As the Food for Thought interview series continues, we learn more about other travelers’ journeys, and the role food plays. Each new interview confirms our belief that food is one of the best ways to experience a culture more deeply. In our travels, we’ve come to realize how important discovering, eating, and sometimes even making local dishes is to understanding local culture. Food has a way of bringing people together, and we hope talking about it will have that effect as well! A new installment of Food for Thought is published each Friday. This week’s interview is with Steph and Tony from 20 Years Hence. We discovered their blog recently, and are so happy we did. A blog with great writing and excellent photography is a powerful combination and this dynamic couple has both of those bases covered. We’ve been following their travels through Asia, drooling along the way. They’re currently in Sri Lanka, which is high on our list of “really want to get there soon” destinations! Their posts on where and what to eat always leave us hungry, and Tony’s food photography will leave you wanting more. Even more recently, to our pleasant surprise, we found that they too have a food-oriented interview series, Chewing the Fat. It’s full of food stories, memories, tips and more, so be sure to check it out!
Meet Steph and Tony
Steph & Tony are a writer and photographer duo in their early 30s. Prior to leaving on their Big Trip, they lived in Nashville, TN where Steph was working on her PhD in Psychology and Tony was working as a graphic & web designer. From their very first trip together, they have let their stomachs guide them, and their goal is to eventually eat their way around the world and still be able to fit into non-elasticized pants when they are done. They have been traveling full-time through Asia (with eventual plans to conquer the rest of the globe) since August 2012, and blog about their adventures over at 20 Years Hence, which is all about sharing stories, forming deeper connections with the world and its people and food, and living life boldly, without regrets.
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?
Steph: Well, for me personally, I think this is true, but that’s because I’m passionate about food. I love that you can taste a culture or a country’s history in a single bite, and I think that in so many places, life revolves around two things: family & food. BUT, I think it would be short-sighted to claim that the only way to really know a culture is through food, although I certainly think it’s one of the best ways. I think you can learn an awful lot about a place through its artistic traditions, whether that’s music, literature, or the visual arts. But one thing I definitely think is true is that nothing brings people together like food. Sitting down with locals and sharing a stories and food is one of the best ways to fast track your understanding of a place and give you memories you’ll always cherish.
Tony: In principle I agree. I think that food is an important part of every culture and if you don’t try the local food then you will miss a portion of that place. I don’t think that it’s absolutely critical to eat local when you travel, but I have a hard time imaging how you can have a complete picture of any people or place without trying the 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?
Steph: This is really tough, in part because I don’t really know where I consider my home to be anymore! If we use the place where I grew up and spent my formative years, Toronto, that’s hardly a help because it’s such an ethnically diverse city and so I ate food from all over the world. To be honest, when I think of home, I think of being able to have any food I want!
(But if I had to pick the most quintessentially “Toronto” food that I can think of, I’d have to go with a hot dog, freshly grilled from one of the city’s many street carts. They are dirt cheap, can be loaded up with pretty much any topping you can think of (sauerkraut and bacon bits, anyone?) and are so good, it’s unreal.)
Tony: It’s hard for me identify a single food that I identify with home because the U.S. is such a diverse country and I’ve lived and traveled through so much of it. But I suppose I would say that the foods I would think of with respect to this question would be the foods that I can’t get when I’m traveling, which would be: good whiskey (specifically, bourbon), real barbecue, and—to some extent—a really good hamburger! These are all distinctly “American” things and they are just not done as well anywhere else!
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Steph: I’ve always been interested in global cuisine, but traveling has made me even more excited and passionate about food. Since leaving on our trip, I’m pretty certain I’ve had the best meals of my life and it’s been so fantastic to visit so many places where food is such an important part of the culture and daily life.
One thing that traveling in Asia has definitely taught me that good food doesn’t require fancy ingredients and doesn’t have to be expensive—I used to really enjoy splurging on fussy & posh meals, but now that I know the joy a simple 70¢ sandwich at the side of the road in Vietnam or a $1 plate of curry & rice eaten as cars whizz by in Thailand can bring, I can’t imagine returning to the days of the $200 dinner; it just doesn’t appeal.
Tony: For me the biggest thing is that I’m now convinced that the best way to do food is to keep it simple, whether that means staying away from fussy food, or just going to places that only do one or two dishes, which is pretty much the norm in Asia. I really don’t need fussy or fancy meals, I just want bold flavors and straightforward cooking that’s powered by passion. There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down to a simple dish with clean flavors where every element has been executed perfectly—there’s nowhere for a mistake to hide, all the flavors have to work together, and the importance of getting every element exactly right can’t be understated or outmatched.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
Steph & Tony: Mostly we just try to eat everything in sight! We spend a lot of time wandering around markets because if we’ve learned one thing in Asia, it is that wherever there’s a market, there is food. We’ve also generally learned to follow our noses—if we’re walking by a shop or cart and catch a whiff of something that smells good, we’ll stop whatever we’re doing and give it a taste. Bonus points if there are lots of locals eating there too (if we get lucky, one of them might chat with us and tell us a bit about what we’re eating!).
We have taken a few cooking classes that have market tours in some of the countries where we have really enjoyed the food and those have been quite fun & educational too. But rather than “hands on” experience, we prefer “mouth in” experiences!
We haven’t done any formal food tours, however, we have done a fair bit of CouchSurfing during our travels, and every host we’ve stayed with has turned into an impromptu dining guru who guides us through the best foods in their city/country and explains a bit about them to us. Whether it’s been ginger duck hot pot or hole-in-the-wall breakfast crepes with soy milk, these food crawls have always been delicious and generally resulted in meals we never would have discovered on our own!
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?
Steph: We’ve had so many incredible meals, this is really difficult to choose. Do I pick a meal that was incredible in its own right, or a special occasion that was accompanied by great food?
Limiting it to our travels, I think I would pick any of the meals that we shared with our CouchSurfing host Glorina when we were in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. She was an excellent cook and actually brought me into the kitchen so that I could learn some of her favorite meals. She actually taught me how to make pasta from scratch, something I had always been too intimidated to try before, and then she whipped it up into an incredible stir fry with pork and fresh veggies. Her battered eggplant and liver dishes were also a thing of beauty, and I loved that everything she made was full of flavor but still relatively simple and easy to prepare. By using fresh, local ingredients, you didn’t have to do much to make every bite a delight. Not only was the food fantastic and cooked with love, but the company was really incredible. There is something so wonderful about not just being invited into someone’s home, but into their kitchen as well!
Tony: For me, this would be the meal we shared in Banbanan in the Philippines with our new friend and boat captain Apo’s family. Not only was it one of the best meals that we had in the country, but seeing the time and care and excitement that his family put into preparing the meal for us meant that I would have enjoyed the meal no matter how it tasted! Together we ate stewed pangolin, chicken adobo (the national dish of the Philippines), grilled fish, curried pumpkin, and mountains of rice. I’m pretty sure that his family used up a week’s worth of food on feeding us that night and so I’ll never forget their generosity. It was a meal prepared with love and a true example of sharing, and I will always treasure it.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Steph: We’re fairly adventurous eaters, so we’ve eaten a whole range of bizarre foods in our travels. I’d say that the one food that still ranks up there as weirdest is probably Pangolin (see Tony’s answer above!), which we ate in the Philippines. Normally this would be on our “don’t eat” list as not only is it adorable, but it’s also endangered! (The pangolin is a type of anteater that is prized for its scales—which are believed to have medicinal properties—and sweet meat.) It was served to us at a homestay in the Philippines so there was no way we could refuse. I felt extra guilty because it was actually really delicious! I enjoyed it as best I could because I know I’ll never knowingly eat it again if I can avoid it—I’m an equal opportunity eater, but there’s enough non-endangered sources of protein on the planet that I don’t need to obliterate a species.
Tony: Since I already mentioned pangolin, I’ll pick one of the other bizarre things we’ve eaten (of which there are many!) and go with buffalo brain. This was actually entirely accidental—we were eating dinner at a restaurant in Bhaktapur, Nepal and the staff asked us if we wanted to try a few dishes that they had prepared specially for Dewali. We’re always game for this kind of thing so we happily accepted. They brought out a platter of various meats and directed us to try specific ones. The first one we popped into our mouths was very creamy and tasted a bit like liver; we initially thought it was sweetbreads (which we’ve had before), but were soon informed that we had just eaten brain! We have a “no central nervous system” policy when it comes to food, but this one slipped by us. They followed up the brain with tongue, which they obviously hoped would shock us, but we have long known the joys of eating tongue (try it in a taco—it’s delicious!) and it certainly didn’t disturb us the way that brain did! Although the brain didn’t taste bad, I don’t think I would willingly eat it again. There are just too many risks involved.
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?
Steph: This question is not fun at all! I’m one of those people who can’t eat the same thing more than 2 days in a row, so I’d have to pick a country whose cuisine is fairly diverse…
I think if I had to pick just one country, it would be Vietnam. It’s one of my all time favorite food countries, and I love that the dishes are all light and relatively healthy, but so full of flavor. They put such an emphasis on contrasting textures and using so many fresh herbs, every bite is always so bright and multidimensional. Plus, they have baguettes and sandwiches, so I could indulge my sandwich cravings guilt-free every so often! What’s nice too is that they have a lot of regional dishes and even standard things like pho change as you move throughout the country, so I don’t think I would get bored. The only thing Vietnam does NOT have, which would definitely be a problem, is dumplings… but I’d be so busy eating everything else that hopefully I wouldn’t have time (or space in my stomach!) to notice.
Tony: Since Steph has already chosen Vietnamese and I could share off of her plate, I would choose Malaysia. In terms of delicious flavors, diversity of dishes and influences, Malaysia is hard to beat. I could have Chinese dishes, Indian dishes, incredible Halal food, traditional Malay dishes, and anything in between and be very very happy. The only thing I’d be missing is sandwiches (murtabaks come close, but aren’t quite right), but I’m sure I could trade Steph some dumplings for a few banh mi sandwiches!