The Ways of a Traveling Eater

In the eyes of three food monthlies, May is the month to travel -- or at the very least, develop an appetite for it.

Readers of Bon Appetit will find a "Where to Eat Now" issue, with longer features on what's cooking in Istanbul, Shanghai and Sydney. In Food & Wine, the focus is on wanderlust dining, with a lengthy "Go List: The World's Best Restaurant Guide," covering eateries at all price points in 40 cities near and far.

And this month's Gourmet boasts a "Global Guide to Food at the Source," a hodgepodge mixture of armchair-style, gastro-vignettes from several corners around the world, both well-traveled and obscure, decadent and humble.

It's hardly a new phenomenon to find travel content in food magazines or vice versa, but over the past few years, the content crossover has reached a crescendo, sometimes making a travel magazine indistinguishable from a food magazine.

As a professional eater who'd rather be on the road than at home, I'm hardly complaining. I love learning about new places through travel stories, and if there's mention of local food and drink, I'm in armchair heaven.

All this got me thinking: Do I travel to eat? Or do I eat to travel? My preference is to do the former.

As a traveling eater, I better understand how people make sense of the world, when I see up close the fruit picked from trees and sold on the road or how breakfast is defined. When I travel to eat, I inhale the local perfumes -- of a freshly cut papaya, of a fish just pulled from the sea or whatever is coming out of the bakery oven. My music is the sound of coconut palms, breadfruit roasting and the crack of a nutmeg's outer shell.

When I travel to eat, I am a student of culture, past and present. And through my appetite, I get the best view of all.

Of course, eating to travel is not without its merits. Those travel articles feed my ever-hungry wanderlusting appetite, giving reason to plan a new destination, replenish the travel reserves or sometimes, escape from a day at the office.

I know, there so many other reasons that people travel -- art, architecture, animals, history, religion, sports -- to name just a few, but for me, when I think of place, I think of food. For me, travel is not about buildings and monuments, but pots and pans, the sizzle of cooking oil, the heat of a brick oven and the people who bring those sights, smells and sounds to life.

I'm very fortunate, having traveled to at least 17 countries since the age of 14, and dipped my transit toe in at least five others. Below, a sampling of the places I've gone, and the food that makes them special.

I remember the strangeness of eating apple strudel and the weiner schnitzel in the African desert town of Swakopmund, Namibia, which I learned was a hub for German exiles, and an oasis of home-style German vittles.

Forget the incredible array of seafood; what I remember about Greece is the best peach of my life.

On Eleuthera, an Out Island of the Bahamas, I remember the grapefruits placed every morning at the front door of my cottage by Mr. Duckworth, the innkeeper, and cooking up a just-pulled-out-of-the-sea hog snapper that evening, seasoning it with those grapefruits.

In Jamaica, it was all about the bananas, which I couldn't get enough of, and an introduction to road-side jerk chicken and a plate of pigeon peas and rice.

In South Africa, it was a boiled sheep's head passed around in a pot in Soweto, washed down with a bottle of Castle lager, the most wonderful boxed juices of flavors that I thought only existed in my dreams, the most incredible oranges, peri peri sauce, the most fiery pepper sauce I've ever grown to love, learning to make pap, a porridge made from cornmeal and drinking amazing wine for next to nothing.

In Uganda, it was the enormous papayas and passion fruit big enough to scoop into with a spoon for breakfast; and wild (not farmed) tilapia, grilled whole, with fries.

In Italy, the ultimate living classroom of gastronomy, it was among many things, learning to cook with lardo, how to season with salt, making risotto, eating duck and goat salami, making time for an afternoon espresso and drinking blood orange juice for breakfast.

Share your favorite eating tales from the road in the comments area below, or the destinations on your to-go, to-eat list.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 2, 2007; 11:12 AM ET Travel
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Comments

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I did a year of university in Jerusalem in the early 70's. I haven't had a piece of fruit since that tasted as good; I thin it has to do with the distance the fruit has to travel to get to market here. And the rolls and butter we got for breakfast every morning -- ahhh!

Posted by: Mel | May 2, 2007 12:10 PM

I too have been lucky enough to do some traveling and eating, and one memory sprang immediately to mind. Staying with an old schoolfriend of my mother's in Italy, one morning I picked kumquats off the tree growing next to my balcony and ate them as I stood in the sun, which warmed them and me.

Posted by: SwissMiss | May 2, 2007 12:13 PM

I grew up in Belgium, so I have wonderful memories of gauffres (hot belgian waffles sold on the street), moules et frites, elaborate marzipan creations, crepes and of course chocolates you would not believe.

Posted by: Claire | May 2, 2007 1:31 PM

I second Belgium, and offer Amsterdam where I had amazing falafel and wonderful vegan Indonesian food. And those frites in a cone with that artery clogging mayo! Heavenly. (Oh and Amsterdam Falafelshop on 18th is quite good too!)

Posted by: Adams Morgan | May 2, 2007 1:58 PM

As a childhood spent mostly in Europe (military brat) I fondly remember fresh Brochen and wurst at the local swimming pool, schnitzel and spaetzle at the local pub/bistro, goulash in the alps after a long day of skiing, snack sized wursts at the Nurnburg x-mas market, salt and sugar on popcorn, and wonderful ice cream and chocolates.

Posted by: 21117 | May 2, 2007 2:41 PM

Oh, and spicy mustard and fries served with paprika instead of salt.

Posted by: 21117 | May 2, 2007 2:42 PM

Kim,

I am strictly an armchair traveller. I can only imagine the gastronomic delights that I am missing.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | May 2, 2007 3:00 PM

Hot, sweet mint tea served with almond crescents at the casbah in Rabat, Morocco - I felt like I was in a fairy tale.

Posted by: Karen | May 2, 2007 3:28 PM

Growing up military, it took me years to realize that everyone else didn't remember vacations by the food--Ireland's amazing salmon, Belgium's chocolate, the pig heads in the Korean markets of Seoul, Peking duck in China with the head on the plate to prove its authenticity...I learned to be culinarily adventurous very early on. Now I page through the Istambul section in this month's Bon Apetit and remember the smells of the souks and wish for the best hummus I'd ever tasted in my life.

Posted by: afbrat95 | May 2, 2007 4:24 PM

I can relate to what "Mel" said about Israel. I was fortunate to have a business trip to Tel Aviv and breakfast each day was awesome. From the freshest fruit I have ever had (in a hotel), to the wonderful cheeses, yogurt, and veggies. To me that is a reason to visit Israel again.

Also, we visited New Zealand earlier this year. Each afternoon our bus driver would stop for ice cream ... wonderful, creamy (and probably full of fat) and delicious.

Posted by: peapod | May 2, 2007 4:27 PM

i posted this story on the travel blog & i'll post it here: an elderly relative & his brother traveled europe on their own. they were gone a month & when they got back they bragged that they managed to find & eat a macdonalds everywhere they went. i was horrified. the food opportunities that they missed! small bistro & cafes where good food is not expensive. fast food in europe is not cheap so they probably spent more than they would have if they had tried some small family resturant.

russia - the best beet salad (i hate beets) in the world.
ireland - lamb chops that melted in my mouth.

Posted by: quark | May 2, 2007 5:13 PM

hi kim
i've been to grand turk, in the turks and caicos, and there i had the best key lime pie the world has ever known, as well as (this was pre-vegetarian) conch and escagot. i have never traveled to eat (because i cannot travel on my own), but i frequently eat when i am traveling. in fact, i always do.
love
hallie

Posted by: hallie s. | May 2, 2007 7:39 PM

Kim's blog reminds us that food is such a wonderful part of traveling. It's the balm when things go wrong and the reward when things go right. Some of my favorites: cheese blintzes in Lithuania. Fresh raspberries from the central market in Kiev. Wurst in Germany. Crepes in Paris. And most recently, fabulous desserts in Ireland.

Posted by: Somerville | May 2, 2007 8:52 PM

Somerville is right about Ireland and desserts.... We had the most fabulous Bailey's Irish Cream cake at a hotel in Dublin.....yummmmm...now I must go back!

Posted by: Brenda | May 2, 2007 9:09 PM

Wandering around Hong Kong the day we arrived - intent on finding a dim sum restaurant. We were waved into one and discovered the joys of point and gesture ordering for a fabulous meal. Waking up to breakfast at a youth hostel in Stockholm - soft-boiled eggs, toast, herring and orange juice. Our first Stockholm 'dinner' - fresh off of the plane just dropped off the bags at the hostel to find a convenience store and grab a quart of drinking yogurt, a baguette, some sliced meat and some soft creamy cheese. And most recently, munching on yellow bell peppers chips and homemade hummus and Naked drinks as we took a many day road trip in Texas/New Mexico.

Posted by: Jen - MSP | May 2, 2007 10:30 PM

Even though I've done most of my travelling in the US, I also love to find the local flavors. BBQ is just one example on how tastes vary in our own country.

Posted by: rmh | May 2, 2007 10:31 PM

I'm Israeli so *of course* I agree with what everyone's saying about Israel ... but when we Israelis want a weekend trip, we go to Turkey. In the evening, a couple hours after arriving on our most recent trip, my fiance and I found a side street joint where the shopkeepers go to eat off of plastic tables and watch soccer. Pide, lamb, kebabs, salad, eggplant, pilaf ... Mmmmm. We must have ordered one of everything. On another trip to Turkey we found a place where they didn't speak any English, so we of little shame ordered by drawing a picture of a cartoon lamb. And of course, Istanbul is the place to buy saffron and lokum (Turkish Delight) ... I'm making myself restless and hungry!

Posted by: LK | May 3, 2007 2:58 AM

Last year I rented a room from a wonderful family in Dubrovnik, Croatia. On one of my last days with them, the father caught fresh calamari and eel from the Adriatic and grilled them on their roof that night. Grilled fish, pomegranate wine and lemon poached potatoes. And for dessert mandarin oranges from their tree. To die for.

Posted by: Becca | May 3, 2007 8:10 AM

I had the BEST tomato soup in a little pub in Northern Ireland.

In france I remember picking up a bag of chocolate crossiants and strawberries and strolling down the Seine River.

I miss lazy mornings in Greece with THICK greek yogourt with honey, fresh fruit and an iced coffee.

I could go on...but now I'm getting hungry!!
In Mexico I love the bunuelos that are almost fried in a caramel sauce and then scooped into a plastic bag so you have to reach your entire arm in there (it gets nice and sticky) to pull out the delicous sweetness.

Posted by: MM | May 3, 2007 10:19 AM

Rmh, I'm with you on USA local flavors. Each area has their own way of doing things. I find the best way to find out is to seek out what looks like local non-chain restaurants and ask the waiters what's fresh and local or to ask the hotel front desk where they like to eat. The best bluefish I ever ate was on Ocracoke island. It was the "special of the day" and I swear it was swimming earlier that day. I think I ate seafood or fish at every meal when we were on Rt. 12. (Great motorcycle road trip, btw).

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | May 3, 2007 10:44 AM

When we were young and poor and living on the edge, on our way home from Munich, we had about $5 between us (credit cards already charged to the max) and were stuck one night at the train station in Trier. We were hungry and tired and contemplating having to sleep in the train station. Lucky for us, there was a great little place across the street selling doner kebabs in a pita for about a dollar. I honestly think that may have been the best meal I've ever eaten. We sat on the steps of the train station and ate our doner kebabs looking at the night sky and felt nourished and content and ready for whatever would happen next.

Another good train station meal was in Bath, England. Spike's across from the terminal has some of the best mushy peas in a styrofoam cup you will ever taste in your life.

I don't usually make habit of eating near train stations but in these instances, I'm so glad I did. I remember a place less by what I saw or what I did but more by what I ate.

Posted by: anonymous | May 3, 2007 11:01 AM

Help! A co-worker is going to Tuscany in a few weeks. I've got a little cash to send with him for a culinary treasure. What non-perishable items should I ask for? He knows what a fan I am and is willing to bring me something back. So, please if you have any ideas, let me know.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | May 3, 2007 2:47 PM

Hello Kim

A few food memories from a lifetime of travel:

Fruit in Hunza. The end-of-season fruit is called (I think) lutku; the peaches and apricots were tiny and delicious.
Dinner in a private dining room at Antoine's in New Orleans (I was a guest, that's how I wound up there): Brown turtle soup, oysters rockefeller, tournedo with red wine sauce, baked alaska, and French wines.
Dinner at the Savoy, during the reign of Mr. Trompetto, a remarkable chef: I requested his signature meal, mousseline of sole in lobster sauce, selle de veau prince orloff, glazed fruit for the enremets, then lemon souffle, followed by cheese & digestifs -- I drank Izarra Vert, my father drank old cognac (he was a brandy snob, opining that nothing drinkable had been laid down after 1895!).
Dim sum at the Shamrock on Nathan Road in Hong Kong.
The sticky savoury things made for breakfast in Bangkok. And in the same city, wonderful seafood curries in unpretentious restaurants.
Mangoes: Though I live in Hawaii, the best were in Bangkok (the flattish yellow ones) Pakistani mangoes bought in Singapore, and in Dharamsala huge mangoes from Kotwali Bazar.
Also in Singapore, otak-otak in the basement food court of a huge department store on Orchard Road.
Bali, wonderful seafood at the Lotus in Ubud, a very long time ago. Dunno whether it's still good. I recall sittiing with Rani, who had started the restaurant, discussing pasta. Somehow we began talking about basil with tomato concasse. Rani went into the kitchen, talked to the cooks, and fifteen minutes later, out came a dish of fresh pasta in which basil had been incorporated; after tasting, we agreed that the basil wasn't sufficiently noticeable, so she asked for another batch with twice as much basil. It was perfect, and the concasse was the ideal accompaniment.
In a simple restaurant outside Ubud, delish rendang.
On an island near Sydney, irresistible shrimp on the barbie (I was on a press junket!).
In Istanbul, daily lunches at the first of the two very nice restaurants on the lane beside the mosque on Istiklal in Beyoglu, lovely olive-oil vegs including an enormous artichoke heart, served intact, wonderful lamb, freshly grilled fish, followed by fruit compote with clotted cream made from buffalo milk.
I suppose I should shut up now. There's so much more, but I'm sure your readers are either bored or envious.

Oh well.

David L

Posted by: Anonymous | May 3, 2007 4:40 PM

To chime in - In the Loire Valley in France, I had the best "cantalope" I've ever eaten. In Lund, Sweden, the most amazing venison with berries (and I didn't eat game). In Brussels and on the Belgian coast, the best moules/frites, fabulous baguettes and epis, and chocolate. In Berlin, amazing street food of doner kebab and potato pancakes with applesauce. In all of these places, the food was sourced locally, and prepared with wonderful lack of pretense.

Posted by: Francophile | May 3, 2007 5:45 PM

I had the most fabulous appetizer in a little bistro in Gengenbach, a picturesque village at the edge of the Black Forest in Germany--it's called Flammekuchen, and just across the border in France, Tarte Flambe', a type of "pizza", if you will, with an ultra-thin crust and topped with creme fraiche, bacon, onions, then run under the broiler. Thank God I was able to find the recipe on the web so I can make it back home. Also, the curry wurst served at Schnell Imbiss (quick snack) stands with a petite crusty roll to mop up the curry sauce was a memorable treat. I can hardly wait to go back in September!

Posted by: Rebecca in VA. | May 4, 2007 9:21 AM

Chile is not known for its food, but I found that everything--produce, meat, eggs, seafood--was of such good quality there that it simply didn't need any complicated preparation to be wonderful. There is nothing better than being able to buy avocados from a roadside stand, knowing that they came off one of the trees growing all around you.

Posted by: Mary | May 5, 2007 3:05 PM

Just came back to reread the posts...

Chile? My sole memory is from the simple restaurants on the waterfront in Valparaiso, eating a truly delicious abalone dish called chupe de locos, washed down with a half-bottle of excellent Chilean white wine.

Posted by: David L | May 8, 2007 4:33 PM

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