Discovering the local cuisine is one of the highlights of any trip for me. I rarely eat at fancy restaurants when I travel (with the notable exception of the time I inadvertently had lunch at a Michelin 3 star restaurant in Paris); instead, I seek out small shops, bakeries and (when it’s wise to do so) street food. And not surprisingly, the food is one of the things I remember most vividly.
Food is not just about sustenance; it is central to culture and national identity, and as such, it reveals as much about a place as its architecture or sights. Traveling from country to country, it’s fascinating to watch food transform under the influence of different cultures. Bread and sausage in France means a crusty baguette with thinly sliced, cured “saucisson”; in Germany, bread and sausage becomes a bratwurst on a soft bun (with mustard in Munich, ketchup and curry powder in Berlin). And in Switzerland, of course, they forego the sausage and dunk their bread in vats of bubbling cheese.
My travels in South America last year offered up a bounty of good food and cultural contrasts. In Ecuador, I discovered that empanadas are made of corn flour and fried, that they put cubes of mozzarella cheese in their hot chocolate (surprisingly satisfying), and that lunch and dinner always start with soup. I didn’t see much alcohol in Ecuador; this very Catholic country serves fresh fruit juice with every meal. The most common juice is tomato, which taught me that Ecuadorian tomato juice is nothing like American tomato juice: it’s sweet and tastes like it came from a berry. The “tree tomato” from which it’s made would never be mistaken for a vegetable.
In Chile, the ubiquitous empanadas are made of wheat flour, with a crust like pizza dough, and baked. The most traditional empanadas are filled with ground beef, along with a chunk of hard-boiled egg, a few olives and a sprinkling of raisins. As bizarre (or gross) as that sounds, when it all comes together, topped with a salsa called “pebre,” it’s delicious. And the Chileans love their booze. They’re rightly famous for their pisco sours, but they also make a drink called the “terramotto” (earthquake), with sweet white wine, grenadine and pineapple sorbet. This also sounds faintly repulsive but is actually so tasty that it’s easily consumed by the pint; by your second serving, the earth will move beneath your feet – hence its name.
Argentina, meanwhile, delivered on its promise of excellent steaks and red wine. Here I braved a street vendor for an Argentinian take on a hot dog: a sausage topped with a slice of ham, a fried egg, cheese, and something akin to an herby Thousand Island dressing. It was good, though admittedly I was very hungry at the time. Buenos Aires also now holds a special place in my heart for serving up the best pizza I have ever had in my life: a “fugazza con muzzarella” from Pizzeria Guerrin, which was topped with a ridiculous quantity of sautéed sweet onions and heaps of gooey mozzarella.
I could go on, but I’m making myself drool.
As I prepare to explore two new countries in just a couple of weeks, there are so many things I’m excited about: the scenery of rural Cambodia, the temples of Angkor Wat, the energy of Ho Chi Minh City, the culture, the history, the people… and of course:
I can’t wait to see what I eat.