Imagine an island. A perfect desert island, a sandy coral atoll with a grove of palm trees at its leafy hub. Imagine sitting on the fine golden sands, a palm frond spread beneath you, dipping your fingers unashamedly into a plate of food. The fish was caught only minutes earlier by three young boys in a leaky boat, one of them bailing out the bottom while the others swam with shortened spears; the yams were pulled from the ground that morning, baked on an open fire that still smolders at your back. You close your eyes as you work the meal over your tongue. The warm island breeze caresses your eyelids.
Ask me for my abiding memories of the time I’ve spent on the road, from the extended trips to Australasia to the weekend breaks in San Francisco, and you may be surprised. While the sights would undoubtedly make an appearance – Alcatraz, San Diego Zoo, the reefs in Fiji, the monoliths of the Australian outback – it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the topic of food.
It’s curious that culinary experiences should form such a large part of travel’s appeal, but I know I’m not alone in this. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme famously said “When I travel I normally eat club sandwiches, or I bring my own food”, but for those of us without our own restaurant kitchen the lure of exotic cuisine is part of what draws us to pastures new. What we see, or hear, or smell while away from home undoubtedly imprints itself on our memories, as do the people we meet when we get there (or, indeed, while we’re still en route) – but the tastes of the unfamiliar are often what come back strongest, like the lingering tingle of a perfectly-spiced taco.
I can’t tell you what I ate two days ago, and I may struggle to recollect last week’s meals, despite the fact that I cooked most of them myself. And yet I can recall in precise detail the calf’s liver and polenta eaten at a hotel restaurant off a small square in Venice, the smoky patatas bravas in a standing-room-only tapas bar in Madrid – even the cheap bento box bought from a tiny convenience store in downtown Tokyo. (That meal was eaten in a nearby park, while local teens chowed down on Big Macs across the path.) It’s not just the quality of the food that remains in the mind, either. Food bought on the road will never earn Michelin stars, but somehow its memory still dallies on your tastebuds long after you return home. Anyone who’s eaten a gristly, gravy-sodden Australian pie will confirm this. Clearly it’s the travel itself that lends an extra spice to the dish.
This may not have always been the case. Sir Francis Drake returned to England bearing the potato, and early visitors to India marveled at the exotic array of spices, but it’s hard to imagine every historical traveler being won over by the food they encountered. As recently as the 1980s, touring sports teams would often eat bland Westernized dishes in their hotel’s restaurant when on the subcontinent, for fear of contracting food poisoning before an important game. It’s only in recent years that the tourism industry has fully accepted our hunger for culinary adventures – perhaps due to the improved efficacy of anti-diarrhea medication. Or maybe we’ve all genuinely embraced the global melting pot that has accompanied worldwide migration.
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that food and travel are now the perfect pairing. A brief glance at the Travel Channel’s schedule reveals Food Wars, Bizarre Foods, Man V. Food Nation and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations at the top of the menu. We travel to indulge ourselves and to sample new experiences – and nowhere do these two blend as perfectly as in the food we eat.
Of course, when one talks about international cuisine there’s always the risk of pretension, the ghost of the amateur galloping gourmand. You can spot these when they insist that one absolutely must try the steak at the Four Seasons in Sydney, or they wax lyrical on the wine lists in Bangkok’s boutique hotels. For these culinary explorers the travel is secondary to the food, and they’ll happily bunker down in a hotel for their entire stay – as long as the chef has imported those miraculous truffles from Italy again. It’s all about the cuisine, and before long the travel gets buried beneath a heavy cream sauce and shavings of caramelized parsnip.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – we don’t want to tread our own path of traveler’s pretension. But part of the joy of food is its endless variety, and nowhere else do we experience this quite as forcefully as we do on the road. There are those of us who like to experiment with our weekly diet even when we’re at home, but it is travel that truly encourages us to challenge our palates. Sometimes the menu itself is indecipherable – sometimes there’s no menu at all. But as long as we can point and politely ask please, there’s a pure pleasure in sampling new tastes, in broadening our sensory horizons with a plate of steaming hot… whatever. It’s an experience that takes us back to our first explorations of the world, and the reason so many children bite, lick and suck their way through their formative years. We grew up learning to taste our surroundings – when we’re traveling we fall back on old habits.
Maybe this helps explain the rise of street food through the culinary ranks, for anyone who has enjoyed the unique pleasures of the vendor’s cart across the globe will tell you that it’s one of the most visceral experiences any culture can offer. Walk through a market in Asia and you’ll encounter a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, colors and tastes, a chaotic patchwork of the senses that can range from the sublime to the overwhelming. Here there are no menus, no waiters – no table, even. Just you and the food, a sampling board of new experience that’s as varied as it is foreign, taking you back to a time when every taste was unique, every texture exotic and new.
And it explains why the flavors of different cultures stick with us long after we’ve returned home, too. Most cities are gradually modernizing their way towards anonymity, most fields look like every other field you’ve seen, but in a simple forkful of food you can discover tastes, combinations, and entire worlds that have never been open to you before. It’s why I can still recall eating jellyfish in Hong Kong six years ago, when I can’t remember the burger I ate last week. Or the fried pig’s ear crackling on my tongue in Barcelona, while the turkey we ate last Thanksgiving has passed from memory. When we travel, we do so in search of novelty – and nothing is as fresh, or as new, as a previously undiscovered flavor bursting on your palate.
It’s why I can still recall that grilled reef fish my wife and I ate on a tiny tropical island in Fiji, the flesh succulent and spiked with red chilies picked from a local bush. Why I can remember the sweet yams that went with it, scooping the flesh from the skins as we went; the coconut milk sipped from fruit that had been cut from the tree only minutes earlier. Nothing brings back the memory of the brilliant, clear ocean and unspoiled sands quite like those flavors, the flavors imprinted on my tastebuds like a unique barcode to a place and time. In my mouth they become a time machine, transporting me back to the sun, and the sand, and the soft whisperings of the sea. Another world on the end of my fork.