10 Lessons I Learned from My Food Travels
Everyone once in awhile, it’s good to push the plate aside and think about why you’re eating the food heaped on it. Maybe it’s because your scale is begging you to or because you can’t remember the last time you slowed down enough to enjoy a meal that didn’t come from a drive-through window or the microwave oven.
As I look back at my food travels and adventures over the course of my life, I’ve gleamed several lessons. Some are about the food, and some are not. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned (so far) from my culinary adventures around the world:
1. Eating Dinner with an ex-Mobster on the Beach in Phuket, Thailand – Sometimes It’s Better to Shut up and Listen
My wife and I had just completed the 24-hour journey from the United States and arrived in Kamala Beach, a village on the island of Phuket. After scrubbing off the road dirt and catching a few Zs, a “friend of the family” offered to take us to dinner at his favorite restaurant in town – Poo Maa Beachside Restaurant.
A tall, six-foot-something, Italian man, who walked with a limp, arrived on a motor scooter to pick the two of us up. Hmm… the math didn’t add up. After brief introductions, he said that he’d take my wife to the restaurant where his girlfriend was waiting and come back to pick me up. Off she went in her knee, flowing brown dress. And no helmet.
Ten minutes later, he came back for me. I asked if we could stop by an ATM. On the way, he proceeded to tell me that he would be leaving Thailand soon as he owed a couple of million dollars on a real estate development gone badly. I assured him banks were willing to work with faulty loans in the current business climate. He then told me he owed the money to the Thai mafia.
The scooter ride to the ATM just got uncomfortable. Where did he drop off my wife again? Would a ransom be involved?
The restaurant he had chosen, Poo Maa, was an idyllic picture of paradise. It wasn’t just on the beach; our toes were actually in the sand. I feasted on the freshest, tastiest Thai food that has ever hit my taste buds.
While my mouth was busy eating, I sat enthralled by the tales our “friend” was reliving about his mafia days back in Youngstown, running sports books and getting pinched for an apartment full of illegal weapons and drugs (and then there was his deportation from Barbados). In between bites, I took notes for later use in my fiction writing. It’s not every day you get to eat dinner with someone on the lam.
2. Sardines with Grandpa – Don’t be Afraid of Little Slivery Things
So maybe this one isn’t a travel related story, but it’s definitely a lesson learned from food. I was fortunate enough to grow up only a few blocks from my Italian American grandparents who happened to be excellent cooks.
During the summers, I’d often ride my bike over their house for lunch (there’s the travel part…). I would anxiously anticipate what treat I would feast on for lunch – pizza, , calzones, potato pies (all homemade of course).
One day, I sat across from my grandpa as he cracked open a can sardines, while my grandma made me a sandwich (on homemade rolls, mind you) since sardines weren’t children’s food. “Can I try one?” I remember sheepishly asking my grandpa. If he was eating them, they had to be good, right?
With a smile and a chuckle, he said, “Sure!” He then watched as I devoured the entire can. I think I was the only 10-year-old on the block who asked his mom to stalk the pantry with cans of sardines.
Those sardines taught me try everything since you never know you might like.
3. Guinea Pig in Cuenca, Ecuador – Overcoming Food Fears
It was the end of my study abroad program in Cuenca, Ecuador. Tales of how delicious cuy (guinea pig) was tantalized me throughout the trip. Somehow, the national dish of Ecuador eluded me though. On the last week of our program, a group of us decided to go out for cuy at Tres Estrellas – Cuenca’s best restaurant for cuy.
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 ordered the cuy.
As a “mostly vegetarian,” she was opposed to the barbaric way cuy is killed. Prior to cooking, the animal is suffocated and then placed on a spit – skin, fur, and all – for open flame roasting. 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 cuy. 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.
I’m not going lie and say I wasn’t nervous. Cuy was by far the most exotic thing I’d eaten since sitting on my grandpa’s lap and snacking on sardines. Over the years, I’d lost my adventurous eating tendencies. Cuy helped bring them back.
4. Cooking in Tuscany, Italy – It’s Important to Slow Down and Enjoy a Meal
“No, no, no, like this,” Terenzio corrected me. “You went to college, right? Roll it like a joint.”
It was the final cooking class of our weeklong culinary tour of Tuscany, and I was struggling to roll my portion of picci, Tuscany’s traditional handmade pasta. Another couple joined us for the class, and together we prepared Picci with Garlic Sauce and Scottiglia, a combination of mixed meats.
Over the course of a few hours, we kneaded, rolled, and divided the dough. Then we cut the mounds into strips and rolled them into thick, long noodles. The trick was to lightly roll and finesse the noodles instead of forcing the shape – like rolling a joint. It was a group effort between the students, instructors, and staff from Relais Ortaglio.
All the while, the meat simmered in a tomato sauce – rabbit, chicken, veal, beef, turkey, and lamb. The dish, much like life in Italy, was meant to be enjoyed with the company of others. Together, we lingered over each course, each bite, each sip of wine – piling on seconds and acting like the calorie counter didn’t exist in Tuscany.
At least my wife and I did. The other couple finished each course before the rest of us, pushing their plate away when asked for seconds and covering their glasses when offered more wine. They had an early rise the next day to continue their morning jogging ritual before heading off to the next stop on their Tuscan checklist.
What’s the point of visiting Tuscany and taking a lesson in slow cooking if you can’t try living the slow life? Of spending hours hand-rolling noodles only to race through dinner, knowing the morning wake-up call is looming in the distance?
5. Roasted Pork Belly Paired with a Rauchbier in Bamberg, Germany – Beer Pairs Just as Well with Food as Wine
We arrived into Bamberg later than planned as we overslept were hungover after a wild night at Starkbierfest in Munich. We checked into our hotel and were famished having only eaten a buttered pretzel all day. The receptionist recommend Kachelofen for a glimpse at the local Franconian cuisine.
The restaurant was charming with blue and white checkered table clothes and dark wood walls. This wasn’t a beer tavern but an authentic German restaurant. Each table was delicately finished with a candle and yellow flower. The place was so quaint that halfway through dinner another couple sat with us. While we didn’t speak each other’s language, we exchanged smiles and Prosts.
I feasted on roasted pork belly with sauerkraut and potato dumplings. The meat was succulent, falling apart with the touch of my fork, and the fat was perfectly crisp. The waiter suggested I pair the dish with an original Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Well, he didn’t as much suggest but deliver when I shook my head yes to his question, “Bier?”
In a town that honors beer and breweries like the United States is finally doing, the waiter knew only one drink should be served with that dish – and it wasn’t wine. Anything but a Rauchbier would have been lost to the savory of the pork belly. It was like the chef designed the dish with that beer in mind –something traditionally done more with wine.
6. First Meal in Cape Town, South Africa – Food Can Draw People Together
Good food and good wine has the ability to unite. To bring people together who otherwise might not be friends due to age, socio-economic, or other life differences. Happy taste buds and uplifted souls draw smiles to our faces that engage others by breaking barriers and inviting both laughter and conversation.
Our first meal in Cape Town did just that.
We were by far the youngest participants on our African Culinary Adventure. It was a difference that I was somewhat expecting due to the higher costs associated with a safari, but not to the extent that played out in the group’s demographics.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I get along fine with my parents and their friends down in The Villages (I’m refraining from using the term “elders”). I just wasn’t sure I would want to go on vacation with them. Especially not a safari in Africa.
It only took a few sips for the wine to break the ice and conversation to pick up. Like a young person trying out a church for the first time, Mrs. G. and I were the hit of the show. Our older tour mates all wanted to know our story, especially when they learned that I was a writer.
Our appetizer was an assortment of biltong, South Africa’s version of jerky. In traditional biltong, strips of meat – typically beef but wild game is also used – are cured in vinegar and spices (salt, pepper, coriander, and brown sugar) and then dried in a cool environment over a couple of days.
Dinner was an assortment of traditional Cape Malay kabobs that Chef Sidney had prepared. The first was lamb belly skewered with slices of peach and grilled with a glaze of peach preserve. The heat from the grill seared the meat sealing in the delicious, fatty juices from the lamb and the preserves added a layer of sticky caramelization that delivered a unique texture to the succulent meat.
The second kabob was traditional sosaties of beef and pork marinated in vinegar, apricot preserves, and Cape Malay curry spices and skewered with slices of apricot and onion. The sosaties were as good as they sound and have been a crowd pleaser at parties back home.
The fun of the dinner was comparing what we all thought of a cuisine that was so different than anything most of us were used to and discussing the nuances of wine from a country that’s often written off as a lesser of the new world wine countries.
Our camaraderie continued to develop with each winery visit and each meal as we pushed our own culinary comfort zone and tried various game like oryx (best as a BBQ steak), springbok (awesome as a roasted shank), and kudo (not so good for biltong). And also from Chef Sidney’s prodding that Mrs. G. and I could learn a great many lessons from our new older and wiser friends.
7. Dinner at a Cava Bar in Barcelona, Spain – Why I Prefer Authentic Food to Michelin Stars
In a city of fine Michelin Star restaurants and some of the most creative food artistry in the world, a friend and I set out for dinner in Barcelona. Our mission? To taste something as creative as Gaudi’s architecture.
Those plans were derailed when we walked past El Xampanyet and saw the crowd of locals that spilled into the street. We knew this was dinner.
There was nothing fancy about the bar. Tiles that looked like something out of a Spanish grandmother’s kitchen covered the walls. The pictures all looked dated, as did the marble tabletops and zinc bar. Yet, the crowd still crammed into the close quarters so tightly that at one point someone nudged our table trying to squeeze by and sent one of our plates careening to the ground.
Miraculously, we found a table and asked the waiter to deliver tapas until we told him to stop. The food wasn’t the fine cuisine we were seeking but the atmosphere elevated the meal to one that I would recommend for an authentic Barcelona treat. In fact, I would recommend it over the many fancier restaurants in town. Why? Because it was authentic. With the crowd of locals, this was where Barcelona came to eat.
8. Eating Worms in Windhoek, Namibia – Sometimes It’s Important to Release Your Inner Culinary Child
It’s funny how a bowl of fried mopane worms can make a dinner table full of adults giggle like schoolchildren. As the bowl passed around the table at Xwama, a restaurant in Windhoek, Namibia featuring traditional dishes, taunts of “you eat one” were followed by retorts of “no, you eat one.”
It seemed like everyone had succumbed to playground antics of daring one another to stick their tongues on a metal flagpole. I think that I even heard a, “I double dog dare you…”
When the bowl finally made its way to me, there was no hesitation. No taunt was necessary. I quickly popped one of the worms into my mouth and bit down.
It was crunchy, chewy, and spicy all at once. Eating worms made me feel like a kid all over again and evoked a curiosity into what other insects taste like.
9. Dinner in Westvleteren, Belgium – The Romance of Beer
As much as the previous mentioned dinner in Bamberg taught me that beer could pair equally as well with food as wine, it didn’t wipe away the romantic notion of pairing wine with food that I still held in my head.
There is a vast difference between watching a waiter present the wine bottle, uncork it in front of you, pour a splash for inspection, and serve the table, and setting a full glass of beer in front of you.
In Westvleteren, Belgium, I learned that beer could be romantic, too, when equipped with the proper presentation. All throughout my journeys in Belgium, but especially in Westvleteren, the servers took extra care with choosing the proper stemware, achieving the proper pour, and placing the bottle alongside the beer for presentation. Also, the last ounce or two of unfiltered beer is left in the bottle. When you reach the final quarter of your glass, the server returns to pour in the last splash filled with yeasty nutrients.
Since Belgium, Mrs. G and I have enjoyed beer more often with date night dinners at home than wine. Why? Because beer often pairs better, and we’ve figured out how to add the romanticism to the barley.
10. A Culinary Adventure in the Loire Valley, France – The Importance Knowing Where Your Food Came From
When I arrived in the Loire Valley, I was welcomed with what Chefs Sidney and Allison Bond described as a traditional French market dinner.
“It’s nothing fancy. Just stuff we picked up at the farmer’s market today. I hope it’s enough to eat. Are you hungry?” asked Sidney in his distinct South African accent.
I was famished. All I had eaten that day was a rather pathetic looking bocadillo jamón on the train from Barcelona. It did little to tide my hunger, but I wasn’t worried. Having traveled to Africa with the Bonds, I already knew that Sidney was being modest on our pending dinner. It was most likely a feast to acclimate us to the best of French Cuisine, and, in particular, the Loire Valley in which he is so proud to call home.
Spread out on the long wooden table was an assortment of local cheeses, rouillons (a Touraine slow cooked pork belly), duck rillettes with fig chutney, a local pork saucisson with chestnuts, and duck liver mousse with port jelly. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I’m ashamed to admit that I had heard of very few of these treats, but was eager to roll up my sleeves and dive in to the salty, savory, and sweet spreads and confits. Each was a new flavor adventure.
To supplement the heartier dishes, the Bonds served a farm fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and radishes with a homemade raspberry vinaigrette alongside Allison’s sourdough bread. I’m a regular at my local farmer’s market, and still my mind was blown by the freshness of the vegetables. They didn’t even need the vinaigrette. I thought back to the green fields we passed on the way in and was reminded why many consider the Loire Valley to be the breadbasket of France. For dessert, Allison prepared passionfruit crème brûlée.
This was anything but a humble farmer’s dinner. Or maybe it was? Maybe this is the way we should be eating? Produce fresh from the farm next door. Cheese from a village that’s been producing it for over a thousand years to the point of perfection. Mushrooms that were foraged from the wild just yesterday. Wine from a vineyard passed weekly on the way to the market. Food that you know where it came from.