We can learn from our food.
As I assembled photos and descriptions for our recent 2011 travel round-up post, I kept getting distracted. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know me, food was the culprit. I was continually drawn back to memories of unforgettable meals from each country — memories not only of the taste, but to the time, the place, the people.
When I considered these experiences, a few instructive themes emerged.
So what were some of those great meals in 2011? And perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them to take with us into 2012?
Let’s dig in!
Amari Valley, Crete: Go Local
“There’s no menu here. The grandmother just cooks what is fresh on the farm – either recently harvested or recently slaughtered,” our guide offered as we entered a simple mountain village kitchen-cum-restaurant in the Amari Valley on the Greek island of Crete.
Over the course of the next two days, Grandma Kaliope (pictured above) took us on a tour of Cretan mountain cuisine: snails in crushed tomato and garlic sauce, rabbit with artichoke hearts, sheep-stewed Cretan rice, sweet potato fritters and a constellation of small plates too vast to enumerate. Grandma knew how to combine fresh ingredients just so – each played a role, everything had its place.
Cretan snails. Eat them and you’ll get Cretan mountain cred.
Lesson learned: Simplicity and freshness are a powerful combination. You can taste each ingredient to its fullest flavor. What is needed for the dish is there; nothing extraneous needed. An apt lesson for looking at life ingredients.
Istanbul, Turkey: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover
Çiğ köfte is raw meat (beef or lamb) mixed with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices. Our first taste of it was in Berlin, where it was hand-pressed into something that can best be described as turd-like, then tucked into a lettuce leaf. But it wasn’t until we arrived in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul this fall that our love affair with this Turkish snack food really began. It may not look like much when you first see it as a large mound, it may look even less appetizing when it’s spread across durum flatbread, and even less delightful still when hand-pressed into a brown plug. But if it’s done well, it can taste of amazing.
Çiğ köfte smeared onto durumflatbread with greens in waiting. Dazzling.
Lesson learned: Just because something looks like sh*t doesn’t mean it tastes like it. At life’s door, consider leaving the pre-conceived notions.
Tanzania: Manage Your Expectations, Find Pleasant Surprises
When we planned our trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and to go on safari, we didn’t expect the food to be a trip highlight. And for the most part, it was not. But one meal in particular stood out as exceptional — a veritable Tanzanian lunchtime feast served in Mto wa Mbu near Lake Manyara.
The flavors of our Tanzanian feast seemed to match the locally available vegetables and meat just nicely. Indian-influenced banana curry and pilau worked well with beef stew, spinach and the local Tanzanian-style polenta called ugali.
Tanzanian lunch, from start to finish.
Lesson: Manage your expectations, and your delight and disappointment just might find better balance.
Koh Samui, Thailand: Keep Digging, Experimenting
Thai food continues to be one of our all time favorite world cuisines. And we have a list of familiar dishes we just adore. But when we stayed on the island of Koh Samui at the beginning of last year, a friend pushed us to order something random with each new food outing. And with that push, we discovered even greater dimensions of Thai food deliciousness.
Our new favorite? Pla goong – a raw shrimp salad cooked with the heat of lime juice and tossed with lemongrass slices, kaffir lime leaves, and chili peppers. Like a New Year’s Eve party in your mouth. Terrifically fresh.
Lesson: So even if you have favorites, take a risk. Try something different. Pepper your selections with something new, something fresh. This approach can keep you on your toes and remind you that new favorites can only be discovered when you stray from your routine.
Azraq, Jordan: You Don’t Need to Be Fancy to Be Good
After our travels through Jordan, one of our friends at the Jordan Tourism Board asked us about our favorite meal in the country. We’d eaten in so many terrific restaurants and 5-star hotels in Jordan, but I offered a shocking response: a family meal at a home on the edge of the desert in the town of Azraq. Not only was the quality of the food top notch and the dishes unique, but the experience of eating in a Jordanian home firmly seated the experience in my permanent memory.
Click on the photo for an interactive image with all the names and descriptions of dishes.
Lesson: It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. Family style, small plate eating: especially when you are attempting to get to know a cuisine, this is where it’s at.
Bangladesh: What Tools Do You Really Need?
Not only did the Bangladeshi food served to us during our village homestay turn out to be the best in the whole country, but I was humbled by how our host mother was able to churn out such vast quantities of quality food from a simple wood-fired kitchen dug into the mud. She also did absolutely everything by hand.
Imagine what this woman could do with a Viking stove.
Lesson: You don’t need a fancy kitchen to cook kick ass food. A simple pot or pan, a fire, some fresh ingredients and a little bit of love (don’t forget that) is about all you really need.
Makes me wonder what stuff we really need to make a kick-ass life.
Bali: Take a Cooking Class
It’s heartbreaking to witness how booming tourism can take its toll, even on the local cuisine. Bali was one such example where tourist traffic begat cuisine dilution. Many restaurants seemed to serve watered down versions of local dishes or altogether non-local Asian hybrid food just because it was cheap and easy. We were about to give up on Balinese cuisine when we decided to take a Balinese cooking class. Our opinion of and respect for Balinese food changed completely.
Seared tuna with “raw” sambal.
Lesson: Cooking classes offer one of the best routes to a basic understanding of the fundamentals of a cuisine. Same thing goes in life. It’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to get hands on and do it yourself.
Berlin: Seize Your Curiosity, Now
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know we have a love affair with Berlin and its ever-improving food scene. After riding our bikes around our neighborhood of Neukölln for a week, Dan kept noticing a Lebanese hole-in-the-wall cafe that witnessed a constant stream of people coming in and out.
We were intrigued, so we stopped in for lunch one day and and promptly fell in love with the place.
Not only did Azzam serve up fantastic Lebanese food with some of the best hummus and falafel around, but it also featured some unusual yet traditional dishes such as msabaha, a whole chickpea dip, and manaeesh, za’atar and cheese-topped breads. No wonder the Middle Eastern community came in droves.
Msabaha, a warm variation of your standard hummus.
Lesson: Follow your curiosity. Don’t put it off. Just do it. Now.
Tabriz, Iran: If You Want to Break the Ice, Break Bread
After two weeks of a heavy kebab diet in Iran, we were desperately craving vegetables. So when our guide invited us to his home for dinner, he smiled, “Don’t worry, my wife will cook. No kebabs.”
And his wife did not disappoint: vegetable soup and stuffed pepper and quince dolmas with just the perfect spice combination of cinnamon and cumin.
Perhaps even more crucial to our overall experience in Iran: as the meal progressed, the initial formality of meeting new people (we were introduced to the immediate family and their cousins) washed away as everyone sat together on the ground, sharing food and sharing of themselves. As the conversation continued, it moved from food to every other dimension of life in Iran.
So food, the pathway to the stomach, the pathway to the psyche. And food: where simplicity, curiosity and humanity can all find a home. Where great meals are more than just about the food you eat, but about the journey — the people, the experience, the memory and the places firm and far — and what it can teach you about life.
What are some of your greatest meals? And what lessons have they taught you?