"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well." ~ Virginia Woolfe
A woman after my own heart and she’s of course, totally right! Food is surely one of life’s ultimate pleasures on the best of days; the preparation, the indulging, the event of meal time, the gathering of friends and family, the sense of occasion…there’s nothing I don’t totally love about it. But when you’re travelling and discovering the staple foods, the local delicacies and meal time rituals of whatever country you’re in, the joy levels go through the roof for me. Yes, I’m an international food enthusiast (obsessive) of the highest level!
Honestly, I don’t have much time for people who refuse to try new things, especially when abroad…are you crazy?? This is as much a part of exploring new cultures as physically being there! If I’m in a restaurant you’ll always hear me excitedly ask what the most local/popular dish on the menu is, followed by “I’ll take it!”. Because a meal is never ‘just a meal’, you often learn a history, a cultural culinary tradition, something that connects you to that dish, to the region and it’s people.
Lithuanian Saltbarsciai for example (pictured above) is cold pink beetroot soup that’s enjoyed by locals during the summer months – the time of year I first tried it in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital and it is beautiful. But it’s a dish that arose in the 13th century when key Baltic tribes consolidated to create the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – and was considered peasants food – a piece of history I would never have known if I’d gone with burger and fries. Cepelinai (also pictured above) is Lithuania’s National Dish. These are supremely large pulverized potato dumplings filled with ground meat and served with a cream/curd sauce. They are unbelievably filling (even for me!) and a typically ‘stodgy’ staple in Lithuania that came about as a direct result of the country’s location in the world and its climate. Around for over 150 years now, it was a dish originally designed to feed hungry workers at harvest time and to provide warmth and essential sustenance during the harsh Baltic winters. They were given the name ‘cepelinai’ in the early 20th century simply because they resemble the shape of Zeppelin airships! And I love that I know that!
So, I don’t travel to just see the sights, I want to live like the natives do, I want to wear what they wear and I want to eat what they eat. The entire sensory experience of exploring a new culture can’t be fulfilled without tasting what they taste and understanding where their foods and flavours come from. For me, it’s all part of the discovery, all part of getting to know a culture and a history different to my own.
Street food stalls and local markets are by far the best way to immerse yourself in everything culinary about the region you’re in and as a traveller it’s simply the biggest treat and most amazing privilege ever, particularly as it’s the cheapest way to maintain a full belly (and happy soul) along the way. But most of all, it’s here you’ll find the most uniquely delicious foods in the world because truly authentic food can only be cooked by the locals. It’s also here you’ll encounter the world’s wierdest of foods, but never shy away from these, after all you can’t know you don’t like something until you’ve tried it! But if delicacies like cows heart and intestines pinned to skewered potato or fried grasshopper doesn’t sound like your thing, perhaps avoid Peru and Thailand!
Do however – should you find yourself in South America – indulge in Argentina’s empanadas; crispy parcels of pure meaty, vegetable or cheesy yumminess. And Venezuela’s arepas, maize flat breads filled with anything from scrambled eggs to pulled meat and avocado. What’s not to love?
As the title of this piece suggests, I have eaten Llama (in Bolivia ~ feature image) and indeed Piraña (in Venezuela ~ pictured above) – having fished for the damn thing myself. Not much meat on a tiny Piraña and not the most appetising of dishes when teeth come as part of the package but great to have tried it! Llama is as tasty a meat as any and was beautifully cooked in lemon and garlic when I tried it; simple but perfect. It’s a meat as common to Bolivian and Peruvians as beef is to us, seeing the fluffy camel-like cuties grazing all across the countryside – so if they eat it, I eat it.
Drenching yourself in the traditional foods of the world is not just a culinary pleasure for people who love their food, it exposes us to a far richer cultural experience, letting the locals know that their heritage and memories connected with their food is significant to us. And as a stranger in their land, I think it’s vital that the wonderful local people providing their glorious food benefit directly from the tourism we bring – not globally recognised chains serving insipid western imports. Urgh. Boring.
Next time, I’ll be sharing some amazing tips, apps and websites that enable travellers to hunt down the World’s most traditional eating experiences, from joining a family for their evening meal to finding local chefs who host dinner ‘parties’, cooking classes and a whole lot more – focusing on country specific, regional cuisine! Mmmmmmm!
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” ~ JRR Tolkien.