What we eat and where we get our food from influences us no matter where we are. While we all need food to survive, there’s much more to it than that. Traditional dishes are undeniably tied to a place’s history and culture. We gain valuable insight into the countries and regions we visit by sampling street food, visiting local markets and, if we’re lucky, getting an invitation to dine in the home of a local resident. The Food for Thought interview series explores the intricate relationship of food and culture as we travel. As Lindsay, co-founder of the travel blog, Where Is Your Toothbrush? expands on in this week’s interview, even when communication is a challenge, sharing a meal can create important connections, a bond that sticks with us long after we’ve left a place. Lindsay and Peter’s “Food and Drink” section covers everything from microbrews in Bariloche, Argentina to what to bring on a picnic in Paris. They’ve also got some great budget/money posts, and thoughtful perspectives looking back at their own extended travels. Read on to hear their thoughts on everything from grandma’s pirohy in Slovakia to red snapper in Thailand.
Meet Lindsay and Peter
Peter Korchnak and Lindsay Sauvé are an international couple (from Slovakia and the U.S., respectively) traveling together as a couple since 2002, when they met in the Netherlands. They put their motto, “Home is where your toothbrush is,” into practice on their first round-the-world trip in 2013-2014, visiting 23 countries and sleeping in 73 beds. The blog Where Is Your Toothbrush? documents their travels and offers tips for people to make themselves feel at home anywhere. Until the next world trip, Peter’s and Lindsay’s toothbrushes are in Portland, Oregon.
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?
Lindsay: I definitely agree. I’ve always been fascinated by what people around the world eat. My favorite photo essay is “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio for Time magazine, which documented the food people eat around the world. I love visiting restaurants and eating out, but I also really enjoy visiting foreign grocery stores and markets to see what people eat everyday. I love comparing the similarities and differences to the US standard diet.
Peter: I agree now, but I didn’t used to. Before traveling around the world for a year, in 2013 and 2014, I thought of food as fuel. I did enjoy eating while traveling but I ate to live, not lived to eat. Now I wholeheartedly identify with the statement in the question. Sure, getting to know a culture does entail visiting its historical sites, watching its movies, or attending its festivals, but there’s no way to really know it without eating its food.
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?
Peter: In my home country, Slovakia, the national dish is bryndzové halušky, potato gnocchi smothered in salty sheep cheese called bryndza and sprinkled with fried bacon bits (fat included). The dish reflects the peasant origins of my culture, whereby villagers had to feed themselves with cheap ingredients (potato is a staple) and dishes had to be hearty so they could work long hours in the fields. Nowadays, the dish is mostly available in touristy or traditional restaurants. It isn’t my favorite because it’s so heavy, but I do enjoy it at least once on every visit to Slovakia (we live in the U.S.). I definitely can’t say I miss it.
Lindsay: I have a large, mixed family and everyone approaches food differently and has various dishes they love to cook. My father is practical, always making large pots of spaghetti sauce and chili to freeze for future meals. My stepmother taught me how to love Mexican food and my mother always cooked healthy dishes like lentil soup, but also taught us how to order in a restaurant. And my stepfather is a commercial fisherman, ruining my ability to eat any seafood but freshly caught. I think the eclectic approach during my childhood is why I’m so interested in cooking, food, and what people around the world eat.
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Peter: See my answer above. In fact, some of the most memorable moments of the world trip are food-related: waxing poetic over honey-glazed manouri cheese in Oia, Santorini; eating a fresh red snapper with feet in the sand of Bang Por beach, on Koh Samui, Thailand, on Christmas Eve (in Slovakia the main Christmas dinner dish is fish); falling in love with the laksa soup in Penang, Malaysia; quaffing a world-class microbrew with an ojo de bife steak in Bariloche, Argentina…I could go on. Food opened beautiful windows into local culture everywhere we went.
Lindsay: Travel has taught me that restaurants, especially restaurants catered to tourists, do not always provide the best examples of local food. Restaurants can be often overpriced and the flavors muted to appeal to a wider, foreign audience. Street food, market food, and food that the average local eats are typically more interesting and authentic. For instance, in Greece we typically avoided restaurants in city centers in favor of the cheap gyro stands and in Istanbul, we searched for the hole-in-the-wall köfte shacks over the city’s fine-dining scene. It helps when you’re traveling on a budget to have simpler tastes.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Lindsay: I try to figure out a local cuisine from multiple angles. I check out the grocery stores and markets, try some street food, and occasionally try some restaurants too. The best way to understand a local cuisine is to enjoy a home-cooked meal by a local, which we had the pleasure of doing in places like Slovakia, Serbia, Malaysia, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico. These were some of the best meals and eating experiences of my life, not to mention during our travels.
Peter: I am a simple man—I just eat. I look up the local specialties, do some basic research where to find them (ask around, read blogs, browse guides), and then dig in.
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?
Lindsay: Peter’s grandmother had passed away before we visited Slovakia this time around. Our last meal together, on a trip we took to Slovakia in 2011, she made us homemade pirohy, one type filled with bryndza cheese and another with potato, and a creamy spinach soup. She took so much pleasure in cooking and feeding her family. Even though she and I couldn’t communicate verbally, I could tell she was very happy with me for taking seconds. It was a wonderful moment for me, to suddenly feel very loved and accepted by my husband’s grandmother, through this meal that she had lovingly prepared.
Peter: The chicken sandwich Lindsay made me and a friend who introduced us. I was living in Leiden, the Netherlands, at a shared student house while attending graduate school. Lindsay was visiting her old friend who was a housemate of mine. One evening we were hanging out and Lindsay made the most amazing sandwiches I’d ever eaten before or since. Food’s not just a means to get to know a culture but also a way to a man’s heart.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Lindsay: I’m not a picky eater, but I don’t aspire to be adventurous or outrageous in my food choices. Trying the weirdest, most bizarre dish is not what it’s about for me. What some people may find shocking or surprising is the crude levels of sanitation at many of the street stalls and roadside restaurants we ate at. Farm animals strutting around, dishes washed in dirty water, and questionable refrigeration. I bet there are several friends and family who would consider eating Thai or Malaysian street food dangerous, even though the few times we got sick were from so-called legitimate restaurants.
Peter: This trip was about learning to know a place through food; the next one will be more food-centric and adventurous. For example, I wish I’d tried the fried insects in Ao Nang, Thailand. But the weirdest thing I’d eaten was right here in the U.S., at a wedding attended, from the bride’s side, by a big contingent of Kenyans. One of the things they brought to the potluck portion of the dining table was footlong sections of fried goat bowels containing unexpelled excrement. It actually wasn’t too bad!
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?
Peter: The United States because all cuisines of the world can be found here so you can sample a different culture every day of the week.
Lindsay: Peter’s right, there’s a lot to choose from in the US. And my number one choice is typically Thai food, which is even better eaten fresh from a street stall in Bangkok! I can’t imagine eating the same type of food for the rest of my life, though Thai could sustain me for quite a while.