Through the now 37 weeks of the Food for Thought interview series, we have really enjoyed getting to know fellow travelers better through their perspectives on food. For those who have been following along, we hope you’ve been having as much fun as we have! This week, we’ve taken some time to ponder our own answers to the now-famous seven “food for thought” questions! As we travel, one of our favorite ways to explore a new destination is through its food. When we arrive, we walk the streets, observing what and where people are eating, and quickly jumping in to join them. We find ourselves thinking more and more about what we’ll eat as we plan our travels. We look forward to learning about culture in this way, and building on it as we are able to stay longer in a place.
I have always been an adventurous eater. My practice in general is to choose whatever I don’t recognize on the menu or (often a little safer) what looks good on someone else’s plate, with varying results. When I was young, I always had to clean my plate. That sometimes wasn’t easy or fun, but it did give me a good base for being able to stomach some of those things we eat out of politeness or respect while traveling that we might not otherwise choose. Donny, on the other hand, spent his childhood consuming nothing more than white rice, chicken and pizza. It wasn’t until his late 20s that his palate matured (or his stubbornness abated?), and he woke up to a whole new world of flavors. Since then, he’s been making up for lost time.
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?
While there are many ways to experience culture, we believe that exploring a place through its food is one of the best (and most fun!). Even when language is a challenge, people bond through food. Sharing a meal can forge friendships that it might take much longer to establish. People take pride in the food they cook, and in most places, preparing a meal to share is an integral part of hospitality. Food can provide valuable insight into history and traditions, but also into current trends. Are traditional dishes being reinterpreted? Are people relying more on packaged and fast foods? As we travel, it becomes more and more clear that culture and food are inextricably linked. We love continuing to explore this idea.
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?
HT: I grew up on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, so New England clam chowder is one dish that always reminds me of home. Tender, chopped clams, potatoes, onions and spices in a creamy, classic chowder broth: the flavor reminds me of the ocean and the comforts of home. Another example is spaghetti. Growing up, my grandmother lived next door to a big Italian family, and was adopted into their home and kitchen. Her tomato sauce was unbeatable, but when I occasionally get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that comes close, I am transported back to Grandma’s house. I wouldn’t say I crave these “home” foods while away, but I certainly do look for them as soon as I return to visit family.
D: Being from the south, we love our comfort food. That being said there are two dishes that immediately make me think of home. One is macaroni and cheese; the other is grits. Each is very special to me. Both have been staples in my life since I was a young boy. There are many versions of these but there is no replacing a homemade offering! (All grits are held up to the impossibly lofty heights of Mom’s homemade.)
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
For both of us I think travel has taught us to appreciate more where food comes from. We try to choose what’s local and seasonal whenever possible, and tend to feel much better when we can do that. Our most memorable moments from our travels often have nothing to do with landmarks and monuments, but meals and those we shared them with.
Do you have a technique to try to understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
When we arrive in a new place, one of our favorite things to do is seek out a local market. The first visit is usually to browse and observe what people are buying. We try to identify what looks fresh and local, and what we might buy and try without having to cook, like new fruits and vegetables. We are also big street food fans, so walking a new city/town and seeing what people are eating on the streets is another favorite activity.
We’ve only done one cooking class so far, in Yangshuo, China. We really enjoyed it! The day included a shopping trip to the local market, and it was great to have a guide along explaining what things were and how they could be used. We were then taught how to make several dishes, and then, best of all, we got to eat them! In future travels, we’re really looking forward to trying out some food tours. On the wish-list are the tours organized by our friends at Spanish Sabores in Madrid and Barcelona and Eat Rio in Brazil.
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?
One of the first meals that comes to mind was shared with an amazingly generous and hospitable family in the outskirts of Xi-An, China, where we sampled everything from grilled lungfish to sliced mountain yam. We discussed that one in detail in a recent interview on the travel blog, Where is Your Toothbrush, so I’ll go with another great meal, all about family and hospitality, coupled with unforgettable food. I lived for a year as an exchange student in Japan…long ago in high school. I keep in touch with my host family, and their house is one of the places I consider “home.” On our last visit, Donny and I were treated to the most amazing spread. There were several types of grilled fish, platters of fresh sashimi, tempura, salads and an assortment of fresh veggies prepared in different ways. My “mama” knows I love octopus, so that was another featured item. There’s nothing like her home cooking, prepared with lots of love. The meal was shared at home by the whole extended family: mother, father, their daughter and her husband and their son, his wife and two young daughters. It was a wonderful reunion after several years of not seeing each other, and a meal we’ll never forget.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
HT: We’ve eaten a few interesting insects (fat-bottomed ants in Colombia, crickets, a paste of baby bees in rural Japan). Those I would eat again. Fried insects are usually crunchy and taste mostly like salt and spices. One not so pleasant memory was the big, squishy bowl of silkworm larvae we were served in South Korea. Our host was so excited for us to try this specialty that we felt we had to make an effort to eat most of them and show we enjoyed them, but the consistency was hard to get through for both of us. That’s one I would only do again if in a similar situation, not a dish either of us would seek out!
D: I think the food that I tried that gets the most sideways looks is zebra. I suppose it’s because most feel like it’s basically a horse. I would certainly try it again. I’d compare it a bit to venison which if you know what you are doing is quite tasty.
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?
HT: Even though we’re the ones who came up with this question, I have to say it’s downright cruel. There are so many cuisines that would be nearly impossible to give up! I have a feeling my answer might change depending on the day, but I guess I’d ultimately have to go with Japanese. There’s so much variety. I love all seafood, and there’s plenty of that, plus lots of fresh vegetables. I love rice in its many forms, and even Japanese sweets are some of my favorites.
D: If I was forced to say one cuisine I’d go with Italian. There is a huge range of ingredients that vary from north to south which provides a great diversity of flavors. Oh and one more thing that seals the deal, PIZZA.