I love to travel. I love to eat. I love to cook. To me, one of the highlights of traveling is enjoying the local food in different places around the world. I was reminded of this recently when I was in a cooking class led by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.
I was a little star-struck, I admit, to be in an actual class with one of my culinary crushes. At one point he was asking the participants what style of cuisine we loved to cook but found challenging, and he called directly on me. I actually did that thing where you look behind you to see who the person’s talking to. And blushed like a schoolgirl when I answered him (Thai food was my answer).
Samuelsson has a really unique background — he was born in Ethiopia, but tragically lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was only a few years old. He and his sister were then adopted by a Swedish family. His signature food style really springs from this blending of his Ethiopian and Swedish roots. “I always cook with Ethiopian spices and sensibility,” he told me in an interview. “Both cuisines work well when you cook with your soul.”
Samuelsson also heartily embraces the connection between food and travel. His advice for how to become a better chef was short and sweet:
Cook — a lot
The famous chef recounted the very first international trip he made alone. He saved money for two years in order to go to Japan — where he wanted to eat sushi, particularly a very specific type of blowfish created by a particular chef. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said.
You don’t have to have a lot of money to travel or eat well,” says Samuelsson — a philosophy I whole-heartedly agree with.
I thought I would share some of my favorite places in the world to eat, and my own top travel/culinary experiences. Also, some of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten on my travels!
I travel to India frequently; I’ve been half a dozen times in the last 7 years, always visiting a children’s home with kids who have become my family. On the last visit, the Lakshmi Festival was going on while I was there, and we took the opportunity to go with some of the kids to the festival. We rode rides, shopped the market, and ate delicious snacks from the food vendors.
Memorable more because of being with “my kids” and the festival atmosphere than the food — but street eats are a big part of most all my travel!
In 2010, I was lucky to be invited to the Bordeaux Wine Festival — a press trip that included a week long tour to the surrounding regions in Aquitaine. We visited several wineries and vineyards including one of my favorite, the Chateau Haut Garrigue run by husband-wife couple Caroline and Sean Feely, who make their wines exclusively with organic and biodynamic methods. Caroline treated us to the most lovely, delicious lunch in her vineyard — my plate included salmon, duck, chocolate and of course, fromage!
An Ethiopian feast in Kenya
The most recent overseas trip I took was to East Africa, where I visited Kenya and Tanzania. A good friend, Danny, lives in Nairobi and on our second night there he and some of his friends took us out to eat at their favorite Ethiopian restaurant. A delicious spread served family style made for great food and great company — two things that elevate the entire travel experience by a mile!
Squid jerky in Thailand
Street food is always fun. Especially when it’s a piece of dry, salty squid that’s pressed through a roller thing and then grilled over a tiny hibachi. Tasty!
Chicken feet in China
Much of my time in China consisted of culinary discoveries, from sea cucumbers to street dumplings. The night market in Beijing was quite interesting — as I meandered along the rows, a vendor screamed out “sheep penis!” right in my ear, delighting with laughter at my double-take as he dangled the offending organ in front of me.
But those experiences weren’t as memorable as the Taiji Teahouse in Hangzhou, where I experienced a traditional tea ceremony that is much social and cultural as it is gastronomical. The cups are lined up for the tea pourer, who arrives bearing his brass teapot with an extremely long spout, which he pours in the elaborate taiji style the teahouse is named after, circling the vessel around his head and pouring the green tea as he balances the spout along his shoulders. Like many of the best traditional tea houses, the proprietor is its seventh generation.
After the tea was served, along with delicious dumplings, a new delicacy was brought out — chicken feet. Of course I ate it (or attempted to, gnawing at the bony little digits), not wanting to offend the proprietor’s hospitality. In fact, the sauce on the feet was quite delicious, marred only slightly by the disgust factor when one of the talons popped off into my mouth.
Pop-up night restaurants in Morocco
One of the most interesting dining experiences I’ve had was in the main square of Marrakech, Djemaa el fna, a large square where it seems most anything can be found. When I first arrived there, I simply wandered around fascinated, soaking it all in. Here was a snake charmer, there a man with a trained dancing monkey. Nearby is a group of musicians and drummers, while across the way cross-dressing dancers perform in veils. Carts surround it all, selling everything from spices and orange juice, to potions handed down through generations. Many of the items on the potion carts are unrecognizable, although I did see dried lizards and some sort of hair with which the proprietors will presumably whip up an elixir to make someone fall in love or cast an evil spell on an enemy.
When night begins to fall, Djemaa el fna square is bathed in sunset light and converted to a large outdoor dining area. Hundreds of food stalls spring up as if by magic, and suddenly the white tented roofs cover the cobblestones. Here you can stroll along until you see something that beckons, then sit down on the benches next to other patrons to enjoy.
In general, any food market anywhere in Asia is great fun to stroll through. They are typically full of all sorts of interesting, and sometimes very hard to identify, food products. This photo was taken at the morning market in Luang Prabang, Laos where the ingredients on offer included frogs, live wriggling larvae, freshly gutted tadpoles, water buffalo ears and duck feet. Kind of makes you wonder exactly what one makes with some of these items, but markets like this are such a feast for the eyes (and the nose!)
But of course, amazing and interesting market food isn’t only to be found in Asia — check out this offering I came across at a market in Masaya, Nicaragua. The ladies at this stall laughed at me for taking a photo. “Silly gringa, how is a pig’s head so unusual that it warrants a photo?”