Food brings people together. When traveling, sharing a meal is often a great way to break the ice and get to know people. Even when language is a challenge, people really connect through food. In fact, some say that to truly experience a culture, you have to taste it. When we eat local foods, or better yet work with local ingredients we are allowed a glimpse in to a place’s history and roots. It’s no wonder that certain tastes and smells can transport us back to a place we’ve visited and flood us with all of the associated memories! Through our Food for Thought series, we have been learning a lot about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. A new installment is published each Friday. This week we talk to Julie from The Red Headed Traveler. Julie’s blog is a great place to discover new recipes and explore new destinations. I don’t know if it’s always true that librarians are good writers, but we always appreciate her genuine, down-to-earth storytelling style. I’ve been inspired by her recent post featuring “Peachkopita,” and vow to try and make it this week while, appropriately, in Georgia!
Hi! I’m Julie from the travel and food blog, The Red Headed Traveler. I’m a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic by night, and I recently published my first book, Full Circle: Tales of Travel and Self-Discovery from Around the World, which is a collection of short stories that will take readers on a journey around the world visiting destinations including the famous Road to Hana, Mayan ruins in Mexico, and unforgettable pastries at a Portuguese cafe.
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 am in complete agreement with this. For centuries, food has been inextricably tied to a country’s culture and this is definitely still the case in today’s global society. More than anything else, it is food that transcends borders, it is food that often brings different people together, and it is food that is what takes you into the heart of a country.
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?
Unlike some people who still have deep ties to their ancestral roots, I unfortunately don’t due to the fact that many of my ancestors have been in the United States for centuries and so any ancestral ties to foods from the “homeland” have long since been forgotten. With that said, I more identify the food of my city of birth with home. I’m originally from Philadelphia which has some pretty terrific food offerings including the ubiquitous cheesesteak to the sinfully amazing soft pretzels that are sold at the famous Reading Terminal Market to even scrapple, a food that Philadelphia natives adore but everyone else finds pretty gross. I definitely crave these foods but thankfully they’re pretty popular that I can still find them where I live.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
When I was younger, especially during my study abroad days, I ate because I needed to. I definitely didn’t care about the cuisine of a particular country while I was there. However, fast forward a decade later and I am definitely “food obsessed” while traveling. I think this is most evident in the fact that travel research today for me means plotting which restaurants to try out and making reservations (in advance) when I need to. I’ve been to too many foodie cities in the past that I most likely “neglected” from a culinary regard so for any travels today, I try to make up for this. Visiting places like La Banquise in Montreal, Canada for poutine and Casa de Belem in Portugal for pasteis de nata were definitely highlights of my trip even though they were just “eating excursions.” I also always take pictures of food I try when somewhere new-I consider my food photographs to be just as important as those of a glorious sunset or a 500 year old building.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Being a bibliophile (I am a librarian after all!), my best technique to understanding local cuisine is reading about it. Before I arrive in a country, I want to know all about its food-what are its famous dishes? Do any of its foods have historical connections? Are there any chefs that have made significant contributions to his or her country’s cuisine? I’ve only ever taken one cooking class before (in Mexico) but this is something that I feel would also allow you to acquire a greater level of understanding for a country’s cuisine. Following a recipe from a cookbook is one thing, but being led by a local is another. I definitely would like to take more classes though!
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?
Until my dad came to visit me during my semester abroad in Spain, I had never once eaten paella. Although classmates of mine talked about how their host moms would often make this quintessential Spanish dish, mine never did. While there was no shortage of paella places in Seville’s city center, I wanted to go to one that was not a tourist trap (i.e. it didn’t have a sign out front advertising its paella in six different languages). Thankfully I stumbled across Casa Baratillo, a small hole in the wall restaurant that was located in the city’s Arenal neighborhood. Along with wine, beer, and sangria, paella was the only thing on the menu which is what made it so amazing. The owner was also the hostess, waitress, AND cook. We opted for the “carne” paella (meat) and it was one of the best meals I had during the entire time that I lived in Spain. The fact that the restaurant space was small and unassuming (there was no décor whatsoever, it was borderline grim) didn’t matter at all because the food was that good. Never, ever judge a restaurant by how it looks!
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Sadly, I haven’t been to too many countries with some “shocking” foods (e.g. scorpions in Cambodia). My lame answer would probably be squid in South Korea (I know, I know, not too shocking OR surprising). This was in 2004 and no, I have never opted to eat it again. (Having it served on an almost daily basis at the Korean dormitory where I was living when studying there will do that to you…turn you off of squid forever). I love trying new things but I do draw the line at insects and those sea creatures of the tentacle variety.
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’d probably say Moroccan food. I adore couscous (I could eat the stuff on a daily basis) and I also love tajines (a type of stew), especially since there are so many different varieties. I also like that Moroccan cuisine isn’t known for being overly spicy or hot which for me is perfect. I can do hot and spicy but in moderation. Not to mention, Moroccan cuisine is extremely healthy overall. I love Mexican food but there’s just a bit too much frying going on…