Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travel by food

The popularity of food-related travel media - and vice versa, travel-related food media - is huge. I feel like it's really boomed in recent decades, far beyond the traditional settings of the home and the restaurant where food was once singularly based.

And how could it not? Food is so deeply and intricately tied into our culture, our history, and our identities. Once you start looking into different cuisines, you cannot avoid the influence of place and time and people. You know that old saying, you can escape on a great adventure with a good book? I would say the same with food.

Food celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Rick Stein, and Luke Nguyen (I think he's slightly less renowned on the global scales but still very famous and one of my personal favourites), have made it trendy and edgy by travelling to exotic places and eating local fare on the streets side-by-side with the people that cooked it. Nowadays you can visit entire museums or join city tours that have only food as its main feature. But at its core, I feel that food at its most authentic and revealing when it is humble and homey.

To reference yet another favourite food celebrity of mine, Nigella Lawson, through food you can travel without ever leaving your doorstep. Even in your own kitchen you can evoke flavours and aromas that are interwoven with strong memories and even stronger emotions. To drop another quote, this time from the beautiful film, The 100 Foot Journey, "Food is memories".

I have definitely had many of these evocative moments - when the smell of something delicious bubbling away in a pot makes my head dance with images from my childhood; or the sight of a familiar packet label in an international deli makes my heart leap with a long forgotten but suddenly recalled holiday experience.

These moments have always struck me as really profound, but also really joyful. I think this is common. However I suspect it is especially acute in people like me who are super greedy hedonistic obsessed foodies (a majority of my friends may raise their hands now!)

I'd like to share more of these moments, starting with one I had recently.

I had an IKEA day with my sister and brother-in-law last weekend. It was more of a research & recon trip, so we made very few actual purchases, but walked out with plenty of snacks from the shop.

I was excited enough already with my 500g bag of Daim toffee chocolates. It was without fail my favourite candy while I was in Europe, and always very strongly reminiscent of my Belgian friends because they were the ones who introduced me to it in my first week there. I spent a lot of time lounging on their couch helping myself to handfuls of Daim's off their coffee table! Once I started I couldn't stop. They are addictive!

We also got a couple of jars of marinated herring from the IKEA shop. My brother-in-law laughed because he would never be caught dead eating something like herring, and he thought I was a real weirdo! As an adventurous eater, fish is hardly the oddest thing I've ever tasted. My sister chose it specifically to remind me of my time in Amsterdam, which I thought was a really sweet gesture.

But I had no idea just how much I would enjoy the experience of eating herring again, with herbs and seasonings so redolent of a faraway place where I haven't stepped foot in years. I was bouncing on my tip-toes as I speedily prepared myself a plate with the herring centre stage.

In the crisp of winter my family tends to crave hot noodle soups and chunky stews. This is so not the kind of meal we're used to eating for dinner... toasted rye bread slathered with salted butter, generous portions of the herring, and a few raw and cold pickled sides and sauces.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure I nearly had an orgasm sliding those soft tender slippery herring fillets out of the jar.
It took me right back to Amsterdam, standing by the canals, spearing those small pale morsels one by one and letting them melt in my mouth; enjoying their subtle aftertaste briefly, before spiking it with a crunchy sharp sour onion or pickle.

I believe the mark of a truly enveloping dining experience is when you don't feel the need to do something else distracting while you're eating: talk to someone, watch tv, read a book, enjoy the view. Don't get me wrong, these are all fun things I love to do while eating, and sometimes they are exactly what makes it divine, like when I'm absorbed in great conversation with friends around the dinner table, or admiring a gorgeous sunset with wine or hot chocolate. What I'm talking about is those moments when I have lost sense of everything but the food right in front of me, and the taste and texture of every single bite - that's when I'm really connected with it in a way that is more than merely a meal. I'm not being hippie or new age at all; you know, we've all had those moments where could do nothing more but close our eyes, sigh, and chew - because it was that good.

And this herring was so good. It wasn't as melt-in-the-mouth as the raw herring I had in Amsterdam, because it was marinated and therefore would have cured and cooked to a firmer bite over time. Still, I couldn't help but go straight to my computer afterwards to search for the photos I took 4 years ago, to help me relive the food, and the happiness it brought.

It took me all night to find this snapshot but it was so worth it, for the feeling of instant travel it gave me. It's like culinary apparition!

A much younger me, and totally shameless tourist, so keen for that herring I asked the stall holder to take my picture with it!
Food is easily my favourite topic ever, and I would love to hear all your fond travel-related food stories and memories! Please comment below 😊 Happy eating!

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