As a food and travel writer, I log a lot of air and land miles, but I can count on one hand how many airline meals I’ve eaten. Even as a kid-admittedly the most irritatingly picky eater on the planet-I refused to choke down in-flight chicken the texture of sawdust, or boiled-to-death pasta and vegetables. My parents, at their wit’s end, finally gave up. Ordering pizza the night before a plane trip became a ritual, because I’d eat the leftovers once airborne (after scraping off the sauce, but I digress).
In some ways, things have changed. I will now eat anything, often to the detriment of my health, for the purposes of work, or a good story. Dog, insects, horse; I don’t get all the fuss over the Donner Party. I will not, however, eat airline, train, heat-and-serve gas station, or ferry fare, unless I’m being paid to do so. I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find institutional food repugnant, because it usually takes like ass. Don’t even get me started on the nutritional aspects. And in my defense, I have a serious weakness for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. No, I skip mass transit meals because one of the greatest joys of travel is trying new foods.
I prefer to use my captive travel time to savor local produce and products purchased from farmer’s markets, food halls, street food vendors, or take-away joints. It’s generally the best, as well as cheapest, way to eat on the go, and it’s a great way to experience the food culture of a country or region, even if you’ve never left the United States.
When I’m in Honolulu, I pick up the fat, juicy, char siu pork-stuffed manapua (steamed dumplings) from Libby Manapua (conveniently located en route to the airport). I’m not alone; the little shop’s pink cardboard cake boxes are a frequent site on inter-island and Mainland-bound flights.
In Naples, I’ve brought calzone and the makings for an impromptu insalata Caprese on the train, and done the same with majouba from Marseilles. On flights I’ve scarfed down Argentinean empanadas, Singaporean sticky rice stuffed with pork, and this soy custardy thing studded with slippery bits of florescent tapioca from Bangkok. I also load up on interesting snack foods: Peruvian cancha, fried fava beans in Ecuador, Mexican tamales, Vietnamese roasted chestnuts, and mochi from Asian groceries in Australia. And under no circumstances should you depart Miami without cuban pork sandwiches from Palacios de los Jugos, in Little Havana.
My favorite mobile meal, however, was a picnic I assembled for a 15-hour train ride from Provence to Madrid. I was staying in the village of Cassis, which is famed for its bustling farmers market. En route to the train station, I hit the market, picking up a couple of different crottins (small rounds of goat cheese), bread, pâté, sausage, and a handful of plump, crimson cherries. A bottle of Bandol rosè from the nearby village of the same name also helped to pass the time.
If you live somewhere known for its local ingredients or dishes, it’s just as easy to assemble a memorable meal to take en route to your destination. One of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received was when a chef friend dropped off a pre-flight bag lunch for me to take on a flight. In it were some of his favorite things from the Berkeley farmer’s market: a loaf of crusty, country-style levain, a round of chevre, and a fat, juicy peach. I arrived at my destination sated and happy. That’s the experience that made me stop making do with meals of soggy, lukewarm sandwiches from home, or Power Bars (although I always have plenty stashed in my day pack for emergency snacks).
A few tips on portable meals:
If you don’t travel light or are on a road trip, keep a small Tupperware container to hold fruit, to prevent it from bruising, or a single-serving-size insulated or neoprene bag to keep perishables cool.
If you backpack, as I do, you can still get away with carrying a few essentials: pocketknife (unless you’re carry-on only), and a wine opener. Carabiners are good to clip on your daypack, as they aid in holding purchases.
If you’ve purchased meat (even if it’s cured), dairy products, honey, or produce, be prepared to consume it en route- you won’t be able to take if off the plane or over borders. At least, not legally. This can also apply on domestic flights, usually in regard to produce.
Do be considerate of your seatmates. If you’re traveling Stateside, or in places where fragrant/heavily spiced cuisine isn’t the norm, skip it. Because hell on earth is being stuck on a plane next to someone eating a warm tuna sandwich. Also, it’s good form, as well as a cultural imperative in some countries, to offer your neighbors a little snack.
Most cultures have foods, such as a variation on dumplings, that are ideal for transit. In Asia and India, food hawkers often sell food on the train or in stations. These may be some of the best, most authentic eats you’ll find, but be forewarned that few things ruin a long train or bus ride like foodborne illness. Only buy fresh, hot food from busy vendors, bring bottled water, and carry a box of Imodium (seriously). Happy travels!
The whole point of travel picnics is to make do when you can’t cook, but I make these olives to take on road trips. They also make nice cocktail snacks or a casual accompaniment to a cheese plate. They’re typical of the type of prepared food you’ll find in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets.
10 oz. dry cured or green olives, or combination of the two, such as Moroccan or Picholine
3 or 4 strips of orange peel (not zest- use a vegetable peeler to cut wide strips, avoiding any pith)
2 cloves garlic, gently crushed
2 pinches red chile flakes
1 to 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium low heat, adding more olive oil if too dry. Warm until heated through, then remove from heat, transfer to small bowl, and allow to sit one hour, so flavors develop.