Most would agree that to truly experience a culture, you have to taste it. When we share a meal or learn how to cook a traditional dish using local ingredients, we open a window into the history and culture of a place. In this way we also make human connections that we might not otherwise. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. This week we are honored add Mark Wiens from Migrationology to our distinguished list of interviewees. Migrationology is one of the blogs we started following very early on, and it’s one that we keep referring back to. It is an invaluable resource on what, where and how to eat in Southeast Asia and beyond, but that’s not all. Mark’s blog is a continual source of inspiration on how to following your dreams. If we had to make a shortlist of our favorite blogs, Migrationology’s spot is 100% secure! Be sure to check out his “41 Irresistable Meals You’ll Travel to Eat,” a free download you get automatically when you sign up to get food updates and travel tips on Mark’s site.
Mark Wiens is a food lover who travels to eat. He spends most of his time walking along streets and stopping at as many food stalls as he can. Check out Mark’s latest travel and food adventures on Migrationology.com, and watch his street food videos on YouTube.
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 fully agree. Along with food being a human necessity, sharing meals is also one of the greatest parts of social life, culture, and community. Food is real, it’s something peoples lives revolve around in every country, and that’s why it’s such huge part of the travel experience.
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?
My home food is any kind of home style Cantonese food. My mother is from the United States, but she’s Chinese in origin, so I mostly grew up eating Chinese food. Now, being based in Thailand, and usually in most other destinations I visit, I often have access to decent Chinese restaurants. But yes, I definitely can’t go more than too long without a meal of Chinese food.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
For myself, instead of travel affecting how I think about food, it’s food that influences the way I think about travel. I think food is such an important part of culture, peoples lives, and building relationships, that I travel with a purpose to eat. I wouldn’t mind going to a country, skipping all the famous tourism sites, and only walking around and eating. I think there’s no better way to make a connection with someone from another culture than by appreciating their food (even if you don’t speak their language).
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Mostly my technique is to just pay attention and be flexible. Some of the best restaurants and dishes might not ever be written on a menu, but just served at a makeshift stand with a crowd of hungry people standing around. Pay attention to what local people are eating, and eat that. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re eating!
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?
One time in Sri Lanka, through a series of random events and unplanned contacts, I ended up in the tea fields in the central part of the country staying with a grandmother of a Sri Lankan friend. One day we went to buy a chicken at the market, and came back and grandma cooked, what is probably the best curry I’ve had to this day. She roasted whole spices over fire, ground them by hand, made fresh coconut milk, and then cooked the chicken curry in a clay pot over fire. Sitting in the cool peaceful tea fields of Sri Lanka, eating the best chicken curry I’ve ever had, and hanging out with grandma, was one food memory I’ll never forget.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
I was staying with a family in the Philippines, a beautiful family who were eking out a living. When they had me as a guest in their home, they gathered all the money they could (me not knowing) from a number of families in the area, and went to buy a block of Velveeta cheese. I didn’t even know what it was until I was served a big slab, and took a surprising bite. They explained that it was a special occasion, since I was there, and that was one of their favorite treats.
I would never eat Velveeta cheese again in my life for the taste, but if a caring family offered it to me from the bottoms of their hearts, I would fully accept, and enjoy it.
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?
I think I will go with Malaysia, but let me explain. Malaysia has three major influences, local Malay, Chinese, and Indian. You can find truly authentic cuisine from each of these locations – a trio of what I think are some of the best food countries in the world.