Maybe just a little slice – travelling and food (or food and travelling)

Outdoor dining: Clarke Quay, Singapore

Food and travelling go hand in sticky hand. It doesn’t have to be high end or even particularly exotic (though it does seem to be more acceptable to spend a disproportionately large amount of cash on dinner when you’re travelling than it does on any given Friday night at home – see ‘‘Two girls’). It’s just lovely when it helps you connect with a place and with the people in it. In Hong Kong, my friend and I stopped to buy pepitas and marvelled at the fact that this was common in three different cultures (Chinese, Venezuelan and Italian) and that something as simple as a dried and salted pumpkin seed could make three disparate people smile and chat. Aw, see – so warm and fuzzy!

When travelling, however, there’s often a tug between wanting to try the local cuisine and opting for the safe and familiar. When it’s tripe and offal, sometimes we flinch a little. When the local cuisine is pizza and gelati, it’s not such a great tussle. Although when I was with a group of folks eating pizza in Venice, we munched on the thin crust scantily clad in tomato, cheese and basil in silence.  None of us wanted to say what was really in our hearts – the pizza was rubbish.  Yeah, yeah we were in Italy but the pizza was rubbish.
A little piece of Mickey at
Hong Kong Disneyland

It is, however, the thing you have to try. Each place has one of these ‘things’. Peanut butter and jam on thick sliced white bread in Canada was surprisingly heart melting. Sangria was festive in Spain, Hainese chicken was delicious in Singapore, and the chocolate cornetti and lemon granita were decadent in Rome. But the borsch in Russia made me frown, and the prospect of frog soup in Singapore made me twitch (I didn’t actually get to try that one). I did try snails in France and in my dad’s village in Italy (predictably garlicky but surprisingly hard and nuggetty), and how could I have left Scotland without trying a little pile of haggis.

But it’s the homemade meals that count the most. That’s when connection with place really kicks in. When staying with my aunt in Formia, Italy for a few weeks, food was always quite an item of discussion. First, there was the giant box of Cornflakes she showed me, smiling knowingly, when I arrived. She thought that this was compulsory Australian breakfast food and it was her way of saying welcome, and here’s a little piece of home. Then she decided that actually, it would be far more lovely for me to have a squidgy warm sugared donut from the local bakery for breakfast. She would walk down there before I woke up and then present it to me with a strong espresso. Heavenly. I mean heavenly. However, one cannot eat a donut the size of one’s face every day for weeks without feeling a little unwell. I had to go on a donut hunger strike before she would really take no for an answer.

At my aunts, we had feasts for lunch – exquisite local seafood, oversized bowls of pasta with fresh sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto with crusty bread. But one of my favourite dishes was her tomato salad. It was just tomatoes with slithers of onion, basil, salt and oil. I questioned her time and again about her secret ingredient that made this tomato salad so mouth watering but she would just laugh. I snuck into the kitchen one day to discover her splashing some water into the salad. ‘Ha! You caught me!’ she said. ‘It’s just water. I add a little and it draws more juice from the tomatoes.’ She shrugged, almost apologetically.

So simple.

But, back home, every time I make that salad (and yes, I add a splash of water) I remember the warm summer sunshine of Formia and I connect.

What food reminds you of place?

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Filed under eating out, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore

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