One of our greatest pleasures of travel is indulging in the local cuisine. Even though today many exotic international ingredients and flavors can now be found on Amazon, there is nothing like the in-country version. The tastes, smells, sights and ambience create a complete package. For this year-of-Covid-19 post, I’ve reflected on our favorite food destinations, some of which are cliché while others may surprise you.
Little is more cliché than great sushi in Japan but that doesn’t make it less delicious. Shushi in Japan is wonderful – super fresh, varied and generally a better value than you find in the US. Sure you can pay astronomical sums, but you don’t have to. A 800 yen ($7.50USD) lunch in Tokyo got me a sumptuous plate of fresh morsels far superior to a comparable restaurant in the US.
Japanese cuisine, however, is much more than sushi. A bowl of ramen noodles can be a masterpiece. A multi-course kaiseki dinner is an indulgence of impressive presentations and subtle flavors. Enjoy luscious piles of melt in your mouth beef and vegies at a sukiyaki dinner cooked at your table. For a more causal experience, yakitori offers a surprising variety of grilled chicken treats. These are few just examples. Japanese restaurants are generally small and focused on a particular type of cuisine – sushi, ramen, sukiyaki, tempura, etc., so although you may be eating Japanese every night the experience is quite varied.
Combine fresh seafood with outstanding agricultural products and you get the Sicilian food scene. The Catania fish market in particular provides a dizzying display of sea creatures. Tuna, swordfish and shrimp are popular but my favorite is the fresh squid sold with its ink needed for the classic pasta al nero di seppia – a rich black briny sauce with a taste of the sea.
You can also find specialty ingredients such as tomato estratto – a super tomato paste of sorts in which ripe tomatoes are spread on a table and stirred by hand under the hot Sicilian sky for days until they form a thick paste.
Meat lovers should try Palermo’s panino con milze (spleen sandwich), a street food sandwich of rich spleen meat seasoned with a bit salt and lemon, the flavor of the meat soaking into the soft bread. If you like organ meats this is the sandwich for you.
Never have I eaten more top notch Ceviche than in Rapa Nui on Easter Island. During our 6 day stay I had one of their staple foods, ceviche, every day for lunch at various restaurants and was never disappointed. While there is not a big difference between interpretations – why mess with perfection – fresh and well executed it was one of my favorite aspects of the trip.
Scandinavia does not generally come to mind when thinking about great places to eat but Copenhagen, with some of the world’s top restaurants, is the exception. Restauranteurs have a flare for the inventive using top notch ingredients to create visually appealing and tasty master pieces. Even after spending a year in France this was one of my favorite food cities. Even more surprisingly, one of my favorite dishes of the year was the liver and onions at Fiskebar – caramelized on the outside and luscious on the inside.
The Chinese love to eat and more importantly they love to eat in restaurants, creating a vibrant and varied food scene at all price levels. Americans and Europeans may have a narrow view of Chinese cuisine, based on their restaurant experiences, but in truth the variety of flavors is astounding; from the spicy hot and mouth tingling sensations of the Sichuan province to the delicate nuance flavor combinations of Zhejiang.
With restaurants catering to locals rather than foreign tourists you are more like to have a delicious authentic experience. The cost, however, is learning how to negotiate a Chinese menu. Some will have pictures to ease the confusion and servers are generally helpful. They truly want you to enjoy your meal. For the adventurous diner it’s one of the highlights of the country.
Our last trip, in December 2019 before Covid-19, was to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. I was reminded of just how much I love authentic Mexican food. What we get in the US can be very good but the regional variations in ingredients and preparations make in-county dining special.
In the Yucatan for example the cuisine is heavily influenced by the tropical climate, the Mayan culture and early European settlers using ingredients such as annatto seed which gives cochinita pibil (slow cooked pork) its red hue, sour oranges for a tangy flavor, habanero pepper for heat and banana leaves to keep foods moist when cooking. In our travels of the region we found the food consistently good – even the ordinary corn chips they have on the table are consistently better – with menus listing at least one or two local dishes to try.
My favorite things to eat in France are the salades composées full of meats, cheeses, vegies and perfect greens with a heavenly dressing. Paired with a crusty baguette and a glass of rosé there’s nothing better for lunch on a summer day.
The menu will list the salad choices, often named for a region, by their geographic designation such as Niçoise – tuna, olives, green beans, potatoes, boiled egg; Auvergnate – blue cheese, dry sausage, walnuts; Montagnarde – cheeses and cured meats; Norvégienne – smoked salmon, avocado, boiled egg. One of my favorites, however, Salade de Gesiers, is named for the main ingredient – gizzards of either chicken or duck.
Greece was listed in my last post on our favorite road trips. One of the things that made the trip memorable was the consistently great food. Our tour around the Peloponnese peninsula produced plate after plate of perfectly fried fresh hot little fish. One of the most outstanding was the red mullet at Savouras in Nafplio where Don picked out our dinner from the cooler before they were cooked up. Always served fresh hot, never were these little beauties cooked up ahead of time waiting for a diner to order them.
We also enjoyed plenty of Greek salads made as the Greek’s do without lettuce, rich yogurt dishes such as tzatziki, grilled whole fish and succulent lamb.