Food is I believe the most important aspect of the travel experience. Through food we form some of our strongest travel memories, scents and sensations that can recall specific moments in time instantly, even years later. It’s through the stomach that we learn about a new culture, what they value and how they live every day. It’s also something we all have to do, and because of that it is one of the few aspects of the travel experience to which we can all relate. I’ve had many amazing food experiences around the world, from a simple crepe in Paris to a traditional Braai in South Africa, but above everything I’ve consumed, these brief moments in foodie time are amongst my favorite.
Southern BBQ, USA
I’ve lived in 12 states from New Hampshire to Georgia, so it’s hard to lay claim to a region of the United States with a straight face. BUT, if forced to choose, I always say that I’m a son of the south, which is more or less true. Half of my family lives in the south, as I have done since 1991. So, I think it’s ok to also promote our regional cuisine as the best in the country, with great BBQ rising to the top of that delicious list. There is nothing quite so satisfying as a hearty meal of well cooked and well sauced BBQ. Truly an art form, the master cook spends years developing the recipes and hours slow cooking the meat. Served with a variety of sides including baked beans, hushpuppies and French fries, this massive meal may not be appropriate for daily consumption, but is a treat whenever you are lucky enough to enjoy it. All praise the American BBQ sandwich, and long may it cook.
Peking Duck (China, Taiwan or Anywhere)
I first tried this amazing delicacy while traveling in Taiwan and have since had it many times, proving to myself time and time again that it’s one of my favorite meals. The adventure starts by ordering how you want the duck presented. Your options are duck served in one, two or three ways. Option one is the classic serving of the tasty duck, option two involves mixing the meat with scallions and soy sauce and serving it over rice and the third way is making a soup from the stock. Keep in mind, it’s not one or the other, if you order it three ways, you get all three ways. The classic is of course the best and more than enough food for several people. The duck is first presented to the table in all of its roasted goodness before the skin is served to the salivating diners. The proper procedure is to wrap pieces of the skin along with scallions and hoisin sauce in a small crepe. This simple layering of flavors quickly became one of my favorite meals I’ve ever had.
Wiener Schnitzel, Austria
This is one of the most touristy meals out there, but it’s famous for a reason – it’s delicious. Sure you can find Wiener Schnitzel (which means schnitzel from Vienna) just about anywhere, but when you’re in Vienna one of the best places to enjoy this traditional delicacy is at Figlmüller’s. Located near St. Stephen’s, the chefs at Figlmüller’s have been creating some of the best versions of Austria’s national dish since 1905; so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. The schnitzels are made from the best cuts of pork and extend well past the edge of the plate – a massive 11 inches in diameter. Still, I found myself devouring this classic dish in no time; it was light, crispy and delicious. You can enjoy schnitzel anywhere, but be sure to try it at Figlmüller’s who really can be credited with transforming this popular dish into the culinary event it is today.
Like so many other foods in the Middle East, knafeh is pan-Arab dessert that can be found throughout the region. Knafeh is made using very fine vermicelli-like pastry that is heated with butter before a soft, white cheese is spread over it. The process is repeated a few times and then the dessert is topped with sticky syrup and some crushed pistachios. An unlikely combination, but it quickly became a personal favorite.
Detroit Style Pizza
This is a serious topic, what kind of pizza your family enjoys is a big deal, at least it is in my household, where the foldable New York-style of pizza wins the day. While I do love a giant slice from the streets of New York, as soon as I saw a photo of Detroit-style pizza, I knew I would fall in love pretty quickly. So what makes Detroit pizza so unique? Non-Detroiters would probably call the square shaped pies a pan pizza, which it is. Ordered by how many squares you want (4 or 8) the pizza features a delicious, slightly burned buttery crust that I could eat on its own everyday and be a happy guy. The pizza is cooked in square pans and the sauce is baked over the cheese. Originally started at Buddy’s Pizza in the 1940s, the style has spread far and wide throughout the city and even beyond. Of everything I enjoyed in Detroit, this is the meal I find myself thinking back to, wondering when and where I’ll be able to enjoy this classic meal again.
Cape Malay Cuisine, Cape Town
Overall I have always enjoyed the food in South Africa, from the fancy restaurants in Stellenbosch to the street food staple Bunny Chow in Durban. My favorite food experience though is one that went beyond the taste, and introduced me to a culture I would never have learned about otherwise. The Bo Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town is one of the most photographed in town, thanks to the vibrantly painted homes that stand in the shadow of the mountains. It’s a beautiful area, but most tourists come and go without learning very much about the Cape Malay culture. The earliest members of the ethnic group known today as Cape Malay arrived as slaves and were brought to Cape Town from Southeast Asia by the Dutch. Future generations including (now) Indonesian Muslim leaders who were sent into exile and forced to resettle in South Africa. Cape Malays also have a South Asian or Indian heritage, and it was their influence that brought Islam to South Africa. Over time their cultural, and culinary adaptations became ingrained into daily life in South Africa, especially the food and especially in Cape Town. Joining a cooking class in the home of a local resident, I learned how to roll roti and combine flavors for the perfect curry, learning more about the cook and the Cape Malay culture she exemplified in the process. Sure, I went home with a stack of recipes and a newfound taste for spicy Cape Malay food, but also with an intense appreciate for the Bo Kaap in particular and Cape Town as a whole.
Pain Suisse Pastry (Europe)
I first saw them in a train station in Brussels. We were about to hop on a train to spend the day in Venice and needed a quick breakfast. Always with a keen eye for chocolate, I saw the elongated pastry and was curious. Eschewing my normal order of a chocolate croissant, I decided to try it and a new love affair was born. Turns out the Pain Suisse, translated to mean “Swiss bread,” is a very popular pastry not only in Belgium and France but around Europe. It’s also fairly simple, it’s just a long pastry filled with cream and chocolate but for me it has come to define being in Europe and especially France. We all have certain traditions when we travel, and for me finding my first Pain Suisse of the trip means that my journey has truly begun; that I’m in a new and foreign place and for me it’s a very exciting feeling. Plus the snack itself is amazing; after all it’s hard to go wrong with a chocolate filled pastry.
Chengdu Hot Pot , China
Chengdu is known for its spice, but it’s also famous for a very particular way of cooking – the hot pot. I like to think of the Chinese hot pot as a type of fondue. There are specific hot pot restaurants, and each table in them is equipped with inlaid pots and cookers, just like at fondue restaurants I’ve been to here in the States. I was led through this process by new friends I made, eager to show me the proper way to enjoy this iconic dinner. The hot pot process though is fairly simple. Diners select the meats and vegetables they want to cook in the pots along with the type of stock. In Chengdu, this means a broth that is literally teeming with those famous red Sichuan peppers. It was an easy process to learn, dropping the meat into the simmering broth, waiting for it to cook, removing it and lightly dipping it into oil to remove some of the spicy heat before eating it. It was a fun experience but a spicy one, more than once tears welled up in my eyes but I loved the dinner. Hot pot is about the great food, but it’s also about the camaraderie, the conversation and being together with friends. Being in that restaurant, clearly a local and not a tourist favorite, I felt like I had been let into a secret, another piece of the puzzle in understanding the city.
This is a great example of a new food experience I discovered thanks entirely to Christmas markets. I didn’t see this at all when I sailed the Danube, but they became an important aspect of my culinary experience 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. They’re usually served in bunches of three and are more than enough for a complete meal. They are also intensely popular, at least based on the markets I visited and for many folks seem to be one of the food staples of the Christmas market experience.
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.
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.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, U.K.
I have an incredible sweet tooth and if given the option I would gladly skip a main course in order to enjoy an outstanding dessert. Not all desserts are made the same though sadly, but whenever I’m in the UK I know I can find one of my favorites – sticky toffee pudding. I’m not exactly sure why I love this dessert as much as I do, but if it’s on a menu then I always order it. It’s a deceptively simple treat and is made using a very moist sponge cake baked with finely chopped dates that is then covered in a toffee sauce and usually served with vanilla custard or ice cream. It’s also the tastiest dessert in the world. I actually found my favorite version while traveling in Northern Ireland at the James Street Bar + Grill in Belfast. There, chefs turn this classic on its head by serving it in sundae form, slightly deconstructing it but making it even more delicious in the process.
What are some of the best foods you’ve discovered while traveling?