I once counted all the countries I have visited, and came up with 16 different places. If I had counted landings in countries where I never left the airport, I could add about seven more. But visiting a country is one thing – only this week I heard a travel writer, no less, confess that he was often afraid to eat in some of the places he visited and wrote about. Over time I took a much different tack. Without even trying, my trips provided multitudes of opportunities to try new foods, and tracking down each country’s signature dishes became my quest.
My first trek into Europe was to the Eastern side, to Ukraine. Only one dish had come up on the radar for this country: borsch. Borsch is essentially a beet soup, and I don’t know if I had ever had a beet prior to this trip. It was served at least once on the Dnieper River cruise ship that served as our transport, room and board, and all I can remember is that I tried it. No bad memories, really, but I’m not sure I’ve had many bites of beet since then, either. On the way home from that trip we stopped in Vienna, Austria for a night. My goal was schnitzel. The truth is I remember more about the taxi ride around Vienna (our whirlwind tour of the city) and the driver’s attempt to find a restaurant that accepted tired, poorly dressed Americans for dinner than I do about the schnitzel itself. I definitely need to go back for more schnitzel, though I can skip a repeat engagement with the borsch.
In our nearly ten years living overseas we spent just over a month in England. We were surprised to learn that the most common type of food on the island was Indian, but that was not what we were looking for. The classic British meal I was seeking was fish & chips. My parents found The Globe Tavern, known for fish & chips and a ghost story to boot. The fried components were memorable, but what I could not abide was the traditional side dish: mushy green peas. I didn’t even eat those at home, so why would I want to pay for them at inflated British prices? I did ask if there was anything I could substitute and I guess that just wasn’t done at the Globe. Along the way, I also encountered a surprisingly good rhubarb pie. I’m not sure how distinctly English that is, but I can still almost taste the hot and steamy goodness, contrasted with the tart-sweetness of the rhubarb, and nearly drowned with creamy English custard sauce.
By the time I got to Paris, I had begun to take food more seriously – good timing, I thought. In fact, it was in France that I realized my vacations were becoming far more food-focused, and my wife lovingly acknowledged that it was okay to be that way. Just before we traveled, I read Calvin Trillin’s book, Travels with Alice, where he described one of his favorite habits: going to weekly French street markets, picking up bits of fresh this and local that, and having a picnic. Within 24 hours of landing, my father-in-law’s garage sale tracking device had sensed one just a block away from our lodgings. Everywhere we went, we seemed to run into more and more of what the kids called “stinky cheese”, each one still a vivid olfactory memory. Somewhere along the way I found either a croque-monsieur (a hot ham and cheese sandwich) or a croque-madame (the same with a fried egg on top), I can’t remember. I never was very good with genders in French class anyway. Crepes were next on my itinerary – first, a sweet one with chocolate and banana near Notre Dame, and a savory one the next week in Normandy. The epitome of French food is foie gras, which is duck or goose liver pate’. Ironically, our first opportunity to try this was not at a white-tablecloth fine dining establishment, but at the Hippopotamus family restaurant. I know what you are thinking, and no, they did not offer any hippopotamus meat on the menu. But yes, I would have tried it if they had. The foie gras, according to my journal, was only fair, but the crème brulee we had for dessert was delicious.
Shortly before our daughter was born we decided to take a “last chance before the second child” vacation to the southern coast of Spain. We met another couple there who knew a smattering of Spanish, and to my amazement that bit of linguistic knowledge scored us a pound or two of the sweetest shrimp I have ever had – right off the boat, right out of the Mediterranean Sea. Seafood was also a key part of a giant platter of paella, Spain’s famous rice dish, that we devoured the same week. On the other end of the Mediterranean, on the Greek side of the island of Cyprus I had moussaka, the Greek eggplant and meat casserole (to over-simplify a really tasty dish). In Turkey – what do you think? Turkish delight.
If my travels to Europe brought me classic dishes, then I suppose Africa and the Middle East brought the exotic. Next week, tastes of camel, and zebra and boerewors – oh my.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .