I realize that 2014 isn’t over yet and I know that I have a couple of trips still planned and undoubtedly food will play a prominent role. That being said, I can still safely look back at 2014 I think and share some of my favorite food moments from my travels. Food is, I believe, arguably the most important aspect of the travel experience and is the one thing to which we can all relate. Whether we like fine dining or street food or a creative mixture of both, everyone has to eat. Food is also the fastest way into the hearts and minds of a new culture; there is no better way to learn about a new place than through its collective stomach. With that in mind, here are just some of the many great food moments I enjoyed in 2014.
1. The Canelé – 2014 was the year I met one of my new favorite pastries, the canelé. I’m still shocked I had never heard of it before and for those who have not yet been initiated, it’s a small French pastry with a soft and tender custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust. The cylinder shaped treat is a Bordeaux specialty, which is where I first discovered it. Instead of finding it in a quaint patisserie though, it was given to me on board a cruise with Viking River Cruises. Every day this river cruise line presents guests with small treats representative of the region in which they’re sailing and thankfully one day that included the canelé. I also found this tasty snack in an unlikely destination – South Africa. It was in the gastronomy minded Stellenbosch region that I chanced upon an amazing brunch at Majeka House, which featured, among many other delectables, expertly crafted canelés. No matter where you find them, when you do make sure to taste this special treat for yourself – trust me, you won’t be sorry.
2. Currywurst – A Berlin staple, currywurst is like most great street food: deceptively simple and borne of pure necessity. The clinical definition of currywurst is: a German fast food dish consisting of steamed, then fried pork sausage cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup. Fries are many times included. My first currywurst experience was pure guilty food perfection. It was tasty with a spiciness that was more for flavor than heat, which I appreciated. The layering of fries and sauces along with the sausage of course meant it was a hearty dish, the hallmark of well-done street food in my honest opinion. I finished off the portion within just a few minutes, content with a smile as large as a Cheshire cat.
3. Traditional Xhosa food – A very special and specific to Stellenbosch, South Africa food experience was a walk I joined through the Kayamandi township when I learned about Xhosa food through a local resident. Mama Lily has led a fascinating life, from bill collector to purveyor of freshly made pastries and breads. Today she and the Bites and Sites Food Tour folks have joined efforts to share more about her traditional, family recipes and to show newcomers what life in Kayamandi is really like. I knew it would be a special experience, but was shocked at how moved I was by the lunch and walk. It’s a special moment when someone invites you into their home, their kitchen with open arms and a bright smile. This tour is one of those ‘must-do’ experiences for all visitors to Stellenbosch.
4. Eating London Food Tour – The best food tour I went on this year and probably the best walking tour as well, the Eating London Food Tour is a must for any visitor to the British capital city. The four-hour jaunt through London’s eclectic East End is a walk through the history and culture as well as an opportunity to taste some great bites. The guides are passionate about their city and the food culture and I learned a lot as I also chowed down on classics like bacon sarnies and fish & chips as well as more recent neighborhood additions like spicy curries. All food is included in the tour cost and come hungry because the bites are much more than samples, they’re mini-meals in their own right.
5. BBQ Pork Buns – I like dim sum in general, but I love these buns of tasty goodness so much I decided to list them as a stand-alone bite. If Hong Kong had a national dish, it would be the BBQ pork bun. Steamed to porky perfection, the Cha Siu Bao is a simple but delicious meal. The dough is slightly dense, but incredibly soft with a hint of sweetness that only compliments the prize inside – slow-roasted pork tenderloin. You can find this classic meal all around town, but a place that may surprise you is the airport. One of Cathay Pacific’s amazing lounges, The Wing, features The Noodle Bar, which includes freshly made dim sum and my beloved BBQ pork buns. It’s a great final culinary send off from a city full of foodie surprises.
6. Sour Cherry Strudel – While many visitors to Croatia’s beautiful coastal regions immediately see the strong Italian influence in Croatian cuisine, the distinct culinary traditions inland are sometimes ignored. The sour cherry strudel is one of these authentically Croatian dishes that many people miss. Cherries are an important fruit in Croatia, in fact what we know as Maraschino cherry originated from how cherries are treated in Croatia, the local variant though is the Marasca cherry. Used in everything from liqueurs to desserts, cherries can be found when in season sold by the bushel in markets around the country. In Croatia one of the most popular cherry based deserts is the strudel, which I was lucky enough to see made while eating at a restaurant in the heart of the Plešivica wine region. Making this tasty pastry is an art form, passed from one generation to the next and the result is tarty perfection. You’ll find it served in a lot of restaurants, but be sure to visit eateries like Karlo for the freshly made version.
7. Pastizzi – This is on everyone’s list of ‘must eats’ in Malta, and with good reason. If Malta had a national dish, this would be it. Following the tradition of savory pies around the world, pastizzi are oval shaped pastries made from filo dough and stuffed with a variety of different ingredients, but ricotta or mushy peas are the most common. You will find these all over Malta and they vary just as widely in quality. Try to avoid pastizzi found in touristy areas and instead seek out local pastizzi bakers in the residential neighborhoods. This is where you’ll find the real delicacy and I guarantee it’ll be worth the effort. Pastizzi are inexpensive and delicious and for me were my go-to, cheap and easy meal on Malta.
8. Mansaf – This wasn’t new to me in 2014, but I love Jordanian food so much I had to include the country’s most famous dish. Partaking of mansaf is an honor and enjoying it with friends is an essential culinary experience for every visitor to the country. Usually made with lamb, it’s cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice and topped with shrak bread. The traditional way to eat mansaf is with your right hand with which you create small balls of meat, rice and sauce that you then pop into your mouth. It takes a while to get a hang of the process, but once you do you’ll instantly feel like a local.
What are some new foods you discovered (and loved) in 2014?