“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote Anthelme Brillat-Savarin back in the 1800s. This phrase lived on, uttered again by Chairman Kaga on Iron Chef. What were they getting at? Food and drink affect every person on the planet, but it’s more than just “you are what you eat.” The ingredients we use, the dishes we pass down through generations, and our customs around sharing meals are all part of our culture. For us, food is an important window into the cultures of the places we visit. Through our Food for Thought series, we hope to learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. This week, Nita from Spilling the Beans joins our growing list of guests who have shared their thoughts on this topic. Nita’s posts are always a great mix of insightful observation and a good sense of humor. Read on to find out more about Nita, but be forewarned: you might want to grab a snack first!
I’m Nita, an Indian girl born and brought up in Thailand. I’m a food junkie and a non-recovering travelholic who’s always on a lookout for new experiences, exciting places to visit and interesting food to try. Spilling the Beans is a blog where I share stories, experiences and photos of my journey through the intriguing world (make it galaxy) of food and travel.
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 couldn’t agree more. Food is absolutely the essence of a culture. It’s crucial in understanding a place, its history, the people and the lifestyle. What people eat and the way they eat, is a great reflection of their culture and traditions.
For instance, during mealtime in Thailand, whether during a regular family dinner at home or eating out with friends, any food placed on a table is usually shared so everyone can taste all the various dishes. Sharing food may not be the norm everywhere else so this is a good example of how food is enjoyed differently in another culture.
Also, seeing how people from each culture are so proud and passionate about their cuisine is always intriguing.
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?
Kraphao Kai Khai Dao is a much loved staple dish that all Thais grow up with, and continue to enjoy throughout. Chicken stir-fried with basil and chilli, served with rice and usually topped with fried egg – it’s simple, delicious, satisfying and full of flavor!
I love to try new and exciting cuisines, and find it easy to enjoy them without missing home food too much. But when I do crave this, I’m usually in luck as it’s widely available in all Thai restaurants everywhere, and Thai restaurants are truly EVERYWHERE so I’m never too far away from this yummy plate of awesomeness.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
The diversity that one comes across when traveling is highlighted in the way food is consumed and enjoyed. What you think is normal at home, is often strange elsewhere, and vice versa. The beauty of travel is it opens your eyes and minds to these differences, and it’s the same with food. Travel has made me more accepting of these variations and makes me want to learn more about new types of food, discover more flavors. Whatever is important to the locals and the place, I want to know more and I definitely want to taste more! It’s also very interesting to see the deviations in different regions of the same country itself.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
I think it helps to try to understand the region, its geography and economy. Since rice production is a major player in Thailand’s economy, it perhaps also plays the most significant role in Thai cuisine. This is similar for the rest of South East Asia and it’s a good example of how a country’s geography and agriculture also affect its culture and food.
Observing and indulging in street food is a spontaneous, delicious and a fun way to sample local treats as you walk around a city. Belgian waffles, French crepes, Indian style Masala Corn – are amongst some of the tastiest delights I’ve enjoyed. Visiting markets too, helps understand the local food scene, the ingredients and spices used.
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?
There are countless meals that hold a special place in my heart. I mean, it’s a blessing to be able to travel and try various kinds of food. Life is about simple joys and one of the most memorable was a casual seafood dinner on the beach in Bali. It was just one of those days where the fresh seafood, good ocean breeze, feet in the sand and my husband (and best friend) by my side, made for an unforgettable meal.
Another memorable meal was during a wine tasting tour at a Tuscan winery. Apart from so many types of wine, amazing Pecorino cheese, Salami and Bruschetta, we got to try some traditional Lasagna drizzled with truffle olive oil. It was incredible and forever spoiled us. We will never look at Lasagna the same way again.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Some strange things that I’ve eaten are minced crocodile meat in Thailand, Escargots in France, Haggis in Scotland and Reindeer Carpaccio in Iceland. But one of the weirdest is Rotten Shark (Hákarl) on a recent trip to Iceland. It’s made from the Greenland Shark, which is gutted, cured for few weeks in holes dug in the sand, then cut and hung to dry for many months. Served as a small bite, it’s often had with a shot of the local liquor called Brennevin.
I’d heard quite a lot about the horrid taste of this, but decided to give it a shot (pun intended) anyways! The smell was quite strong and fishy, but it didn’t taste as bad as expected. Glad I got to try it but don’t think I’d want to have it again, unless I get to return to Iceland, then maybe I would!
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?
Wow, that’s a tough one and wouldn’t really be fun. But if I really had to face this devastating dilemma, I would choose Thai food. Because there’s so much variety, I don’t think I would get bored of it. Okay, permission to cheat just a bit – I would also throw in some Japanese, Italian and Indian. Ah, I told you it was difficult!