Food isn’t only the most important part of the travel experience, it’s one of the most fun. Through food we learn a lot about new cultures and the people who enjoy these morsels. If we’re open to the experience, we discover fascinating little societal quirks that we’d probably never pick up on otherwise. Food also helps us form our strongest travel memories. It always amazes me that a single, simple aroma can instantly transport me back to the souks of Marrakech or the frenetic streets of Hong Kong. It’s also the one thing all of us have in common when we travel. Regardless of background, preferences or budget, we all have to eat – it’s the great travel equalizer. That being said, not all travel food experiences are made the same; some invariably become more important to us than others. As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the many great meals and snacks I’ve enjoyed on my travels this year and share the few that meant the most to me in 2015.
Egypt – Sweet Snacks
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!
Amsterdam, Netherlands – Food Tour
My favorite kind of city tour is a great food walk. Not only do you get to see parts of cities you might otherwise miss, but you get an interactive introduction to the food culture of these cities from the locals who know them best. The Eating Amsterdam food tour I joined during a recent stay in the city was exactly the kind of immersive experience I expected and of everything I tried that morning, without a doubt my favorite bite came not at a café or restaurant, but at a butcher’s. Butcher Louman in the Jordaan neighborhood has been the go-to source for great meats since 1890, but they’re especially well-known for their sausages and cured meats. My favorites were the ossenworst (raw, smoked beef sausage) and the grillworst (grilled sausages), which are both amongst the best in the city.
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.
Freiburg, Germany – Pastries
I have a fierce sweet tooth, so for me a big part of the foodie travel experience is discovering new sweet treats to enjoy. Luckily, Germany is one of those countries where that is a simple mission to achieve. As far as pastries go, I found many new examples of delicious baked goodness, from rolls with sugar and raisins to small puffs made with chocolate and granulated sugar. German bakeries are amongst the best in the world and even the most common pastry found at a train station cafe far exceeds anything I can find here at home.
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. A trip I took to Queensland earlier this year 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 an 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.
North Carolina – Great American BBQ
As a proud Southerner, I can say without hesitation that great BBQ is probably the meal I’d ask for on my deathbed. It’s delicious, but it’s also comforting. BBQ has a soul that not many other foods possess; it exists not just in textures and flavors but also in a range of emotions. BBQ differs widely around the country though, from sticky Kansas-style to Virginia’s ketchup based sauces and of course the vinegar that makes North Carolina so famous. I always considered myself a Virginia BBQ guy, until a trip to North Carolina introduced me to some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever enjoyed. In North Carolina, BBQ involves a whole hog that is slow-cooked to perfection over a massive pit for a period of many hours, infusing that great smoky taste into the meat itself. Where I’m from in Virginia, we would add a thick, ketchup-based sauce to the pork or chicken but that’s not how it’s done in Eastern North Carolina. No, instead there it’s all about preserving the taste of the meat itself, adding only vinegar, maybe some hot sauce, salt and pepper and that’s it. The best example I found during my romp through North Carolina was at the Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina. The meals are served with the choice of sandwich or full meat platter along with coleslaw and cornbread. But that’s it. No fries, beans, hushpuppies or anything else that I’m used to when eating a great BBQ dinner. But after my first taste I realized that nothing else was needed – the meat was that good. Slightly charred bits of meat mixed in with the succulent and woody pork all combine to create what was honestly one of the best BBQ experiences of my life.
Istanbul, Turkey – Food Tour
Istanbul is one of the most intriguing and dynamic cities in the world. Straddling two continents and enjoying a long tradition of welcoming merchants from around the world, the result is a culture that is varied and composed of elements that might surprise you. This is naturally best seen through its food culture, something I knew very little about before taking a Walks of Turkey Istanbul Food Tour. I met my guide on the European side of the side where we hopped on board a ferry to cross the Bosporus to start our tour in the eclectic Kadıköy neighborhood on the Asian side of the city.
The tour was fun and informative and while I enjoyed almost everything I sampled, my favorite bite was during my introduction to Turkish mezze. Mezza, small plates, is a popular way to eat in Istanbul, so I decided to have my own little mezza experience at a small deli in the Kadıköy neighborhood. Different kinds of kofte, made with minced meat and spices, homemade cheeses with honey and a few things I couldn’t identify, but which were delicious. Not for the first time that day I wondered how the Turks stay so fit when their food is so very good.
German Christmas Markets – Reibekuchen
This is a great example of a new food experience discovered while touring Germany’s Christmas markets. I didn’t see these delicious treats at all last year along the Danube, but they were an important culinary fixture this year as I explored the villages and cities along the Rhine with Viking River Cruises. They’re also very simple, these potato pancakes are deep fried potato fritters served with a variety of toppings, from applesauce to cheese. Usually served in bunches of three, the portions are more than enough for a complete meal. Reibekuchen are also intensely popular, at least based on the markets I visited and for many folks seem to be one of the comfort food staples of the Christmas market experience.
What were your best travel food experiences of 2015?