Food is a basic human need. We need to eat to survive. As such, food is an integral part of the human experience. Our relationship with food is often complicated. At the same time, it is most basic. As travelers, food is key to understanding a new destination. Sharing a meal, learning a traditional recipe, or cooking with new ingredients are all ways to break down barriers and form new friendships. Whether you love to take cooking classes, head directly to the local market, or save up for a fine dining experience, food enhances your experience of a place. Through our weekly interview series, Food for Thought, we hope to gain insight into other travelers’ experiences, and what role food plays. This week we chat with Jen from ParTASTE. From restaurant and market guides to recipes to a fun quiz to discover your “diner type” ParTASTE is a great resource.
Jen is the founder of ParTASTE, a travel guide dedicated to helping you experience the world through food. Jen has always had a passion for food and travel. About eight years ago, she decided to take up flying and pursue a career in Aviation to ensure herself the opportunity to see the world. Her plans to become a commercial pilot got turned upside down when she unexpectedly fell in love with one. Four years later, they were married and had moved to Spain. Suddenly living in a foreign country and traveling regularly made Jen realize how much she didn’t know about the foods of the world, so she went looking for a one-stop resource to help her learn more. When her search yielded no results, she decided she would just have to create such a resource herself. Although ParTASTE is still in its infancy, Jen has big plans and is committed to making what she envisions for ParTASTE become a reality.
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 agree 100%. There are so many ways in which food and culture overlap. Just consider all of the social rituals that revolve around food; from el txikiteo in the Basque country, to the Italian aperitivo to the lesser known Swedish fika, a coffee break among friends. Food brings people together. Beyond that, a country’s food and history have intrinsic ties; to really know one, you inevitably have to learn about the other. What better way to learn about a culture than to enjoy their foods!?! At ParTASTE we believe that a meal shared between strangers is never just about the food, it has the potential to opens doors to all sorts of opportunities you might not experience if you always ate within your comfort zone. You never know what a meal among locals could lead to, both at the table and beyond.
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?
The food I immediately identify with home is a sailboat. Basically, a sailboat is a half of a hot dog bun topped with cheese (American or Cheddar) and a piece of bacon, held in place with two toothpicks and broiled until the cheese is bubbly and delicious. It’s probably also the food most likely to give you a heart attack, pretty gross when you think about it, but it tastes amazing! My mom or grandma always made sailboats on Easter morning, Christmas morning, for trips to the mountains… we had them for my sisters 21st birthday and the morning after my wedding. Sailboats are a family tradition and nothing says “home” to me more than family.
I don’t know that sailboats reflect much upon my culture as we were generally brought up with an emphasis on eating what was good for you, which sailboats clearly are not. However, I do think they speak volumes as to how powerful food is in terms of making memories and re-connecting to those memories long after an experience has past.
I live halfway around the world from my family now so, in a sense, I am always away. I wouldn’t say that I ever have a day when I’m really craving sailboats, but when everyone is home from the holidays and I am in Spain, I am certainly jealous knowing what they are having for breakfast without me.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
I would say the number one impact that travel has had on the way I think about food is that it has taught me to appreciate food and be much more open to trying new things. Many people I meet now are shocked to find out that I was, and still consider myself to be, a picky eater. I must have been intolerable as a child, and even for a while as an adult. I had a very difficult time eating any part of an animal that reminded me it was an animal, if meat was on the bone, I couldn’t eat it. I didn’t eat seafood, AT ALL. Anything, even vegetables, with an unexpected texture really put me off.
Moving abroad and taking advantage of every opportunity that I’ve had to travel has really opened my eyes to the way that other cultures think about food, especially proteins. Before, I would have eaten meats like bacon or a nondescript sausage without a second thought. Things like cheek, pig ear, bull tail, trotter and blood sausage, there was absolutely no way I would have considered trying those. I have eaten all of those things now, and really enjoy some of them. Exposure to the way that other cultures consume animals has taught me that if an animal is going to die for human consumption, we should at least have enough respect for its life to not turn our nose up at a part of that animal because we don’t think we will like it or it sounds weird.
I’ve also come to realize that, depending on the situation, you can really offend someone by turning away food. When I’m presented with foods that intimidate me, I try to keep these things in mind and do my best to will myself into accepting what is offered to me, even if I’m certain I won’t enjoy it.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
I always research the foods of a place I am going before I go there. Usually I start by searching for specific dishes that are important or iconic in the region or country. After that initial research, I make a list of the things I want to be sure to try and look up those foods in the context of the cities I am visiting. The idea is to determine where I can get the things on my list or where to find the best version of them. That part is usually the most difficult. I always go to a new city armed with a handful of restaurants and cafes that I believe will serve foods that represent what locals eat.
Once I arrive somewhere, I walk everywhere I possibly can, rather than taking public transportation or taxis. Not only do I find that walking is a great way to see a new place, it gives me the opportunity to scope out more places to eat. I am constantly taking pictures of menus and signs to reference later. I always visit local markets. It is a great way to see what the typical ingredients of the area are, what’s in season, and there are usually small stands or cafes with authentic, low-cost food. Markets are also a great place to talk to locals and find out what foods and restaurants they recommend. When I’m actually eating somewhere, I pay attention to what comes out of the kitchen and what others are eating. There are so many fantastic foods and spots that you’d be unlikely to find in a guidebook or on a review site. Those are always my favorite discoveries.
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?
The most memorable meal I’ve had was in Germany, visiting my friend Steffen in the Black Forest. He and his friends took me to Strasbourg, France for an afternoon and, although the timing was off for us to eat lunch there, they kept telling me about this “pizza” that I had to try called flammkuchen (tarte flambée in French). The sauce on the pizza was creme fraiche which, at the time, I thought was the same thing as sour cream. There was a German football game that night, so some of Steffen’s friends invited us to their house to watch the game. They went shopping for the ingredients to make flammkuchen, including the stinkiest cheese I have smelled in my life, and made dinner for us. Flammkuchen is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. It’s simple, but it totally hits the spot. I thought I would hate that meal. I did not like sour cream, wasn’t a huge fan of onion and I was intimidated by the foul smelling cheese, but I was determined to be a gracious guest, and I’m so glad I did. I fell in love with flammkuchen at first bite and have since shared it with family and friends, both in other parts of Germany and at home.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
The food that stands out as one that I am still shocked myself to have tried is sea anemone. As someone who didn’t eat seafood at all for 80% of their life, I never though I would eat something like that. I don’t even know how I convinced myself to do it, I had a momentary flash of bravery and I just ate it. I didn’t just throw that sea anemone in my mouth and swallow it down either, I actually chewed it and thought about the flavor. In all honestly, if it were just the flavor, I would eat it again. It was like a very salty, mineral-tasting spinach. Not my favorite, but not horrible. Initially the anemone texture was fine, but then I must have bitten into a goo pouch or something. Whatever it was, I am certain I never want that feeling in my mouth again, there is nothing I can compare it to. If it was a matter of being polite, I would consider eating anemone again, but given the option, no way!
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?
A country is so hard, there are so many great ones! I love Latin American cuisines. Peruvian is definitely up there, I especially love the mix of Latin American and Asian flavors. I love the cuisines of Argentina and Venezuela as well, but being a California girl at heart, I’d have to go with our neighbor to the south and say Mexico. If I think of the one type of food I could never live without, Mexican is it.