A Hong Kong street vendor. (Photo: Stocksy.com)
When I travel, food is a focus. Friends who travel with me know that I leave all cultural points of interest to their choosing, but I take charge of the meals. Restaurants are booked in advance of hotels, and there may well be multiple lunches and “snacks” in order to squeeze additional samples into the itinerary. I don’t visit countries as much as eat my way through them.
And it’s not just because I love food – I love the experience of it. Many stories begin with the hunt for a local specialty or with a hidden gem stumbled upon unexpectedly. I’ve crossed busy, signal-free intersections of Ho Chi Minh City with motorcycles passing close enough for me to touch the three or more passengers – all in search of the “best” pho. I’ve haunted side alleys and street vendors in Uruguay on a quest for the perfect Chivito, a sublime sandwich of thinly sliced beef with cheese, tomatoes, fried egg and bacon. That alone was worth the trip.
Sometimes, it’s a search well rewarded; other times, it’s a complete surprise that defines a trip. San Sebastian in Spain holds more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in Europe (and second worldwide only to Kyoto), and, of course, I tried more than a couple of those renowned restaurants. They were good, but expectedly so. The true culinary treats, though, were the pintxos, the small bites on slices of bread offered in the bars in the evening. Find the right bars, ask for their house specials and you’ll find some very creative combinations. My favorite was Bar Zeruko’s smoked cod, thinly sliced and set in tongs over a small cup of smoking charcoal. The best cheesecake I’ve ever had can be found at La Vina. I don’t even like cheesecake, but I ordered theirs twice a day.
My favorite food story, though, comes from a more unlikely culinary destination: Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was there with a group, visiting Angkor Wat. The tour company, as part of their mission to give back to local communities, took us to a school founded by local entrepreneur Sot Kemsour. Having worked with entrepreneurs for more than 10 years, I was interested in his story, but I think it’s one any person could admire.
After five days of the same damn thing for every meal, though, I could have punched someone for a burger and fries. On day six, I ate a can of Pringles found under a layer of dust in the back of a store.
Kemsour grew up in a small village near Siem Reap but left when he was young to make money to put himself through school. He drove a tuk tuk to support himself and then saved enough money to buy his own tuk tuk and then another. He eventually started his own business, operating a fleet of tuk tuks. Later, when he returned to the village for his wedding, he realized how difficult things had become and how few children were able to attend school. Kemsour sold his business to fund New Hope, an organization dedicated to helping the people of his village. He started with a free school for the children but soon realized they would need jobs when they finished. The facility has since grown to include a number of training programs, such as hospitality and sewing (many clothing companies have their factories there). Our dinner that night was in the tiny restaurant on the premises, overseen by Kemsour’s wife, a trained chef, and staffed by the students. It one of best meals I’ve ever had, and it only cost twelve dollars…and all my clothes.
I’m not joking about the last part. The charge for the dinner was twelve dollars. New Hope, however, also welcomes donations, including clothing and other items. The facility also has a medical clinic and a shelter for abused women, so they have a long list of needs. I gave them money plus everything in my luggage. This is why, in every photo from Cambodia, I look like an asshole, wearing poorly sized and mismatched clothes I bought on the street, probably stolen or discarded from the same factories that produced the clothes I had just given away.
Such is travel.
Even bad food can be a good story. When my friend and I arrived in Morocco, we thought the food was fantastic. We eagerly planned future tagine purchases so we could replicate the dishes at home. We would stock up on harissa and couscous and amaze people with our skills.
After five days of the same damn thing for every meal, though, I could have punched someone for a burger and fries. I couldn’t take another tagine. On day six, I ate a can of Pringles found under a layer of dust in the back of a store.
It’s not that the food wasn’t good; I just learned to appreciate variety and temper my enthusiasm. I’ve since regained my taste for couscous; never did buy a tagine. But I’ve told that story again and again.
I know some people for whom food is a merely a biological necessity. They don’t enjoy food, don’t care to experiment. I’ve sat across from someone in a restaurant in New Delhi who only wanted a salad, which they didn’t offer. He gave a long discourse on how they could make one, as if they would. I suggested something cooked might actually be a safer bet, but we both learned lessons that night. Mine was to travel with other foodies.
And when I travel alone, it’s often through food I meet and get to know others. I’ve never been invited to a walk around a museum, but I’ve often found myself joining newly introduced people for lunch or dinner or drinks.
That’s why food is more than sustenance – it’s communal, cultural, experiential. I may choose destinations based on monuments or temples or beaches, but I most anticipate and savor my meals. I may travel to see the sites, but it’s the food I remember.