I didn’t start out writing this on an empty stomach, but I might just get a snack now that it’s done. Let’s talk food.
My stomach has short term memory issues — I’m hungry a lot. So when I travel, food becomes an integral part of the experience for me. Finding a good place to eat, sampling the local cuisine, checking out the seasonal markets, these are all as much an important part of my travels as a nice museum or an ancient ruin.
Travel is a multi-sensory experience. There’s more to a trip than what you take in with your eyes. I’ve written about how every place has its own scent. The same can be said for taste. Food lets us delve into the culture and history of a place.
Markets are great way to get a feel for a city and a taste for local cuisine. Whether it’s sizzling street food at the weekly Saturday bazaar at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, or carnival booths in Frankfurt’s old town, selling candied popcorn and spicy currywurst. To be sure, use caution and common sense when buying from street vendors in a new place, but don’t deprive your taste buds of what might be an amazing gastronomic experience.
Going grocery shopping while travelling is a must-do in my opinion. If you have access to a kitchen it’s a way to save some money by cooking instead of eating out all the time. When my parents and I stayed in an apartment in Crete, I used to walk up the street to a little store owned by an old woman who sold us thyme-flavoured bread and cheese, which we ate on our balcony overlooking the olive groves.
In San Francisco, my friend and I bought fresh fruit at the market in front of City Hall, and spent late evenings in our motel room watching old movies and eating strawberries. When I explored Munich this summer, I bought a small paper bag of plump apricots from a fruit stall at the centuries-old Viktualienmarkt, and snacked on them as I wandered the city. To escape the craziness of London’s busy streets I visited Borough Market, which sits under a railway viaduct, where the constant crowds seemed somehow more appropriate and less overwhelming. I bought a gelato there and just sat down on a curb to people-watch.
Every culture has a different approach to food. Even such basics as morning coffee can vary greatly in taste and presentation — in Greece, they’ll often bring a glass of cold water with your coffee. How one country approaches breakfast, may seem a little over the top in another. While a large serving of pancakes is a common staple of a North American menu, breakfast at a German restaurant or hotel usually involves a deli-style buffet with lots of meat and pickled vegetables.
And of course, alcohol has its own tourist industry almost anywhere you visit. One of the best guided tours I took in the States involved going around the wineries of the Napa Valley. I sipped Zinfandels as if indulging in guilty pleasure TV dramas. While in Scotland, my friend took me to several pubs around Edinburgh to try different whisky. My favourite place was a pub called Teutcher’s Landing, which lets you play the “Hoop of Destiny” — essentially a game of ring toss where the prize is a glass of whichever whisky bottle you manage to hook. And this summer in Germany, I accidently ordered a “shandy” because of my limited and garbled German. It turns out that shandies are a mix of beer and soda, very popular and common in Germany.
Opening yourself up to new tastes while abroad really adds depth to your travels. Afterwards, the taste of a place comes home with you. For me, food is the best souvenir. I love to cook and I’ve amassed dozens of recipes that I acquired abroad. I often make a Cretan salad that bears a striking resemblance to one that I had in a rustic family-owned taverna, which sits in the Lasithi Plateau, not far from the fabled birthplace of Zeus.
If you’re going to go somewhere new to explore a culture different from your own, then food must ultimately be a part of that. Other than sight, taste is the only other sensory experience that you have to actively seek out on your own. So be adventurous and seek it out.