I’ve been talking to many people lately about traveling and cooking. Travel cooking. Not traveling [full stop] and cooking [full stop] — but about cooking while traveling (or traveling while cooking, as the case may be). When I have these discussions about travel, vacations, and cooking I generally get one of two responses. Either ‘it’s a vacation, why would I want to spend a minute in the kitchen?’ or ‘of course I cook when I travel’. It seems that amongst people I know there are two camps. And, like any evangelical cook I often find myself explaining my case and trying to convert the non-cooking crowd. My given reasons ranges from the practical, to the romantic, to the quasi-philosophical. So, in order from the most practical to the most esoteric, here goes.
Save Money, Eat Better
Often great travel destinations are fair to poor food destinations. Islands, beaches, little mountain towns, and remote villages all have myriad attractions both physical and spiritual, but often few restaurants actually worth visiting. Additionally, if you are there as a tourist the chances are good you aren’t the first. In other words, it could be a tourist destination — and prices will reflect that. Rather than more pricey tourist grub, do your own thing. It doesn’t matter if that is braised lamb shanks or a cheese sandwich, it will be better and cheaper.
This may seem counter intuitive. How can buying ingredients, cooking a meal, and cleaning up be easier than going to a restaurant? In many ways. In popular summer time destinations, there are wait-lists and lines and slow service. In little European villages meals are served at meal time – often exclusively, and you should plan on 3 to 4 courses at a leisurely pace. And that’s all great, if that’s your plan for the evening. But if you want to tour the sights by moonlight, or make that 8:30 river cruise then dinner at ‘home’ is far simpler. Plus, kids. I have two young children, who are generally fine in restaurants — but I’d still rather cook most nights than deal with the night that they decide not to be fine.
I’m a big believer in using seasonal, local ingredients as much as possible. So, when I change my location I get to explore and experience a whole new universe of local food. Whether it’s Mozzarella di Bufala in Naples or Dungeoness Crab in San Francisco, almost every place has its special treat. These ingredients will never be as good, as flavorful, as available, and as cheap as getting them where they originate. If your destination doesn’t have a great local product, you either aren’t getting out into the right markets and talking to the locals, or you should really revisit my first point.
Meet the Locals
Trying to engage the ticket agent at the local museum in conversation isn’t usually that rewarding. It’s not his fault. There’s a line. Your Italian isn’t as good as you think it is. You don’t really have anything to talk about that isn’t answered on the sign in front of you. ‘Really, a thousand years old?’ isn’t a great ice breaker to someone who hears it a hundred times a day. It’s like asking the bartender if she comes there often. It may have been cute the first time — that was 5 years ago.
However, ask the woman next to you at the fish market how to prepare a live eel, and suddenly you have a real connection over a shared interest. Or at least you’re a bit different than the people riding past on the big red bus. Either way, you’ve just broken out of tourist mode. Enjoy.
Entertain Friends and Guests
The sharing of food is central to all cultures, all religions, all significant human events. It may be a roast lamb for a wedding day, or a pot-luck for a graduation. It’s something we all do. Perhaps it comes from a time when food was so scarce, and gathering it so hard, that sharing meals was the clearest expression of the bonds that tie us together. Regardless, I can think of no greater way to renew an old friendship or create a new one than cooking and enjoying a meal, particularly when far from home. It doesn’t have to be a dinner party. You don’t always have to visit a dozen shops, or roast a sucking pig. Sometimes it’s just cheese, bread, and wine with a fantastic view, shared with friends.
Perfect the Local Cuisine
If you want to really ‘get’ a dish, to transcend the words on the page and really incorporate it into your being — try cooking it in the place it came from, with the original local ingredients, after sampling a few variations in the local restaurants. In fact, I find some preparations almost can’t leave their home city. Sure, you can make a version at home…, but not really. Maybe it’s the water, or the climate and it’s affect on the produce, or what the cows eat before they are milked. Maybe it’s the smell of the city hitting your olfactory receptors at the same time as the first bite. Maybe it’s the view, or the wood burned in the oven, or any of a hundred other variables. Sometimes, things are just tied to a place.
It’s Not About Being the Accidental Tourist…,
From the last few items above, you’ll see that this isn’t really about saving money. It’s not really about avoiding hassle. It’s not at all about eating the same food you eat at home. It’s about being more in the place. It’s about being more present, more engaged with the people, the place, and the culture. It’s stepping out from behind the viewfinder, picking up a market basket, and reaching arm deep into that bin of life we call food.
All right, perhaps none of those were that philosophical or esoteric. Perhaps the only reason I can give is because it’s fun. Give it a try, if you aren’t already converted. Let us know how it goes.