Food is arguably the most important part of the travel experience. I think that it is the fastest way to learn more about a culture, what it values and how it spends its time. There’s a lot of meaning behind cultures where long lunches are the norm or where family dinners take center stage. It’s also the one travel activity that we all have in common, no matter our own particular style and brand of travel. Personally, there’s nothing I love more than diving into a new culinary scene and learning about the country or region from the inside out. Some meals and snacks are better than others of course and there are entire countries where the food is fine, but nothing exceptional. That being said, I decided to take a quick look back at the past few months of travel and identify those food moments that meant the most to me, for one reason or another. I have a natural inclination towards all things sweet, so I mindfully tried to steer clear of pastries and desserts, sort of.
Norway – Reindeer Gyro
Overall, I enjoyed the food in Norway but it wasn’t until I visited Alta in the north of Norway that I found more of the foods one would call traditional. Reindeer in nearly every form imaginable, from gyros to well-prepared steaks, became my go-to dining option. I thought at first it would be too gamey, but unlike elk or venison the reindeer had a certain steak quality to it and I enjoyed it, as long as I didn’t think about Santa Claus at the same time. Norway is famous for its open-faced sandwiches at lunchtime, but in Alta they didn’t just take their normal form – seafood and cured meats – but also reindeer. Their small size make them easy to eat and convenient, but the real star of the show for me were the reindeer gyros. Ok, not really called gyros, but that’s what they reminded me of; a Nordic version of the doner kebab. Smothered in some sort of sauce I didn’t understand, it was a messy but hearty and delicious noontime meal.
Germany – Maultaschen
The region of Germany known as Swabia has many culinary peculiarities but my favorite was the traditional maultaschen I found in Stuttgart. Sadly, when translated this tasty dish is called ravioli on English menus, but that’s not entirely accurate. These savory pillows of pasta started when a local monk decided he didn’t want to abstain from meat during fasts, so he mixed minced meat with spinach and wrapped it in noodle dough. The dish eventually caught on and is now a very common and traditional meal to find throughout the region, but especially in Stuttgart. There are many ways to eat maultaschen, while it is typically boiled in a broth, I decided to try a version cooked with eggs. What arrived at my table looked more like an elaborate omelet than a ravioli dish, but after a few bites I knew I had found something special. I couldn’t help myself and soon ate the whole portion, looking around for a little more. It was a hearty but delicious meal and one that is still important to Stuttgart and the areas surrounding it.
Hong Kong – 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.
Australia – The Perfect Cup Of Coffee
Certainly not new to me, in fact coffee culture in Australia is one of my favorite aspects of traveling there. This time though was a little bit different; I had more time and moved at a slightly slower pace, which meant I had more opportunities to immerse myself in the country’s robust coffee culture. Particularly when I spent a week in the Gold Coast, I spent every morning in the neighborhood coffee shop eating breakfast, slowly sipping my long black and catching up on my email. Coffee culture in Australia has evolved over time, but a large influx of European (and particularly Italian) immigrants in the 1950s and 60s greatly sped up this conversion to the coffee-loving country it is today. Instead of the drip coffee we’re used to here in the U.S., coffees in Australia are espresso-based, catapulting a simple cup of joe into an art form. Coffee in Australia is unlike any other country, they’ve developed their own drinks with strange names like Long Black and Flat White and it’s hard to go more than a few feet anywhere in the country without stumbling across a great, locally owned independent coffee shop. There are few things better in the world than spending time at the local café, a national pastime in Australia right up there with rugby, Aussie rules football and making fun of politicians.
Peru – Empanadas
Empanadas are not unique to Peru – far from it. In fact versions of serving filling inside bread of some sort exist all over the world and for good reason; they’re easy, cheap and convenient. Brought to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese, these tasty snacks can be found in nearly every country on the continent. That being said, the version I found in the small (but touristy) town of Pisac in Peru may be the best ones I’ve ever sampled. Located in the Sacred Valley about 1 hour from the city of Cusco, hundreds of tourists crowd the main plaza of Pisac every day to shop at its market and to try the foods that make this small Andrean town so well known. For the uninitiated, the empanadas I tried in Pisac were small, moon shaped pouches of dough available with a wide variety of fillings including beef, chicken, cheese and others. So what made the ones in Pisac so much better than all of the others I’ve tried? The ovens. The traditional way to cook these tasty bits of doughy goodness is in dome shaped clay ovens and in Pisac, the old colonial ones are still intact. Stop by Santa Lucia Horno Colonial for a quick snack on the go, one of the best places in town to enjoy these traditional foods, and believe me you won’t regret the experience.
Egypt – Desserts
Ok, so it’s hard for me to stay away from sweets completely. While traveling around Egypt I enjoyed many great meals, some favorites I’m used to and some new dishes as well. But what won me over was a small coffee shop I discovered close to my hotel, one that’s been around for more than a century and one that does one thing exceptionally well – dessert. The concept of dessert in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean is a little different from the U.S. and even Western Europe. Instead of massive dishes oozing with sweetness, the preference here leans towards smaller bites, naturally sweetened with honey or rose water. At Simonds Bakery & Café, the bakers have perfected this concept and while sitting in the shop enjoying a coffee I saw dozens of people come and go, all leaving with a box of their favorite sweet treats to share with friends and family. Just a few of the amazing desserts found not only at Simmonds but around Egypt include sweet semolina cakes, kunafeh, baklava, sweetened breads covered in pistachio, halva and more. If you’ve never tried these slightly unusual but delicious desserts, find the nearest Middle Eastern restaurant or bakery and go crazy!
It’s always hard to narrow down favorite experiences, but when it comes to the many foods I’ve enjoyed there’s no doubt that so far this year, these have all been my personal favorites.