Most travelers, whether we agree with the label or not, are foodies. We are explorers and experimenters, open to new experiences. Eating (and cooking) local cuisine, we gain insight into the places we visit. Whether it’s a national dish or a new-found local favorite, getting food tips from local residents is a great way to make new friends and get some good grub. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. A new interview is published each Friday. This week we chat with Anna from Slightly Astray. We love her “Foodie Friday” series, featuring mouthwatering food photos and tips on where and how to eat around the world. Read on to discover Anna’s thoughts on everything from Chinese dumplings to blood sausage, and hear about her experience eating . . . Gasp! . . . a softshell turtle.
Anna is an ordinary twenty-something former civil engineer/construction manager who traded her hard hat and stable income for a backpack and indefinite adventures, when she fell for a boy with extraordinary dreams. Even though traveling was never her dream, she has quickly warmed up to this whole travel thing! Her blog, Slightly Astray, documents her most precious travel memories, and contains a mix of destination guides, foodporn, and storytelling, with a generous sprinkling of heart and soul.
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?
Yes! I completely agree! Sure historical sites and museums are great and all, but I think food is often the heart and soul of a culture (why else would get-togethers usually revolve around food?). Often, it’s the food and recipes that haven’t changed in hundreds of years, even if everything else has changed in the country. So I definitely think a cultural experience is not complete without tasting its food. For us, while traveling, we’re always the most excited about all the new foods we would eat, from street food to locally acclaimed restaurants! And I always make sure to seek out the country’s specialty dishes or drink. I think the local cuisine says a lot about 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?
I definitely crave Asian food while I’m away, and especially in countries where international food is hard to find. Being From Beijing, I absolutely LOVE dumplings and noodles. One of my absolute favorite dishes from home is this Beijing noodle that’s really hard to find (most Chinese restaurants won’t even have it) because it’s made from a special sweet black bean sauce. I grew up eating it, and I always request that my mom makes it for me whenever I visit home.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Travel has definitely made me more open minded about trying the “disgusting” stuff. Even though I’m Chinese, and Chinese people are known to eat weird stuff (like cow intestines), I’ve always stayed away from that. When my parents ate chicken feet or pig hooves, I just sat and watched. But because I want to experience the local cuisine, I’m now eating stuff I previously turned up my nose at, like headcheese and blood sausage. But I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t eat spiders or other bugs! And it always makes me wonder if those stuff are even traditional cultural cuisine, or just tourist traps.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?
We love street food, or food from little stalls inside local markets! I think those represent the most authentic versions of the local cuisine. No frills and not pretentious, just good home style cooking. We like eating at local food stands because 1) the food is cheaper, and 2) it’s often the same food as other local sit-down restaurants, except you can literally see someone’s grandma cooking up the dish behind the counter. Food tours is something that I’d like to start participating in, because sometimes I just don’t have time to research the best/most authentic places to eat. And if you’re only in a city for a couple of days, a food tour is a great way to try a wide variety of dishes!
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?
I do have an answer for this one, but I will share that story for Question 6! I have had some special pricey/fancy meals, but I would say that a really memorable experience is eating at the food stalls in Santiago, Chile! One of our first days in Santiago, we went to the local marketplace to buy some groceries, and instead found that the entire 2nd story was food stalls. After that, we went back almost every day for a month, and mostly to the same stall. We really got to know the ladies who ran it. And they looked forward to us coming by everyday! They would see us coming from across the street, and would always have our table ready for us by the time we walked upstairs. They were so welcoming and really made me feel like that we belonged there! It’s the interactions with locals that made the experience so special!
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
The weirdest thing I had was a soft shelled turtle. I was visiting my dad’s side of the family in a little town in Southern China. My uncle wasn’t very well off, but he wanted to cook something special for us, so he got a couple of soft shelled turtles from the market and boiled them. I don’t really have moral dilemmas on eating turtle, except he BOILED THEM WHOLE. So when he brought out my plate, there was an ENTIRE TURTLE staring back at me! With the head, shell, feet, everything! I felt so disgusted but I had to eat it because he went through a lot of effort creating a special dish for me! I remember picking at the meat from the legs, and having to eat the soft parts of the shell. (And no, it wasn’t good.)
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?
This is a hard one, but I would ultimately have to say Chinese food! But I’m slightly cheating with this one, because Chinese food is so varied! There’re the dumplings and noodles that I love, and can probably eat everyday. But that’ll make me fat, so there’re also a lot of different vegetarian dishes so I can stay healthy. And the cuisine from the Sichuan area is famous for being very spicy, so that’ll satisfy any spicy cravings I have. And there’s also any kind of meat you can want (except for hunks of steak). So I can’t think of what I’d be missing if I were to only have Chinese forever!