Travel that Changes You in Your Own Backyard
Whenever I travel, I dive headfirst into the local cuisine in search of a people’s culinary heart. To me a place is defined in part by how its people eat, so sightseeing includes taking in an open-air market & unfamiliar street eats at curbside vendors as often as a national park or a museum.
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The street food scene at 2 am in Seoul, South Korea
Regardless of language barrier, it’s there where you can international friend flirt with perfect strangers to learn their culture & culinary trade secrets. In a way we share the same dialect; we all speak menu. Our kinship is instant because we’re bound by the same resolve: to cook, to feed & to eat, & ever stumped with the eternal question “what’s for dinner?”
But to expose ourselves to different cultures & brand new flavors (& lots of joy) we don’t have to travel to far-flung destinations, we only need the driving force of burning curiosity.
On most weekends, this takes place right here in the good ol’ U S of A when my ethnic food-obsessed husband & I journey to the multi-cultural neighborhoods & grocery stores in our area. It’s there where the spirit of street food & hawker stands can be found.
Now I like Whole Foods with their biodynamic vegetables & hipster customers as much as the next person, but if you want to see (& have your children experience) how a more diverse cross-section lives & eats, you may want to seek out the international markets in your area. (An added bonus for you super-shoppers is that most food items are astonishingly less expensive.)
The first stop on our tour is usually the mammoth Korean supermarket HMART aka Asian foodie paradise with its farmers’ market bounty of exotic fruits & vegetables, & 50 different brands of soy sauce & sesame oil. As if to rival the local aquarium, there are fish tanks filled with carp, tilapia, rockfish, crabs, clams & snails (& dozens of other fish I’ve never heard of) swimming, crawling or just hanging out. Perfect for “catching” still-flopping fish for dinner.
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Who can resist a Latin American grocery store with guavas & prickly pear cactus fruit? Or tamales freshly made on the premises? Or the most fragrant handmade tortillas this side of the border?
Or the Indian grocer offering homemade chutneys & samosas & a dazzling array of exotic spices? Or the Euro-market selling sour cream as thick as frosting, pierogies that melt in your mouth & dark, dense authentic rye bread?
Or the Middle Eastern mart with Halal meats, pomegranates the size of cantaloupes, & fresh dates?
Or the Caribbean store where your first bite of dissolve-on-contact-tender Jamaican Jerk goat makes you swear you hear steel drums playing in the distance?
There’s no need for a passport to experience noodles as if in Thailand, dim sum as if in Hong Kong, dumplings as if in China, or Banh Mi sandwiches as if in Vietnam. To summon these exotic places in your imagination while eating their traditional foods is all part of the allure.
But be forewarned; “foreign” travel does not come without its perils. Time out here for a cautionary tale. On many a culinary excursion, we stop for authentic Mexican fare at a little hole-in-the-wall called Michoacan (named after a state in western Mexico).
Over time & despite the language barrier, our enthusiasm for the proprietor’s tacos de carnitas (the finest to ever flirt with our lips!) sparked a foodie friendship between us.
While I may be considered adventurous when trying unfamiliar foods (I’ll give a crack at most anything once), once was definitely enough when it came to honeycomb tripe.
One day, to show us his appreciation for our patronage, the owner-chef, beaming with obvious pride, offered us the house delicacy: two BIG bowls of Menudo—Mexican Tripe Soup—on the house.
For those of you who may not know, when I say tripe, I mean bovine (cow) intestines. Even before we saw the large chucks of honeycombed tripe swimming in the gelatinous liquid, we smelled it from across the counter & knew immediately we were in trouble.
With every eye glued on us, so not to offend our most gracious host, we did whatever it took to show our appreciation for his culinary prowess, knowing this dish is considered a delicacy in his culture.
With no small effort, we forced the spoons to our mouths (steady now) & managed to swallow (whew), but it was after we left the counter that the true test began: What to do with the remaining offending soup?
A plan was quickly devised in the dark recesses of my mind. With stealthy precision, I poured a little bit of soup in each of the empty bowls left by other patrons on nearby tables until our bowls were empty.
Admittedly, this was not my finest moment.
Needless to say, Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern’s job is safe, & it was a long while before we could stomach (pun woefully intended) a return to our favorite carnitas joint.
Our hombre chef in action. You can't tell the scale of the pot by the picture, but it's three feet in diameter & is stirred with a long stainless steel paddle better suited for canoeing. And I ask you – where else will you find a miniature horse hanging out in the parking lot?
Exposure to different people of different backgrounds can have a profound effect on how we see the world—making us more understanding & open-minded toward others.
The realization that people in the same country can live such varied lives intrigues & reminds me to treat everyone with a combination of respect, awe & fascination. And as an added bonus, after a Saturday spin through the United States of Other Cultures, my wanderlust is temporarily suspended.
My friends & Ethiopian expats, Haileyesus Assefa Desta & Freahiwat Eshete, not only opened up a whole new world
to me, but also enhanced the way I see that world.
Spicy Ethiopian goodness
On special occasions (in this case a friend’s wedding reception), it's customary for Ethiopians to dine on raw beef. While I'm familiar with see-through slices of carpaccio or triple-ground-tender steak tartar, 2-inch-square chunks were a surprise.
Gathering & preparing food can go beyond sustenance into a form of entertainment. You don’t have to be a hyper-devoted food pilgrim to make a trip to the grocery store or farmers’ market an outing.
Nor do you have to be a food-centric, food-gawker to turn culinary routine into joy & ingredients into edibles. It’s only a matter of deciding that if we must feed our families, we might as well make it as fun & interesting as we can.
"It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you
make up your mind firmly that you will."
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
So, why not do some research & take your own gastronomic tour of some exotic place? Food is more than a way to satisfy hunger, it’s a way to connect with communities & discover the magical, hidden, & delicious corners of the world–even if it is within our own state limits.
It's Happy in Here (TM) (Series) | How to Be Happy: 22 Tips to Everyday Bliss by Cindy O'Krepki
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