experiencing culture), with his co-workers and even a few passers-by who smelled the fish cooking, popped their heads in and grabbed an anchovy or two. The experience was special — and quickly showed me how very important hamsi are to Black Sea culture — and the fish was the most delicious, the freshest I’d ever eaten. [[ http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2011/01/hamsi-quest-anchovy-season-in-turkey-black-sea.html ]]
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
I ate sago worms in the Philippines. I didn’t seek them out, they were just part of my investigations into the sago tree and the multi-faceted role that it plays in the lives of villagers on Mindanao. Our hosts fried them in a pan and they crisped up. They’re quite fatty, they tasted like lardy shrimp chips. They were quite OK as long as I didn’t look at what I was eating (the mind sometimes plays as large a role in how we taste as our tongue does). I wouldn’t seek them out (I’m not into eating something just for the boasting rights) but if they were offered I’d eat them again. [[ http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2008/03/the-tree-of-l-2.html ]]
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?
Impossible to answer, especially for someone who has one foot in Asia and another in the west. So I choose two: Taiwan for its noodles, dumplings, chilies and tofu, and Turkey its varied cheeses, breads, legumes and vegetables and stone fruits, lamb and anchovies.