There’s nothing better than exploring a new culture through the lens of food, be it crepes on a street corner or ordering an unknown item at the market. But any self-respecting food-lover should travel well prepared, and there are a few key items you should always have in your luggage. Here’s the essential packing list for anyone that’s ready to eat their way through wherever they’re traveling.
1. Reusable bag
Come well prepared for market shopping. You have to have something to put all that local produce in.
2. Ground coffee + coffee filter
Rule number one of traveling: never, ever, ever be without coffee. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a hotel or hostel with mediocre coffee options, so bring your own. MSR makes a cool reusable filter that fits right into your mug, so all you have to get your hands on is some hot water.3. Tea bags
Another good item to add to your “just in case of an emergency” collection are tea bags. This way you’ll always be able to brew a mug after a long day out on the town.
4. Reusable containers
When you’re headed out for a long day of exploring, it’s smart to take some provisions with you, and a good reusable container will keep all your food in one spot. I find they are particularly helpful for carrying fruit, protecting it from bouncing around in your backpack. The MC2 from Innate is perfect, as the silicone lid doubles as a bowl.
5. Corkscrew/bottle opener
Particularly if you’re in a country known for wine, you’ll want a corkscrew opener on hand, and the same goes for bottle openers in beer loving countries. This way you can buy a few libations at a market or grocery store and do your own local tasting. Just remember to put it in your checked luggage, or if you’re traveling light with carry-on only, snag one upon arrival.
Whether you’re slicing off fresh cheese from a French market, cutting into artisan salami in Italy or slicing a mango in Thailand, a knife will serve you well. A classic is the good ole Opinel. Just be sure it’s packed in your checked luggage.
7. Tea towel
Tea towels can do wonders for impromptu picnics, giving you a small tablecloth that you can spread out wherever you’re sitting, keeping your food items off the ground.
Note down where you ate, what you ate and everything in between. A small journal is perfect for tracking all of your culinary experiences and keeps you from saying “what was the name of that cute hole-in-the-wall?” a few years later. Coffee, beer, wine or whiskey lover? Consider the 33 Books series which has specific journals for each drink.
If you’re eating on the go, a reusable spork is indispensable. It keeps you from having to waste a bunch of flimsy plastic forks (that never feel good in your mouth anyway) and you’re always ready to eat, be it airport food or street food. I prefer a metal one, like the titanium one from SnowPeak, because you don’t have to worry about it breaking in your bag.
I really hate the F-word. I think it’s overused, lazy and borderline offensive. I’m talking about the word “foodie,” a concept we have rallied against here before, yet the movement seems to stay strong and keep evolving with the advent of the latest bacon Frankenstein dish or artisanal ketchup. I do love food, and sometimes a meal (or more often for me, a really good peach) can be transformative. My singular “fancy” New York dinner in over a dozen years in the city was a worthy splurge at Momofuku Ko, made all the more enjoyable as we dined in jeans, listening to the Violent Femmes. In my career in travel PR, I have had the luck to dine in some of the world’s best restaurants, multiple times, for free. While I loved trying pine needle risotto and lobster spring rolls, I hated the feeling of being fattened up for the slaughter, of having to pace myself through 15 courses, of feeling like a competitor in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and being expected to pay a day’s salary for the privilege.
While I can appreciate a lovingly prepared, picked-in-its-prime, artfully presented dish, sometimes I think food is just a means to an end, quick fuel to keep you going. I’ve eaten many a “dirty water” New York hot dog without giving it a thought, had microwave popcorn for dinner, and subsisted on beers and ham-and-cheese toasties on the road. I’m one of those people who “forgets” to eat, and especially now that I have a toddler at heel all the time, I often wish I could just take a pill to replace the tasks of cooking, eating, and cleaning up after. Preparing a multi-course meal on the scale of the average Japanese or Italian home cook is just not in my wheelhouse. Or could it be?
We recently took a two-week trip to Sicily, the last “big” trip we’ll take before my baby turns 2 next month and we have to start paying for her tickets. The highlight of the trip was a week spent in a rented farmhouse outside the town of Noto in the southeast. Set amidst lemon trees and a small river to wade in, the interior was especially the stuff of “Under the Tuscan Sun”-style fantasies: three bedrooms with beamed ceilings and iron beds, a cozy living room loaded with an international assortment of books and board games around a Moroccan-style fireplace, a bathroom with soaking tub (a rarity in Italy, where claustrophobic showers that flood the bathroom are the norm), and the pièce de résistance: a huge kitchen with a long dining table, large center island, and lots of light and space. The sort of kitchen you might imagine yourself in, barefoot in a fabulous sun dress, cold glass of wine in hand, chopping herbs just picked from the garden, while your beaming child munches on organic fruit and your relaxed husband takes a break from staring out into the valley to light the coals for your 5 euro steak filets. That pretty much sums up my week.
Cooking each night with the resources of Italian supermarkets, food specialty shops and green markets broadened my palate as well as my waistline. When artisanal, organic and locally made foods are the norm and not the exception, being a foodie becomes more human, less pretentious. I put my college minor in Italian to the test when going to the butcher, the baker and the gelato maker. In Sicily, it is socially acceptable to eat gelatofor breakfast (sometimes on a slightly sweet brioche roll), but as the weather was starting to heat up and even the small town gelaterias had a wide range of flavors to sample, I thought it fair to eat twice a day. The highlights were milk & honey in Noto and a peach bourbon in Modica; there were no low points in the ice cream sampling. Adopting the local customs, we planned for a primo, a salad, and a main course each night. Sometimes we’d be too stuffed from a bruschetta-like salad and frozen pizza enlivened with spicy sausage, basil from our garden and roasted cherry tomatoes; we would have to forgo the herb-and-parmesan rubbed pork chops we grilled until the next night.
Did I mention I’m also not a tomato person? While I like a marinara sauce as much as the next gal, I never could handle the texture of a raw tomato: seedy, watery, anemic. A sun-dried tomato held some appeal, but I’d still eat dishes like bruschetta like a culinary Russian roulette: one bite delicious melted cheese, the next would be all slimy seeds and rough skin. Living in Turkey with amazing produce had warmed me to the idea of a raw tomato, but after nearly a year back in the U.S., I was back on strike. In Sicily, staying close to the town of Pachino, a tomato Mecca, I ate them like potato chips, even adding them to already tomato-heavy pasta dishes and pizzas. Who knew the wee cherry tomato could be so bursting with flavor, so devoid of seedy ickiness, so much like a fruit?
We’ve now been home in Brooklyn over a week and life is slowly returning to normal. The jet lag has abated enough that I can stay up later than 9 p.m. again, and the scale is less angry at me than when we first returned. I’ve been experimenting with how to use the pistachio pesto (add lots of garlic for pasta, spread extra on sandwiches) and pistachio cream (dip berries, or as the Internet wisely suggests, spoon directly into mouth) purchased in the markets, and am hoarding the sun-dried Pachino tomatoes for after summer. I’ve made bruschetta a few times, though the cost of decent tomatoes and fresh mozzarella in Brooklyn would make most Italians choke on their crostini. At least at home I could rediscover what’s great about not being in Italy: non-Italian food. Avocados returned to my salads, Chinese moo shoo pancakes were now available, and salmon roe was just a quick subway ride to Brighton Beach away. While I miss the twice-daily gelato fixes, Sicily taught me that enjoying food doesn’t have to be pretentious or expensive, and you can always follow your stomach to what’s most freshly available in your area, whether that’s spaghetti with fresh tuna and red pesto sauce or a perfectly done burger and fries. And sometimes, microwave popcorn makes a fine second course.
A big topic around the water cooler Twitter this week is a New York Times story on restaurants and food photography. Some chefs like David Bouley encourage snapping photos of your dishes, even going so far as letting you in the kitchen to get the best shot, while others like Momofuku‘s David Chang have outright banned cameras. Restaurateurs argue that constantly whipping out your phone to document each course distracts from the meal, your dining companion, and even the chef. Instagram-loving patrons feel it’s a “tribute” to the chef, and even gives the restaurant free advertising.
We’ve discussed Instagram and travel photography before, and how all those fun filters can be considered “cheating” at getting a great travel picture. You could say the same about food photography, that using effects can alter the presentation of the food, to say nothing of how it alters the dining experience. It’s another symptom of the cult of foodie-ism and the tendency to not live in the moment while you try to share your experience with the world. But are some meals worth remembering past the dessert course?
This week, hip hop legend and Roots drummer Questlove made a pilgrimage to Tokyo‘s Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant – subject of the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and the start of Questlove’s obsession – and Instagrammed the whole meal. He respectfully asked permission and even took a pic of another photographer nearby. His photos are nothing groundbreaking, but his refreshingly unpretentious and conversational commentary makes you feel like you are right there with him, enjoying some $300 sushi. It’s eating vicariously through social media at its best.
Do you Instagram your meals? Where do you side on photography in restaurants?
If you are planning a trip to Rome this year and want to be sure to eat well, download food blogger Katie Parla’s Rome for Foodies app for iPhone and iPad. The Rome travel app features short and sweet reviews of everything delicious, from best bakeries for breakfast to wine bars. All of the app’s maps and features can be accessed offline, and you can filter by budget, category and distance. What sets Rome for Foodies apart from other travel apps is an insider’s guide to the city with thoughtfully chosen recommendations personally vetted by a food lover and city expert. You can also get an up-to-date stream of Katie’s latest blog posts about Rome if you are connected to the Internet, and see her favorites in Katie’s Picks.
If you are in New York City this weekend for the New York Times Travel Show, be sure to see Katie speak about Italian craft beer on the Europe stage, and participate in a seminar on the latest apps for travel, along with signing copies of her National Geographic book on walking in Rome.
Buy “Rome for Foodies” on iTunes or via ParlaFood.com.
Budget-savvy and food-loving visitors to Istanbul have found an excellent resource in Istanbul Eats for several years, and now can find more authentic and off-the-beaten-path tips in Athens, Barcelona, and Shanghai, with Mexico City on the way. Culinary Backstreets was launched this week as an extension of IstanbulEats.com, a blog reviewing Turkey’s best street food, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and unique dishes. Founded in 2009 by two American expats, Istanbul Eats launched a book in 2010 (now in its third edition, and available at nearly every bookshop in Istanbul and online, in English, Turkish, Greek, and even Korean!) as well as culinary tours through the Old City, Beyoglu, and even cross-continent. Istanbul Eats has garnished a devoted fan base who’ve been wishing for “an Istanbul Eats-like guide to restaurants in every city,” hence the creation of Culinary Backstreets.
Culinary Backstreets is a site for travelers who eschew tourist menus, ask cab drivers where to dine, and frequently find themselves the only foreigner in a cafe. Each city will be covered by local food writers who regularly comb the streets in search of the tastiest tidbits. So far, each city has posted a “State of the Stomach” guide, outlining the current food scene, the eats locals line up for, and practical tips for following your stomach to the traditional and the trendy restaurants. Culinary walks are currently being offered in Istanbul and Shanghai, with more cities coming soon.