To truly experience a culture, you must taste it. Through a country or region’s foods, we make meaningful connections that we never would otherwise. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. A new installment will be published each Friday for the duration of the series. This inaugural interview sets into motion an ongoing discussion of a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts. We’ve been huge fans of Fiona’s work for quite some time, and we’re honored to have her kick things off.
Freelance food and travel writer Fiona Reilly lived in Shanghai for four years documenting life on the streets, foods she loves, and her frequent adventures in China for both local and international publications. Her blog ‘Life on Nanchang Lu’ brings China’s fascinating places and wonderful foods to life in all their glorious color.
Having already seen much of China by air and rail, the pull of doing something more adventurous meant Fiona and her family recently spent six months traveling the back roads of China in a campervan, a mode of travel entirely novel to the greater Chinese population and the cause of much curiosity everywhere they went. Fiona now divides her time between travels in China and Australia and is currently writing a book about the extraordinary experiences they encountered on their travels.
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?
Once, while out walking with my children in the Chinese countryside on a meandering path between rice terraces, we got quite lost. A local Yao woman found us, hungry and thirsty, and took us into her house where she sat us on the pressed earth floor, gave us fermented rice wine to drink, built a fire in her hearth, and made us lunch. She went out to her garden behind the house to pick some greens, visited her hen house for eggs, and called her son in from outdoors to help. The eggs were fried with the finely chopped greens, like chives, and from above the fireplace she took down a piece of home-smoked bacon called larou and sliced it into slivers that she fried with water spinach stems, growing in one of her rice paddies. She spoke no Chinese and I didn’t speak her Yao dialect, yet sharing a meal together I learned more about her culture and her people than I could have gleaned from a guidebook. That experience early on in my travels in China reinforced for me the importance of food and drink as a common language we all speak, regardless of where we’re from.
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?
‘Home’ means lots of things to me, as it does I’m sure to many of you. Is home where you were born? Where you grew up? Where you feel your soul is? Or is it where you’re living now?
I have comfort foods that identify with all those things – mangoes from Australia, where I was born and live now; black pudding from Scotland, where my father comes from and where I spent several years growing up; and hand-pulled noodles from China, where my food-loving soul lives. I crave all these things from time to time.
There is, however, one thing that reminds me of my childhood and all my homes since – Scottish style tea, very strong, with milk. Everywhere I travel I carry a survival bag of tea bags and UHT milk with me, no matter how remote. It’s quite pathetic, but I can’t start the day without it.
How has travel affected the way you think about food? Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Travel has made me very open-minded about food, and it’s so interesting what one culture relishes and another finds revolting. I always try to understand the local cuisine by reading up about it first (food blogs are wonderful for this) and then I try and taste as much as possible. I ask questions, I wander into kitchens to watch food being cooked, I talk to street food vendors. I sign up for cooking classes, but they don’t exist everywhere and in recent years I’ve had some amazing experiences by asking a local guide or hostel owner to arrange for me to spend a few hours with a local cook, in their own home, just watching them prepare a meal. I’ve learned so much this way!
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?
We once stumbled across a local village festival in southern China, the Hani Long Table Feast. To celebrate the rice harvest in autumn the villagers spend a whole day cooking, then set up small wicker tables along the length of the main street and invite everyone from near and far to eat, drink, sing and dance with them. We had succulent rice paddy fish, wild herbs, poached chicken, three kinds of mosses, fern fronds and plenty of rice wine. To me, as well as being full of novel and memorable tastes, this meal represented true hospitality, of sharing a table with total strangers but welcoming them as one of your own.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
China is a wonderful place to add a lot of stuff to your Weird Foods list – crickets, bamboo larvae, fern roots, strange fermented foods, cicadas, innards, outards (skin, ears, snouts, tails, trotters). My husband Matt goes crazy for a cicada – disgusting! But I myself have a genuine love of pickled and finely sliced pigs ears, served in a hot chili and garlic oil. I eat it as often as I can get 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?
That would be China – with eight major cuisines and a myriad of minor ones it’ a food-lovers’ paradise.