Food connects us to our past, to those places we consider “home,” and to new destinations we discover through travel. Food can break down barriers we sometimes encounter while traveling, including language! Sharing a meal is a wonderful way to make new friends. Through our Food for Thought series, we continue to learn about other travelers’ journeys and the role food plays. This week’s interview is with Bryan from The Wandering Gourmand. We first came across Bryan’s blog through his post on reconnecting with family and getting back to his roots via travel. (Of course, food played a major role in this visit.) Bryan’s stories always feel genuine, reflecting his personal experience in a very authentic way. Read on as we chat with Bryan about everything from an unforgettable mean in Munich to his experience studying (and eating) abroad in Ecuador.
Bryan Richards is The Wandering Gourmand. You’re probably picturing a super hero right now with a cool cape, bulging biceps, and underwear on the outside of his tights, but he’s really just your average Joe, hungry and thirsty to learn more about the world. Recently, Bryan left the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing fulltime. He both runs The Wandering Gourmand and is finishing up a fiction novel. Follow his blog to watch the adventure unfold!
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?
A million times yes I agree! Food is a part of who we are. Think back to your upbringing. What was that favorite meal your grandmother prepared for you? What was the dinner staple on your parents’ dining table? And don’t answer Domino’s Pizza! I know some of us may have grown up in the go-go-go lifestyle where food was crammed into our mouths between soccer practice, ballet, music lessons, speech therapy, Cub Scouts, and homework. Most of that food was McDonalds. Suppress those memories for a moment. What was that one meal the entire family would excite over? That’s your family’s culture. Or think about the regional dish where you grew up? Maybe a special festival food or street food. These meals help describe your culture.
Whenever I travel someplace, I want to experience their culture. I want to eat the local cuisine. Drink their beer (anything is better than a Bud Light). Walk their streets. Listen to their music. All of these elements teach us about a region’s culture.
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 grew up in the large Italian community that surrounds Youngstown, Ohio. My Italian grandparents lived three blocks from me. On Thursdays we ate spaghetti and meatballs. Fridays were for pizza and pasta fagioli. Sundays we feasted on spaghetti again (All of these meals were homemade I might add). I don’t even remember restaurants serving anything other than Italian food. To this day, no Italian food I eat compares to the food I grew up with, and I’ve been to some of the best Italian restaurants in Boston and New York. I’m not calling the food in those cities bad. It’s just different. That’s what I love about Italian American cooking. We’re great at adapting. No, it’s not authentic, off-the-boat from Italy food (a blog topic for a different day). It’s making the best tasting food with what you have on hand!
How has travel affected the way you think about food?
Whenever I go somewhere, I strive to eat native – what the locals eat, and when possible, where the locals eat. This has really forced me to challenge norms when it comes to food. For example, why shouldn’t the fish be staring back at me? Or what about breakfasts. Who says it has to be bacon and eggs or cereal? If Pad Thai is eaten for breakfast in Thailand, then by golly I’m eating Pad Thai. And when in Germany, I’m eating cold cuts, cheese, and sausage.
Do you have a technique to try and understand local cuisine? (ie: Attending cooking classes or food tours? Hunting the best street food?)
After my answer to the previous question, I realize that I am going to receive some criticism for this answer. I don’t eat street food outside of the United States. Go ahead and send your nasty comments to me (Email – email@example.com or Twitter – @TheWndrngGrmnd). Most of my trips are only for two weeks. I don’t want to risk getting sick and ruining that hard-earned time-off from work. My technique for understanding local cuisine is through cooking classes. I like to know what goes into the food and why. It also allows you to catch a glimpse at cooking equipment and techniques you’ve never seen before.
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?
It was a brisk early spring evening in Munich. So early that the trees were yet bare. Still, Munchens flung to the streets to celebrate this first break in weather. The beer gardens and sidewalk cafes teamed with life and laughter. My wife and I commandeered a table for two on the sidewalk in front of Paulaner Im Tal. The waiter noticed us from across the sidewalk and asked if we wanted two beers. We nodded in approval. Moments later he arrived with two mugs of Helles. There was no discussion as to the type. This was our welcome beer and only a Helles would do. Its clean finish would open the palette for the feast to come.
I dined on roasted duck with dumplings and red cabbage. The skin of the duck was perfectly crisp and the meat moist. The sauce was a red wine reduction that was ever so sweet, a necessary balance to the salt from the fat of the duck. The cabbage was both sweet and spicy with hints of fragrant cloves. Like many Bavarian dinners, the plate was finished with giant potato dumplings which I never quite understand (Seriously, why are all dinners finished with two boobs staring at your face?). The meal was accompanied with a Bock. I originally ordered the Hefe-Weissbier Dunkel, but was informed by the waiter it was too sweet for the dish. Something with both a strong malt backbone and a crisp finish was necessary. He was right.
As I slowly savored my meal and this first night in Munich, I thought that this very well could be the best meal I have ever eaten on the most perfect evening. It was a treat to experience this first break in weather with the locals before the summer tourists arrived.
What food have you tried in your travels that some might find shocking or surprising? Would you eat it again?
Let me take you back to my college years as I try to relive them yet again. It was the end of my study abroad program in Cuenca, Ecuador. Tales of how delicious cuye (guinea pig) was tantalized many of us throughout the trip. The family I stayed with didn’t have the financial means to afford this national dish of Ecuador, thus cuye evaded me throughout the trip. On the last week of our program, a group of us decided to go out for cuye to Tres Estrellas – Cuenca’s best restaurant for cuye.
We were seated in one of many private rooms that surround the restaurant’s courtyard. The room was bare bones with a basic wooden table and a single light bulb dangling from an exposed wire. All of us except for one student were ordering the cuye. As a “mostly vegetarian”, she was opposed to the barbaric way cuye is killed. Prior to cooking, the animal is suffocated and then placed on a spit – skin, fur, and all – for open flame roasting. I guess that was a little too fresh for her. Instead, she ordered the chicken. We laughed as the chicken escaped, and the chef chased it around the courtyard prior to butchering and cooking…
Back to the cuye. No, it didn’t taste like chicken. It reminded me more of pork. I found it difficult to eat, but not because of the flavor. Guinea pigs are small animals without much meat. You really have to break apart and suck the bones to eat much of the meat making it a quite a messy meal.
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?
Can I say chicken wings? I know that’s not exotic, or even a country, but it’s my dirty little addiction when it comes to food. One day my wife is going to catch me red, er, orange handed. She is going to come home early one evening and find me in the bedroom passed out with orange buffalo sauce caked onto my face and stained all over our crisp white sheets. Diana Krall will be playing in the background as I lay in ecstasy with a deviant grin smudged across my mouth. A littering of bones will be tossed haphazardly around me and our pug will most likely be lying dead from choking on the splinters.
I know this picture is sad, but I just can’t help myself. I am addicted to chicken wings. I could eat them every meal of the day. When I was in Ecuador what I craved most from home wasn’t my Dad’s steaks and homemade wine nor my Grandparents’ homemade spaghetti and meatballs. No, it was chicken wings and an ice cold beer. And it didn’t even have to be good beer. Bush Light would suffice. (As a side note, this doesn’t say a lot for either Ecuador’s quality of beer nor my taste at the time.)