For most travelers, it doesn’t take long to realize that food is a great ice-breaker. Sharing a meal can break down boundaries, and open lines of communication even where language is a challenge. Working with and eating local ingredients is window to learning more about a place’s culture and history. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys and the role that food plays for each of them. This week, we chat with Cyra from Gastronomic Nomad. Her blog takes readers along on her journey to discover Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and beyond. We love how Cyra pulls no punches, recounting her experiences honestly and openly. Donny, a true port lover if there ever was one, recently found yet another reason to move Porto up this list when he discovered white port mentioned in a recent post. I want to know more about Andalucía after reading her recent post about getting off the beaten path there!
Cyra left Australia at 19 and never really looked back. 9 years later she is most often found in Spain with a glass of wine in one hand and something edible in the other. She recently started her blog, Gastronomic Nomad, to share that is necessary to understand the food in order to have a properly understand the culture in a country, and that good food does not have to mean Michelin star with a high price tag. Mostly. She also started it just because she really likes to eat.
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! I grew up in Australia which is a melting pot of different cuisines and cultures, so it wasn’t until I travelled overseas I realised just how important the food, as well as customs surrounding the food, are to particular cultures.
The food itself is incredibly important, but what is just as important is the customs that surround the food. For example, in Spain almost all social activity happens outside the house and involves food – even in the most casual manner, in Italy it is socially unacceptable to drink milk with your coffee after midday, and in many Asian countries if you leave your chopsticks standing in your bowl or food, you have just accidently symbolised death. How do you learn (sometimes the hard way!) and experience these things if you just tick off the big tourist monuments and don’t really dig deeper into the society to learn more about the local culture?
Any activity that involves “learning more about a culture” whether it be set up for tourists or not, will involve food or drink. You get invited into a locals home, they offer you some local tea. You want to find out what happens in a city after the sun goes down, it will most likely involve eating something. And what happens when you meet a local fisherman on the beach who you can’t communicate in words with due to a language barrier? He will break open the shell of a mollusc he just caught and signal for you to try it.
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?
There are three things that I really miss from Australia: Thai food, brunch, and my mums cooking!
Even though Australia is clearly not Thailand, it is impossible to find Thai food anywhere else (that is not Thailand) as good as you find it in Australia. I think this really shows that there is multicultural society in Australia and that different cultures and cuisines are mostly accepted. If I walk down my favourite road in Sydney, I walk past Mexican, Nepalese, Lebanese and Thai restaurants, and that’s just in the space of a couple blocks!
But I think what is most curious is what I miss about my mums cooking. I don’t miss simple homemade meat and three veg – this didn’t happen in my household. I miss Singaporean noodles, Nepalese dahl and rice, Nachos with lentil and bean chilli topping, Moroccan tagines – foods from all over the globe.
I was bought up in a travelling family and my mum took (and still takes) her inspiration for cooking from all over the globe. The food she prepared for us for dinner was, at times, unconventional for the average kid.
The only times I can ever remember her making an alternative “kid friendly” version was when she made grilled fish with bones and homemade pesto. Aside from that, I had to eat what I was given, and too bad if I really didn’t like something, I had to eat it or pick it out. Strangely enough I hated olives, feta, and humus as a child, but that didn’t stop my mum feeding me greek salad several times a week!
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Absolutely. Firstly, I think it has taught me not to judge a book by its cover – just because the food is coming out of some beat up stall on the side of the road, and the cook is missing all his front teeth, doesn’t mean it is going to be bad. It could very well be the best thing you eat all week!
Secondly, it’s made me realise how lucky we are in countries like Australia and its taught me not to take food for granted. Not only do we never go hungry, we also have every thing available to us to cook a wide range of dishes. If you want to eat something in particular, you can find it! Even in other developed countries, that is not always the case and it can be difficult to find good quality ingredients to cook anything other than local dishes.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
I sure do! At the risk of making myself sound completely neurotic, I will confess that when I go to a new place, I usually arrive armed with a printed out spreadsheet of places to try, a mix of street food, cheap eateries and “nicer” restaurants.
Most of these suggestions have come from searching around on the internet and reading travel and food blogs, as well as suggestions from people who have lived or travelled to where I am headed before. I have a look at TripAdvsior but try not to worry about it too much because I believe the review system on TripAdvsior is completely flawed, and not a good way to find local haunts in a city.
I also try and ask local people (even the owner at your guesthouse can be very helpful!) but when you are asking for advice from the locals you need to be careful how you word it. If you ask them for a good place to eat, often they will send you to what they think is a place that tourists would like to eat at, because sometimes they can’t imagine why you would want to try their super local places. But if you ask them where they personally would go to eat, you usually get a better result.
Other than that, I like to go on food tours/walks if there happens to be something available in the place I am at, and I love doing cooking classes. The great thing about doing these things is not only do you have a different experience, but you can also ask for a wealth of information from a person who lives in the area and has the same interest as you – food!
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 in Vietnam last year my boyfriend and I were staying on Phu Quoc Island. We visited some other restaurants around where we were staying, and although I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, we didn’t feel like we had an authentic taste of what Phu Quoc had to offer.
We took a walk down the beach and stumbled across a shack near to the edge of the beach – definitely the most unattractive restaurant around! But we both instantly knew this place would probably would serve us what we were looking for.
They had the most amazing coconut curry made with freshly prepared coconut milk, spices, vegetables, and fish. It was possibly the best curry that I have ever eaten, and we ate it with our feet digging into the sand as we watched the sun set over the endless ocean. The restaurant was run by a really sweet local family who were just trying their best to make ends meet, and serving up amazing home cooked food in the process.
It was the perfect example to show that the nice looking places aren’t necessarily serving up the best food.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Well although I am not a staunch vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, so the only really crazy creatures I have tried have come from the sea, which probably makes me pretty boring compared to some people (no tarantulas or pigs trotters!) but given that in Spain people are the second biggest seafood consumers in the world there are many different kinds of sea critters around.
Probably the strangest of the sea critters that I have tried are percebeiros. They are barnacles which kind of look like a small animals claw and they are eaten boiled with little seasoning added. While they are a delicacy in Galicia in the North East of Spain I wouldn’t say they are my favourite thing ever, but I would definitely eat them again.
Another odd thing I just remembered. While staying at a rural homestay in the Kampong Cham province in Cambodia I tried a lotus flower – something that I never knew that you could eat! It had an interesting flavour, almost nutty, and I would snack on those again too.
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?
This is a really hard question to answer because I love different cuisines for different reasons. But if I have to choose… Well, it would have to be something Asian because if living in Spain has taught me one thing, as much as I love Spanish food, I cannot live without Asian food.
I think that I would have to choose Japanese cuisine. I haven’t actually been to Japan yet but I am a huge fan of Japanese food. I know it’s kind of cheating since I have not eaten Japanese food in Japan, but I think once I do go to Japan I might never want to leave!