As we travel, food acts as a bridge, connecting us to each destination. While it’s not the only way to gain insight into a new culture, it’s certainly a delicious one! Shopping at a local market, discovering a new dish (better yet learning how to prepare it) or sharing a meal with local residents all help us to learn something new. In our Food for Thought interview series, we chat with fellow travelers to get their perspectives on this important topic. This week we hear from Jessica Lipowski, who has been deeply enmeshed in the subject through research for her upcoming book, focusing on the life stories of restaurant owners from all over the world who have made Amsterdam their home. (Get all the details on her site.) We hope you enjoy reading Jessica’s thoughtful and insightful answers as much as we did.
Jessica Lipowski, a writer originally from Detroit, Michigan, is working on a non-fiction book about the life stories of Amsterdam restaurant owners. The city is home to 178 nationalities. From Mexican and Eritrean to Japanese, Italian and almost everything in between, Amsterdam is truly a cultural melting pot, and the cuisine is just as diverse. This project, combined with her travels over the years, has provided her the opportunity to view food through a different lens.
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?
Absolutely. The Oxford Dictionary explains culture as “the ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular people or society.” An extension of this definition includes “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” Therefore, examining this definition, yes. Food and the customs surrounding it is a gateway to discovering a country.
The ingredients communicate information about the society and its history. On a fundamental level it shows what is needed to sustain life in a certain part of the world. Not only that, local specialties indicate what’s in season, availability of certain goods, preferences, as well as how old traditions have been incorporated into modern day times. Flavors illustrate the passion and creativity of a community attempting to colorfully combine ingredients and spices to produce a tasty and hopefully nourishing end result.
From a social perspective, the first question often posed in many countries is, “what would you like to eat?” rather than, “what would you like to drink?” Food is more than just sustenance. It is also about winning love through the stomach and bringing people together. For many families around the world, offering food is a way to show hospitality, even if they do not have much to share.
However, food is not the only way to experience a culture. Discovering the history through architecture, art and artifacts is also important to convey ideas and customs. For me personally, though, one of my all-time favorite ways to learn about a culture is to dine with the locals and listen to their stories.
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?
As cheesy (and unhealthy) as this sounds, macaroni and cheese represents “home.” Kraft macaroni and cheese, better known as mac ‘n cheese, was a staple in our household. Every meal always had a starch, and this side dish was cheap and easy to make. Like many kids, I loved it, and over time my parents grew to enjoy it, as well. Throughout the years, and especially when I moved abroad, mac ‘n cheese symbolized my childhood. It became this go-to comfort food for the times I missed my family or felt alone. In that sense, yes, I do crave it, not because of the taste per say, but because of the memories associated with it.
Just a small history lesson: Kraft macaroni and cheese launched during the Depression. It was a huge success due to the fact shoppers could get two boxes for only one food stamp ration, the Chicago Tribune reported. Now, according to the American Cheese Society, “in any given twelve-week period, approximately one-third of the population of the United States will eat macaroni and cheese at least once. About half of all children in the United States will eat macaroni and cheese during this time period.” It is something every, or almost every, American has as a child and I was no different.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
I heard from my parents I was a fairly easy eater as a child. I was never forced to finish my entire meal, but I was not picky and always tried whatever was presented on my plate. Growing up, I was very fortunate to do so much traveling and be exposed to numerous experiences, food included. I am unsure when my perspective changed, but at a certain age I reveled in trying new foods. I couldn’t wait to taste the next local specialty. Food, and what was to be the next meal, became the highlight of traveling.
My curiosity continued to blossom when I moved to Amsterdam, eager to experience every aspect of the Dutch culture and the city. The interest increased when I started writing about Amsterdam, first for 10Best.com, part of USAToday, and now specifically about the life stories of Amsterdam restaurant owners. No matter where I go, here in the Netherlands, in Michigan (USA) or elsewhere, food has became an integral part of travel for me and in understanding a country.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Before I travel somewhere, I do the research. I reach out to my Twitter network for advice on the “must try” places, as well as read Blogs and other local media targeting foodies. Usually I end up with a list of establishments longer than what is feasible in the time I am there. Alternatively, if I know someone living in that city or area, I allow them to introduce me to local specialties and take me to the best places, well-known, hole-in-the-wall or otherwise. For me, local cuisine is a combination of street food and entrees, not just one or the other.
Additionally, I am learning a lot about various cuisines through the book I am working on. All of the restaurant owners I interviewed take pride in what they serve, and I love learning about the food, both in regards to the history and their personal connection. When I finally have the opportunity to visit their home country, I have a taste of what to expect.
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?
My partner, Matthijs, and I visited St. Julians, Malta in October 2012. We only had a couple of days, so our time was limited. One evening, while strolling down a small street, we found this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. After looking at the menu, we thought the establishment looked nice enough and sat down outside on the terrace. Hearing earlier in the day how the fresh catch is the best pick, we ordered that. The waiter presented us with the fish that was destined to be our meal.
When it was ready, we were hungry and ready to eat. The preparation was simple, but absolutely divine. Paired with a fantastic bottle of red wine from Malta, we devoured our fishy friend. The entire evening was made complete by the romantic ambiance, surrounded by sparkling, blue water as we watched the colors fade over the horizon. The presentation, the flavors, the atmosphere, being young and in love: it all came together to create a memorable meal.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
In Romania, I had the chance to try tripe soup. Many people talk about how disgusting tripe is, namely because the substance is stomach tissue. I had heard of it growing up but never really thought about tasting it. The opportunity never presented itself. It wasn’t until I moved to Amsterdam and started working on this book that the dish piqued my interest.
During an interview, one of the restaurant owners started telling me about a friend who frequented her restaurant, eager to try typical dishes from her home country. The owner’s brother was in town and made a pot of tripe soup. The owner had no intention to sell it in the restaurant, only for personal consumption, but when her friend came to visit she offered to share. She didn’t know the exact translation in English, and without hesitation, her friend tried it. He absolutely loved it. With only a few spoonful’s left, he declared it delicious and wanted to know the name of it, so he could ask for it again. She finally found the translation and told him, which subsequently changed his opinion 180 degrees. He was appalled and disgusted.
When I heard this story, I wondered what kind of dish could do that to a person. When we were visiting a few friends in Romania, I saw it on the menu and had to order it. After the first taste, I knew one bowl wasn’t going to be enough. I was pleasantly surprised and would definitely eat it again, if presented the opportunity.
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 such a tough question! I spent a lot of time thinking about this answer, trying to decide which cuisine I would choose based on the flavors and ingredients, but also my memories associated with it. I also factored in the ability to make the type of food myself, namely comparing dining out versus cooking in my own kitchen.
I love so many cuisines for various reasons, but based on this criteria, I would have to choose Italian. It is such a rich and diverse kitchen, filled with many wonderful flavors. Every meal I’ve ever had in Italy has been fantastic, and it is a cooking style I can replicate at home on a daily basis.
Pasta is one of the main dishes from Italy. From linguine and spaghetti to gnocchi and ravioli, I find it would be hard to get tired of something so versatile, especially with all the different ingredients and produce available. I also enjoy seafood, something quite common in the Italian diet. Plus, much of the fish is caught locally on a daily basis, ensuring freshness. Other meats include veal, pork and chicken, providing variety. Sweet treats, like tiramisu, just provides the icing on the cake.
In the mornings, I can have a cup of coffee or espresso, and in the evening, choose from a wide selection of fine Italian wines. In the off chance I’m in the mood for a beer, Italy produces pale lagers, as well.
Food and gathering around the dinner table was, and still is, extremely important in my family. This trait is prevalent in the Italian culture, resulting in long lunches and big feasts, especially on holidays like Christmas and Easter. Meals are meant to be social occasions, not only to provide sustenance. I wholeheartedly agree with this lifestyle.