by Marc Escanuelas
A warning, any time I talk about food my eyes tend to glaze over and any attempt at coherent thought is lost as I start rambling about all of the amazing foods I’ve been lucky enough to devour over the past year.
The primary lens through which I experience a country is through its cuisine. I’ve already talked about how important it is to dive in and try every new food that comes your way and how much I pity those that don’t. I realize now that the countries that didn’t wow me didn’t serve me enough interesting food. Although that said, some of the best guacamole I’ve ever had (besides my Nana’s) was near Inle Lake in Burma, a country that I still have mixed feelings about. I’ve taken cooking classes in Thailand, China, South Korea, and Spain and have already looked up some classes for my next stop in Morocco. In Vietnam, I took a culinary tour from the back of a moped that zigzagged its way through the various districts of Saigon, with one tasty stop after another that included barbequed goat and balut.
Deciding what’s for dinner is the most exciting question of my day anywhere. If I were to list where I’ve had some of the best meals of my life, that list would include Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Seoul, Spain, Istanbul and Morocco. I must admit that I’m biased towards Asian cuisines. The flavors are so much more engaging to me as well as its emphasis towards fresh ingredients and lighter meals. Recently, an interesting study concluded that while Western cuisines believe in pairing ingredients that share similar flavors, Asian cuisines enjoy pairing contrasting flavors. The findings challenge your conceptions about what flavors “work” and the qualities that make a dish appealing.
I definitely had a bit of culture shock after sitting down to dinner in Istanbul after flying in from Seoul. In Seoul, I got used to big bowls of bibimbap and meat-heavy meals that ALWAYS had a side of kimchi. I even went to the Museum of Kimchi in Seoul, where they credit Mexico for the introduction of chile to their cuisine.
If there’s one thing I miss the most about Los Angeles (besides my dog), it’s the FOOD. Los Angeles is filled to the brim with food from every corner of the world and I miss having a panoply of choice for every meal. European food tends to be heavy and rich and it makes me miss the bold, sharp flavors of Asian cuisines.
In no discernible order other than roughly chronological, I miss laab in Bangkok, kimbap in Korea, bun bho hue in Vietnam, Yang’s Fried Dumplings in Shanghai, tantuni in Turkey, a soup made from tarragon and pork whose name I never remember from Romania, the truffle cream sandwich from Due Fratellini in Florence, shopska in Sofia, cuttlefish and squid ink paella in Barcelona and the list goes on and on. I miss the grilled octopus from Ike Sushi in Hollywood but I must say that the Spanish have a way with octopus, namely pulpo a la gallega. That’s just off the top of my head! I also wouldn’t mind another cup of kopi with kaya toast in Singapore.
Take the time to scour the Wikipedia page for each country’s cuisine. Find out the national dishes and then Google them or go straight to Chowhound and see if others have done the legwork for you. If you’re in a city with abundant street food, jump in! You won’t regret it. One of my guilty pleasures is trying fast food joints in other countries to see what’s different or even better, trying local fast food joints. Theoretically you could try the dumbed down version of a national dish at a fast food place for lunch and then have it at a reputable spot that evening for dinner and compare! Some of your best adventures will include walking down back streets lost without a clue in quiet neighborhoods that your guidebook doesn’t even know exist in search of the perfect something. Seeking out where locals eat is a great way to break out of the tourist beat and get a feel for a place. In short, EAT!