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Talefeathers: The Latitude 35 Blog

It's All About the Food: Eatables as Experience

The Gateway to Expanded Horizons and Cultural Understanding.

korean barbecue

Mmmmm... sizzling Korean barbecue!

The other day I was thinking how food is such an integral part of culture and our travel experiences. Yeah, the hotel is important, and sightseeing is a must. But food satisfies all five of our senses. There are the times I had sashimi that was so fresh it was still twitching, and the times I grilled sizzling bulgogi and kalbi at my table. Well-balanced dishes offer a variety of smells and textures and flavors that come alive on the palate like the twirling, stomping, dress-swirling passion of a flamenco dance.

springbok, kabocha, pumpkin, shiitake

Delicious Outeniqua springbok, kabocha squash, Hokkaido pumpkin, shiitake, and carmelized onion jus at Fyn in Cape Town. It's one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants and I highly recommend it for a unique, Japanese-African extravaganza. (I'm a sucker for Japanese-anything fusion.)

Food is also an expression of love, care, welcoming, and community. It's the offer of a pani puri at a Mumbai food stall, cat (!) curry at a Burmese rickshaw driver's house, or fruit, dates and cardamom coffee in an Omani goat herder's tea room. Those are the experiences when you really get to know the locals and gain cultural understanding through the food itself and the conversation that accompanies it.

yellow durian ice cream topped with lychee ice cream

Revolting, putrid durian ice cream (yellow), which I could not finish, and I think that was lychee on top, which was delicious. Durians taste like rotten onions and milk and sugar do not improve the flavor at all!

We Americans are a bit skittish when it comes to eating abroad. But it's an excellent opportunity to broaden your horizons. Often, you'll find that the foods you're afraid of are quite delicious: Bee larvae in Japan, cricket quesadillas in Guadalajara, sweetbreads in France, reindeer in Reykjavik, and springbok in South Africa. Others, not so much — durian ice cream, anyone? Natto? Thousand-year-old eggs? (Of course, these are my opinions; there are plenty of people who will tell you these repugnant delicacies taste like rainbows with glitter sprinkles.)

beer jelly and sake jelly

Yebisu beer jelly and Backen Mozart sake jelly in a depachika in Tokyo.

I love going to grocery stores in other countries. In China, I saw a dozen kinds of jerky, including dog. In Iceland, fermented sheep's heads stared at me from a freezer case. In Andorra, you can find 20 kinds of foie gras, 30 kinds of pig products, and a hundred kinds of stinky cheese. And if you go to Japan, you must check out the depachika — department store food basements with counter after counter after counter of exquisite victuals, from Belgian chocolates and French pâtisserie to Argentinian empanadas, Chinese stir-frys, and all the Japanese basics.

frozen sheep's heads in plastic bags

The aforementioned sheep's heads. (Excuse the blur; this was taken pre-smartphones!)

But whatever delights or regrets you're masticating (or not), these are the experiences that embed as long-lasting memories, even if you'll never consume them again. You'll remember the kindness of strangers and what you learned from them. Maybe you'll make the dishes or order them in restaurants after you get home. Maybe you'll smell something later that reminds you of the experience. And probably, if you keep an open mind, you'll have tales to tell and feats to brag about.

How about you? What are your memorable food experiences? Put 'em in the comments!

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