I LOVE to travel. Seriously. If I won the lottery, or otherwise became independently wealthy overnight, I would throw some clothes in a bag and jump on a plane…possibly never to return. I have a major wanderlust problem.
Many of my passions I owe to my parents. In this case my love of travel was likely sparked by my favorite childhood book called “Busy, Busy World” by Richard Scarry. Countless hour were spent listening to my dad read the stories of different countries. From Hans the Dutch plumber, to Couscous the Algerian detective, it may not be the most culturally-competent piece of literature, but it ignited a need to see the world.
As a kid I watched my parents plan family vacations before there was Kayak or Travelocity – in the days that you called an airline to book a ticket and the best hope for finding a decent hotel was the AAA book (“How many diamonds did it get?”). My parents divvied up the duties of planning trips. My mom went to the library for travel books, stopped by AAA for maps (yes, those things made of paper), and made dozens of phone calls to hotels to find the best-value accommodations for the four of us. Meanwhile my dad generated the all-important and comprehensive Excel travel spreadsheet – he created columns for flights, hotels, car rentals, and planned activities. Before we left, he printed the spreadsheet and added it to the manila folder that my mom labeled simply “[Destination] [Year].” As far as I know, they still follow this remarkable routine. Call it nature, nurture, or both…my approach to travel planning is a 50/50 fusion of Mom and Dad.
I spend an exorbitant and embarrassing amount of time planning my travels. I love it. I revel in it. As soon as there is a tentative date in the books, I’m on the couch with Tripadvisor and a glass of Merlot. Pure bliss.
I love traveling for a lot of reasons. Adventure. Culture. People. Customs and traditions. Driving on the wrong side of the road. Coffee that doesn’t taste like sewage. Weird animals. Bizarre plants. Outdoor activities that OSHA would shut down in a heartbeat. Oh, and FOOD. Lots of food!
After booking flights and hotels, my travel research goes immediately to local cuisine…the typical meals, the agriculture, the local and key ingredients, and all the bastardization that Americans have done to the country’s core dishes (Mexican food is probably the best example, although Chinese could easily be argued as #1).
I haven’t made the big 3-0 yet, but I’ve done some damage to the ol’ globe. Dan and I have a standard for counting a place as “traveled” – it only counts if you have spent the night and eaten a meal outside of the airport or hotel. Otherwise, you’ll have to go back and try harder. By last count I’ve traveled to 21 countries…and I have (at least) two more in the books for 2017. What does that mean? A lot of great food!
There are many meals that I remember fondly. Bites that I can still pull up in full technicolor smell-o-vision that create an involuntary ear-to-ear grin on my face. For me, food has always been the at the center of my memories. Travel eats and sips are no different.
Whether this post is for travel inspiration or just my fond reminiscence and gluttony, we’ll never know.
Without further adieu, I give you “Carolyn’s Top 10 Meals Abroad, So Far…” (in no particular order)
Patacones con frijoles (Casco Viejo, Panama)
Casco Viejo is the “old town” of Panama City, located just outside the main urban metropolis. The food of Panama is simple, fresh, and delicious. Patacones are found all over the country and the ones we found in Casco Viejo topped the charts. It was one of our first stops after arriving in Panama and we were looking for a satiating snack. We found it in the patacones. Imagine an enormous plantain, flattened and fried, topped with beans, fresh salsa, and cheese. It’s like nachos on steroids, but way tastier! You can eat it with a fork and knife or just tear it up with your hands. Starchy, messy, and filling. Wash it down with a Panama beer and you’re ready to take on the day!
Trdelnik (Prague, Czech Republic)
Among my backpacking travels in Europe, I spent several days exploring Prague. It was December and brutally cold. The only saving grace? Christmas markets, sparkling lights, and trdelnik – a delightfully twisted spiral of a pastry roasted on a spit and kissed by open flame. Trdelnik is as much of a spectacle as it is a food. The small market huts have several spindles turning in unison over coals. Looking something like giant sugar kebabs, you can sip your mulled wine and watch them turn until perfectly golden brown. They are then expertly sliced and slipped off onto a plate for your enjoyment. Still holding their cylindrical shape, it may be the most unique approach to pastry. Crisp, flaky, and sweet. Now if only I could pronounce it…
Albóndigas (Barcelona, Spain)
Spanish cuisine is known for small plates, better known as tapas. Cold and hot small dishes and plated up and brought to the table to share with your fellow diners. While wandering the streets of Barcelona, I stopped into a small, unassuming cafe with a simple menu that lacked any English translation. Being that my Spanish is poor and the people of Barcelona speak Catalan, I picked the only thing I recognized – meatballs. Albóndigas are a tapas menu staple and this little cafe whipped up the best batch I’ve ever tried. In a small pot, these juicy, slightly crispy meatballs are served in a spicy, chunky tomato sauce. They are the perfect compliment to the lighter tapas. They are great for a snack, even better for a meal, and the best as both. Mmhmmm, that’s how you do tapas!
Røkt laks (Oslo, Norway)
I traveled to Norway during the month of November. It was snowing and the wind cut straight down to your bones. While wandering Oslo on foot I worked up an appetite and found myself in a handful of cafes, probably more for the indoor heating than the food, but I was pleasantly surprised by the latter! Prior to setting foot in Oslo my limited understanding of Nordic/Scandinavian cuisine consisted of lutefisk and the IKEA cafeteria. As a backpacking college student, my budget was tight and Scandinavia is expensive, so I’ll admit that most of my calories came from “boller” (chocolate buns for a few kroner each). But for one meal per day I went big – and that usually meant fish. To my delight (and sadness) the number of delicious fish dishes far outnumbered my days in country. My favorite of them all was røkt laks, which is just outstanding smoked salmon. It is served many ways, as part of a bigger dish or solo. I preferred it as part of breakfast with eggs and a slice of ridiculously dense bread. This is the type of meal that gives your body plenty of energy and gives your stomach a challenge for the next six hours. On the cheap and freezing in Oslo? Get yourself some røkt laks!
Baguette (Paris, France)
When I was little my dad would tell me stories of his world travels. One of my favorites was from Paris. He spoke of wandering into a French bakery overwhelmed by the sights and smells, buying a classic baguette that was perfectly golden, and then walking the River Seine, tearing off small pieces and enjoying the city and the bread. He described it as a ‘perfect day in Paris.’ I tucked story this away for years until I wound up in Paris in the fall of 2007. Bound and determined I found the best bakery I could smell, bought a classic baguette, and took a stroll down the Seine, taking in the surreal surroundings of the Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. Bread has never tasted so crusty, fluffy, and chewy. The smell is one that will stay with me forever. And, for the record, it was even better than my dad said it would be.
The World’s Freshest Tuna (Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan)
Japan is incredible. Of all of my travels, this island nation takes the cake for the most adventurous culinary experience…and I loved every minute of it. The world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market was one of my last stops in Japan. I made a point to be there at dawn for the tuna auction where the fisherman drag in their morning catches and lay them out for seafood shops and restaurants to battle over. In a whirlwind of yells and smells, enormous tuna are whisked off to their final destinations. Naturally, I followed. Outside the auction are dozens of stalls that were slicing, dicing, and prepping their winnings. I spent the better part of an hour watching the spectacle that is the traditional preparation of the tuna with upwards of 10 different knives, blades, and swords(?). And then I bellied up to the bar and chowed down on the freshest, tastiest sushi I have ever had (and probably ever will). There is much chatter online about whether Tsukiji is worth rising before sunrise. I’m telling you here and now that it is. Set the alarm, grab some good coffee (and there’s plenty in Tokyo!), and make your way to the auction. No regrets.
Fresh Coconut (Roseau, Dominica)
We stayed with a friend’s aunt in Dominica [dom-ih-NEE-kah], a lesser-known island in the Caribbean that they call the “Nature Isle.” Dominica is the island out of storybooks with rolling hills, lush forests, untouched hotsprings, rocky shorelines, and coconut palms for miles. After one particularly festive evening out with friends, our crew was not feeling 100% in the morning. Noticing our struggle, our hostess convinced a young Haitian boy to climb the large palm in the yard and get some coconuts. As if his tree climbing and coconut machete skills weren’t impressive enough, the juice from the coconuts was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Sweet, sour, creamy, refreshing…and the perfect cure for whatever happened last night.
Bratwürst and sauerkraut (Munich, Germany)
I’ll start of by saying that I did not spend enough time in Germany. But, with any luck, I’ll be headed back to Bavaria this fall for redemption. In my short stint in Munich I had my fare share of snacks. My favorite, by far, was none other than the classic bratwürst. This is not the sausage of your childhood potluck or 4th of July gathering. Cast away your expectations set by Johnsonville and Jimmy Dean, this is the real deal. Fresh sausage with subtle spicing, perfectly browned and served atop a juicy bed of homemade crunchy and tangy sauerkraut. This ups the sausage game to level 10. German sausage carts are plentiful and with so many different types to choose from, it is hard to pick a favorite. I made a point to work my way through the menus, but I always came back to the brat. The classic wins again.
Gorditas de nopales (Bernal, Querétaro, Mexico)
In summer of 2015 I joined Dan on a work trip to Mexico City. We stayed with a co-worker of his (Victor) who lived about three hours outside of the city center in Querétaro (the traffic is way worse than L.A., so I’m pretty sure he lived a few blocks from the office). Our time with Victor included some of the sportiest adventures we’ve experienced and he never led us astray for good eats. I love Mexican food so it was hard to pick a favorite from this trip – I could have done a top 10 for Mexico City alone – but the Gorditas de nopales from Bernal cannot be beat. Fresh masa cooked on a flat grill while you wait, then stuffed with sauteed nopales (cactus) and served with freshly ground red chile straight out of the mortar. I could eat them everyday. Is that an option?
Kaiserschmarren with Zwetschkenröster (Vienna, Austria)
Somehow the Danes got all the credit for making pastries, but the truth is that Viennese pastries are the inspiration behind your Americanized “danish” (Fun Fact: The Danish word for “danish” is wienerbrød which means ‘Austria Bread’). Austria was part of my solo backpacking adventure in 2007 and, as a frugal and hungry traveler, I was always up for a cheap and delicious snack. Enter the Viennese bakery. Vienna has some of the most impressive, yet unassuming, bakeries that I have stumbled upon (and when it comes to baked goods, I can stumble like a champ). Of all the nibbles I had in Austria, kaiserschmarren was my favorite. Kaiserschmarren is an eggy, almost custardy, pancake that has been shredded while it cooks. It is served with fruit compote, most commonly zwetschkenröster, which is made from plums. The pancake is a soft texture with crispness on the outside and the plums adds a fresh and sweet contrast to the doughy noodle-like pastry pile. My favorite experience of kaiserschmarren was, like many of my adventures, a serendipitous event. I got turned around while en-route to the Freud museum and I walked into some sort of mid-afternoon cocktail party in an art gallery where my smelly, backpack-schlepping self was welcomed with open arms and given a plate of shredded pancakes and a glass of wine. A delightful older woman led me around the exhibit, pointing and (what I can only assume was) talking about the paintings, clearly undeterred than my German was limited to Ja, Nein, and Bier. Now that is Austrian hospitality!