Notes from a Chef: Top Five Meals from Around the World
Some meals are more than just a meal. They’re an experience, as much a part of traveling as booking a plane ticket. A traveler can’t experience a culture without tasting it — I’d even venture to say that it’s the only way to truly experience culture. Food is a consumable expression of the place you are traveling, and a good meal can linger in the memory for years. I’ve been lucky to experience many meals just like this, and the stories that accompany them are often just as fun as the meal itself. Here are my Top Five Meals from my travels, and the stories that accompany them. Some of you liked the guessing game from my Places I’ve Loved post, so let’s play again!
Top Five Meals from Traveling the World
The Midnight Meze Feast
It was late at night, and we had just arrived at our hotel from the airport. We were exhausted, dirty, travel-weary, and starving. After a quick shower, we wandered down to the lobby.
“Any idea where we should go for dinner?” we asked the middle-aged front desk clerk.
“I know the perfect place,” he said with authority. “I will be off work in ten minutes, I will show you where it is.”
We hesitated. It was almost 10 p.m., and we were tired and hungry enough to just grab McDonalds and fall asleep, greasy and ashamed. But this man was so enthusiastic that we settled into the lobby chairs to wait for his shift to end.
The moment we sat down at the taverna he directed us to, we were accosted with a tray of mezes unlike any I had ever seen. My hungry eyes eagerly ate up the wealth of delectable dishes proffered by the waiter. I pointed, I pointed again, and again. And again. Our table started filling up with the most delicious array of dolmades, tzatziki, cheese saganaki, shrimp saganaki, and fresh salad with the juiciest tomatoes my American palate had ever tasted.
If the waiter wondered why two people had ordered such a glut of food, he didn’t let on. He simply brought us our Mythos beers and asked if everything tasted good. I looked up from my faceplant into a plate of fried cheese and simply nodded, my mouth too full to utter a word. For years after, I would remember this as the best meal I had ever eaten.
Where Was I?
Rozalia Taverna, Athens, Greece. [LINK to location].
For more on Greek food, check out this post.
She Offered Me the Eyeball
“You don’t need to pay for a cooking class,” the young woman I’d just met assured me. “Come to my house tomorrow, I will show you how to cook.”
I glanced at my travel companion, and we both shrugged. Why not?
Back at our friend’s house, we warily eyed the propane stove as we unpacked our groceries. But our teacher immediately threw a pan onto a raging a burner and got down to business. For the next couple of hours, we waded through exotic ingredients and a minor language barrier as we learned to cook like the locals do. We clumsily rolled spring rolls, chopped garlic and ginger and galangal and green onions, fried shallots, steamed fish, and tasted our way through sauces and garnishes.
At the end, we surveyed our work. A feast fit for at least ten people, spread out for three women from three different countries. Spring rolls, seafood pancakes, tender shrimp dumplings, and hearty beef noodles awaited consumption.
“We need to invite your friends over!” I exclaimed. But our hostess was already eagerly digging into the side of a whole steamed fish. Using her chopsticks, she gestured toward the eyeball of the fish, milky and eyeing me with disdain.
“For you,” she said around a bite of tender fish flesh.
I stared at it. Stared at my hostess. I knew she was offering it to me out of respect. Be adventurous, I told myself. But I couldn’t do it.
Fortunately, my hostess had no qualms plucking out the offending eyeball and eating it herself.
“Best part!” she happily exclaimed.
Next time, I’m eating the damn eyeball.
Where Am I?
Hoi An, Vietnam
For an eyeball-free guide to Vietnamese Food, click here.
The Joys of Dining Alone
I was entirely by myself, and only in town for a day and a half — hardly enough time to find friends. By this point, I was used to keeping my own company. Sometimes I preferred it.
I wandered over cobbled streets in the Old Town portion of this cosmopolitan European city, my destination one of the most famous restaurants in the region.
“Inside or outside, ma’am?” the maitre d’ asked me.
“Definitely outside,” I said with a smile. It was a nice summer night, and I didn’t want to hide from it.
I’d had dozens of meals on my own by this point, but there is always a twang of self-consciousness when I first settle in. As if everyone around is eyeballing me, wondering why the tall woman with the crazy hair is all alone. But the moment I surveyed the menu, my discomfort fell away.
Option after option of delectable cheese-based meals were listed before me. The waiter came back three times before I could finally choose, an endive salad and a fondue of bacon and wild mushrooms. Along with a split of local white wine, it was costing me double what my hostel stay that night cost. And I didn’t care at all.
Amidst a swirl of laughter and clinking glasses, I entered into a world of my own. Decadent, creamy flavor became my sight, sound, experience. I didn’t have to entertain anyone, and I didn’t even have to focus on anything other than the meal before me. As I finished, I glanced at the tables around me. For them, the food was secondary to the social experience of dining with friends. For me, the food had been everything. It was worth every. Single. Penny.
Where Am I?
Restaurant Les Armures, Geneva, Switzerland [LINK to location]
The Time I Ate Fire
This city astounded me. I had lovingly dubbed it “Asia York,” a crazy blend of the far east and the dizzying urban metropolis of my home country. I had never been in a place where the street could be full of suited bankers bustling from the office, and one turn down a laneway led to plucked chickens dangling from market stalls, their price marked in an alphabet I couldn’t decipher.
We ducked into a dark lobby, paper lanterns casting a glow on dark wooden tables, ancient tribal masks, and floral arrangements strung across the ceiling. Chic Asian women and suited Westerners shared tables, and I couldn’t help but feel a little under-dressed.
I let my dining companion order; she was a local in this city that captivated and overwhelmed in equal measure. Soon, dish after dish of insane Szechuan spice started piling up on the table, each more fiery than the last. Dumplings floated in chili-laden sauce, fresh crab was fried with chunks of whole red chilis, pork and beef were seasoned with lip-numbing pepper.
But there was more to the food that just spice. Hints of sweetness, cardamom, fiery cinnamon, and smoke from the grill deepened the heat. Each bite was a journey, and a test of will. Could my tastebuds handle another layer of heat? But what was that exotic aftertaste?
By the time we finished, I still hadn’t chased down all the flavors, and my tongue was scorched beyond recognition. It’s a meal that’s burned into memory, for more reasons than one.
Where Am I?
Chilli Fagara, Hong Kong [LINK to location]
For a guide to Hong Kong, click here.
A Blessing from the Food Fairy
“My friends!” came an exclamation from the bustling street corner.
The man who had helped us find bicycles to rent earlier in the day rushed toward us, a smile creasing his face.
“How was your bike ride to the beach?” Like most of the locals of this country, he genuinely wanted to ensure we’d had a good day in his hometown. Normally, this would set off alarm bells — I’d be waiting for the inevitable hustle to come next. But here, there was rarely an ulterior motive. So we asked him where we should have dinner, and he directed us down a pastel-colored street toward a restaurant he swore was the best in town.
We settled in a painted-tile dining room, surveying the menus while Caribbean beats and rapid-fire Spanish conversations flowed around us. I knew what I needed to get the moment I saw it on the menu — the national favorite, arroz con pollo.
By the time that terra cotta pot was plunked before me, I was ravenous. The rice, yellowed with annato and beer, was the perfect savory pillow for the juicy braised chicken. I dug into this plate full of comfort and barely came up for air until my belly was begging me to tap out. We tried in vain to search out our friend on the way back to our casa particular, to thank him for the perfect recommendation. But he had disappeared in the wind, a food fairy who had done his good deeds for the day.
Where Am I?
Restaurante San Jose, Trinidad, Cuba [LINK to location]
For a guide to traveling to Cuba, click here.
What have been your favorite meals while traveling abroad? Any unusual locations or experiences? These are my favorite kind of stories, tell me in the comments!