Some say that “To truly experience a culture, you must taste it.” While it’s not the only way to get to know a destination and the folks who live there, food plays an undeniably integral part in our lives. We all have to eat, after all! Through a country or region’s foods, we also make meaningful connections with people. Sharing a meal has a way of bringing people together. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays for them. A new installment will be published each Friday for the duration of the series. This week’s interview is with Craig and Mega of Odd Years Travel. The fact that their About Us page starts with a Kurt Vonnegut quote scores major points with us, and we love following their adventures. The food posts on Odd Years Travel not only include delicious photographs but the stories behind the dishes and the people who made the moment special. This, with a dose of their unique humor, makes Craig and Megan’s blog a really fun read!
Odd Years Travel is the brainchild of Craig and Megan, a couple of late-20s travelers from the Great American Midwest. They met in Bangkok in 2011 and quickly established a life together around their shared passions: cheese, art, foreign lands, the Green Bay Packers, good cinema, craft beer, and, of course, traveling. Having grown up on National Geographic and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” it was only a matter of time until they would leave home to see the world. Through it all they’ve tried to travel smart and get to the heart and soul of different cultures. They created Odd Years Travel not only as an outlet for their creativity, but also as a way to share experiences and provide practical advice to travelers so that they can make their journey abroad entirely their own.
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?
Food is a window to the soul. Whether it’s a fiery som tam or apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, we believe that culinary traditions speak volumes about what a culture values. That’s because food makes up a huge part of everyone’s life, even when there’s hardly any of it. We eat many times every day using whatever we have on hand. It’s the most enduring thing we do. From techniques to traditions and the way we interact with it, food provides the framework we need as travelers to understand what makes someone tick. In other words, we totally agree.
Where I (Craig) grew up—the American Midwest—a meal was often a matter of necessity rather than a moment to savor. When my parents were stuck at work until late, we got fast food for dinner, and we rarely ate at the table. To me, denying ourselves the joy of eating was symbolic of the way we let fear beat back our curiosity. But our traditions evolved over the years. We began to eat produce from our garden, shop at farmers markets, and try our best to cook foreign dishes.
Now, when Megan and I go to new places, we get excited about wet markets and tea shops where locals eat with their hands, because that’s where the good stuff is and we know it. Doing that has made us confront our anxieties and embrace some very unusual customs. It’s like a slow-cooked stew: by meeting different cultures through food, we are continually adding spice to our lives.
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?
Craig: Lasagna, turkey and mashed potatoes, burgers cooked on a grill in summer, cheap burritos from my favorite roadside shack in southwestern Michigan—that’s my past on a plate. I can’t say I ever feel compelled to go out and get a steak, but I’m also disillusioned with the conventional American outlook on food, so that plays a big role in my opinion. Then again, I occasionally miss 3 am shame-fests at Taco Bell and “stadium” dogs (a.k.a. steamed hot dogs sold at baseball games).
Megan: I don’t crave much from home, but since I’m lactose intolerant, I do miss decent soy-based products and lactose-free milk. And, to contradict everything I just said, I miss cheese. Badly.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
We love food more than ever before and that’s all thanks to traveling. We’ve been blown away by the ingenuity of home cooks. We also have a much greater appreciation for people who cook with their hearts on their sleeves. Thai people, for example, have a profound relationship with their food.
There’s a market near our apartment in Bangkok that we go to just about every day. Inside, a man stands behind a wok, churning out gaprao gai, pad prik gaeng, and kana moo grob, while a couple of ladies in chef hats take orders and put food on plastic plates. Every dish costs between 30 and 40 baht, which is roughly one US dollar, and comes packed with flavor. For obvious reasons, this is a super popular place. What amazes us is how down to earth the workers are. They make so many people happy every single day because of their food and rarely get kudos for it. But these are enlightened folks. They know that a good meal is the cornerstone of a life well-lived, and they’re content to provide that for others.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
We read about food and culture in the destination we’re headed to before we leave. Blogs (like TurtlesTravel!) are the best source of information for travelers. It’s always better to hear from the people on the street. Anyway, when we’re “on the ground,” we just explore. I guess you could say we go on a lot of self-guided tours.
Markets are always a good starting point. And if there’s buzz about, say, a certain vendor’s fish head curry, we’ll make a point to check it out. As far as street stalls go, if there’s a long queue, it’s probably a solid choice. The same rule applies for restaurants: if it’s packed with locals—especially a mix of blue- and white-collar workers—you know it’s good.
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?
In Uda Walawa, Sri Lanka, we spent the night with a family in a homestay. Before we could even put our bags in our room, the father asked if we wanted to have dinner there. We said yes, expecting to get a simple and decent meal, but his mother cooked us an absolute feast. It was the best food I’ve ever had. The dahl, a staple that comes with every plate of rice and curry, melted like butter on my tongue. I would have been happy just scooping it up with the papadum, but there was so much more, from chicken curry to roasted vegetables. That sweet old lady’s brinjal changed my life.
Even though we asked the family to join us, they politely declined. I have to admit, it felt a little strange sharing all of that food with Megan in someone else’s house, but with only the breeze as background noise, the dinner turned into a private and romantic affair. I’ll never forget it.
I asked Megan this question, and she told me that she’ll always remember the first time she had pho. We were the only foreigners at this hole-in-the-wall shop house. We sat on tiny plastic stools. All of these condiments came out with the soup and she had no idea what to do with them. Everyone else was a master, but we were as green as can be. In any case, the soup was delicious. It went straight to her heart. Those are the best moments, aren’t they? A great meal is so much more than the ingredients that go into it.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
The list starts with sea cicadas and ends with cubes of congealed blood. In between there’s durian, ox tail, ant eggs, chicken feet, and insects. I don’t think most travelers would find those things shocking, per se, but maybe unappetizing. Don’t hate on durian, though—durian is my jam. Congealed blood isn’t our favorite, and neither of us can figure out what to do with chicken feet (gnaw on them?), but we’d probably eat the rest of the food on that list again… although Megan would probably pass up the ox tail.
To tell the truth, our friends and family would be most surprised by the stuff we eat for breakfast. Megan likes to have pork satay with sticky rice and I usually buy little snacks made with taro and coconut milk or a few steamed pork buns. Neither of us ate meat for breakfast in the past, but now we do it on the regular. And neither of us can picture a day without rice.
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?
Thai food! How could we say anything else? The variety is amazing. When you get tired of stir-fried dishes, there’s khao moo daeng, gaeng massaman, som tam, tom yum goong, khao soi, and on and on and on. Beyond its own centuries-old traditions, Thai cuisine blends elements from India, the West, and China. It has a lot to offer.