Great Meals and the Lessons They Taught Us

Dan and Grandma Kaliope - Apostili, Crete
Dan and Grandma Kaliope from Crete.

We can learn from our food.

Really.

As I assembled photos and descriptions for our recent 2011 travel round-up post, I kept getting distracted. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know me, food was the culprit. I was continually drawn back to memories of unforgettable meals from each country — memories not only of the taste, but to the time, the place, the people.

When I considered these experiences, a few instructive themes emerged.

So what were some of those great meals in 2011? And perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them to take with us into 2012?

Let’s dig in!

Favorite Meals and Lessons

Amari Valley, Crete: Go Local

“There’s no menu here. The grandmother just cooks what is fresh on the farm – either recently harvested or recently slaughtered,” our guide offered as we entered a simple mountain village kitchen-cum-restaurant in the Amari Valley on the Greek island of Crete.

Over the course of the next two days, Grandma Kaliope (pictured above) took us on a tour of Cretan mountain cuisine: snails in crushed tomato and garlic sauce, rabbit with artichoke hearts, sheep-stewed Cretan rice, sweet potato fritters and a constellation of small plates too vast to enumerate. Grandma knew how to combine fresh ingredients just so – each played a role, everything had its place.

Traditional Cretan Meal of Snails
Cretan snails. Eat them and you’ll get Cretan mountain cred.

Lesson learned: Simplicity and freshness are a powerful combination. You can taste each ingredient to its fullest flavor. What is needed for the dish is there; nothing extraneous needed. An apt lesson for looking at life ingredients.

Istanbul, Turkey: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

Çiğ köfte is raw meat (beef or lamb) mixed with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices. Our first taste of it was in Berlin, where it was hand-pressed into something that can best be described as turd-like, then tucked into a lettuce leaf. But it wasn’t until we arrived in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul this fall that our love affair with this Turkish snack food really began. It may not look like much when you first see it as a large mound, it may look even less appetizing when it’s spread across durum flatbread, and even less delightful still when hand-pressed into a brown plug. But if it’s done well, it can taste of amazing.

Çiğ Köfte - Istanbul, Turkey
Çiğ köfte smeared onto durumflatbread with greens in waiting. Dazzling.

Lesson learned: Just because something looks like sh*t doesn’t mean it tastes like it. At life’s door, consider leaving the pre-conceived notions.

Tanzania: Manage Your Expectations, Find Pleasant Surprises

When we planned our trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and to go on safari, we didn’t expect the food to be a trip highlight. And for the most part, it was not. But one meal in particular stood out as exceptional — a veritable Tanzanian lunchtime feast served in Mto wa Mbu near Lake Manyara.

The flavors of our Tanzanian feast seemed to match the locally available vegetables and meat just nicely. Indian-influenced banana curry and pilau worked well with beef stew, spinach and the local Tanzanian-style polenta called ugali.

Tanzanian Food Mosaic - Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania
Tanzanian lunch, from start to finish.

Lesson: Manage your expectations, and your delight and disappointment just might find better balance.

Koh Samui, Thailand: Keep Digging, Experimenting

Thai food continues to be one of our all time favorite world cuisines. And we have a list of familiar dishes we just adore. But when we stayed on the island of Koh Samui at the beginning of last year, a friend pushed us to order something random with each new food outing. And with that push, we discovered even greater dimensions of Thai food deliciousness.

Our new favorite? Pla goong – a raw shrimp salad cooked with the heat of lime juice and tossed with lemongrass slices, kaffir lime leaves, and chili peppers. Like a New Year’s Eve party in your mouth. Terrifically fresh.

Shrimp Lemongrass Salad - Koh Samui, Thailand
Shrimp Lemongrass Salad. So good.

Lesson: So even if you have favorites, take a risk. Try something different. Pepper your selections with something new, something fresh. This approach can keep you on your toes and remind you that new favorites can only be discovered when you stray from your routine.

Azraq, Jordan: You Don’t Need to Be Fancy to Be Good

After our travels through Jordan, one of our friends at the Jordan Tourism Board asked us about our favorite meal in the country. We’d eaten in so many terrific restaurants and 5-star hotels in Jordan, but I offered a shocking response: a family meal at a home on the edge of the desert in the town of Azraq. Not only was the quality of the food top notch and the dishes unique, but the experience of eating in a Jordanian home firmly seated the experience in my permanent memory.

Eating Family Style in Azraq, Jordan
Eating Family Style in Azraq

Lesson: It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. Family style, small plate eating: especially when you are attempting to get to know a cuisine, this is where it’s at.

Bangladesh: What Tools Do You Really Need?

Not only did the Bangladeshi food served to us during our village homestay turn out to be the best in the whole country, but I was humbled by how our host mother was able to churn out such vast quantities of quality food from a simple wood-fired kitchen dug into the mud. She also did absolutely everything by hand.

Bangladeshi Cooking at Home Stay in Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Imagine what this woman could do with a Viking stove.

Lesson: You don’t need a fancy kitchen to cook kick ass food. A simple pot or pan, a fire, some fresh ingredients and a little bit of love (don’t forget that) is about all you really need.

Makes me wonder what stuff we really need to make a kick-ass life.

Bali: Take a Cooking Class

It’s heartbreaking to witness how booming tourism can take its toll, even on the local cuisine. Bali was one such example where tourist traffic begat cuisine dilution. Many restaurants seemed to serve watered down versions of local dishes or altogether non-local Asian hybrid food just because it was cheap and easy. We were about to give up on Balinese cuisine when we decided to take a Balinese cooking class. Our opinion of and respect for Balinese food changed completely.

Tuna Sambal Matah - Bali, Indonesia
Seared tuna with “raw” sambal.

Lesson: Cooking classes offer one of the best routes to a basic understanding of the fundamentals of a cuisine. Same thing goes in life. It’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to get hands on and do it yourself.

Berlin: Seize Your Curiosity, Now

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know we have a love affair with Berlin and its ever-improving food scene. After riding our bikes around our neighborhood of Neukölln for a week, Dan kept noticing a Lebanese hole-in-the-wall cafe that witnessed a constant stream of people coming in and out.

We were intrigued, so we stopped in for lunch one day and and promptly fell in love with the place.

Not only did Azzam serve up fantastic Lebanese food with some of the best hummus and falafel around, but it also featured some unusual yet traditional dishes such as msabaha, a whole chickpea dip, and manaeesh, za’atar and cheese-topped breads. No wonder the Middle Eastern community came in droves.

And we joined them, all summer long.

Msabaha (Hummus Variety) at Azzam Restaurant - Neukölln, Berlin
Msabaha, a warm variation of your standard hummus.

Lesson: Follow your curiosity. Don’t put it off. Just do it. Now.

Tabriz, Iran: If You Want to Break the Ice, Break Bread

After two weeks of a heavy kebab diet in Iran, we were desperately craving vegetables. So when our guide invited us to his home for dinner, he smiled, “Don’t worry, my wife will cook. No kebabs.”

And his wife did not disappoint: vegetable soup and stuffed pepper and quince dolmas with just the perfect spice combination of cinnamon and cumin.

Perhaps even more crucial to our overall experience in Iran: as the meal progressed, the initial formality of meeting new people (we were introduced to the immediate family and their cousins) washed away as everyone sat together on the ground, sharing food and sharing of themselves. As the conversation continued, it moved from food to every other dimension of life in Iran.

Dinner in an Iranian Home - Tabriz, Iran
Dinner in an Iranian Home

Lesson: Food is the great leveler. Sharing meals is a way to break down barriers, build trust and develop friendships.

So food, the pathway to the stomach, the pathway to the psyche. And food: where simplicity, curiosity and humanity can all find a home. Where great meals are more than just about the food you eat, but about the journey — the people, the experience, the memory and the places firm and far — and what it can teach you about life.

What are some of your greatest meals? And what lessons have they taught you?

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Comments

  1. says

    Well, to be honest, I think the meals that I learned the most important lessons from were not really such “great” meals if you know what I’m saying … Egypt, Bosnia, Peru … they certainly left an impression. ;)

    Ok, in all seriousness, one of my most enjoyable meals was when we were staying with a family on Lake Titicaca in Peru. They took such great care in preparing it and serving it to us — and it was absolutely the best soup we’ve ever tasted.

    Another meal I will not soon forget was in Uganda. I would not call it a great tasting meal, but it was a great reminder of how blessed I am. I was volunteering at an orphanage and we had just been served our lunch when my friend asked me how the meal was and what it tasted like. I made a disgusted face and replied, “It tastes like absolutely nothing.” At that moment I happened to look up and see several of the kids gathering in a circle completely devouring their meals. I later found out that they only get served meat twice a year. I realized how grateful they were for something I had turned my nose up at. I made sure not to waste any of my food, and later we received permission to share our meals with the kids. They then turned and shared that meal with their peers. Some neighbor kids who were not a part of the orphanage and (materially) much worse off saw the meal being served and were clinging to their fence salivating. You could see the hunger in their eyes. We invited them over and they joined us for the rest of the week and had a good meal each day. A lesson in blessing and true gratitude.

  2. says

    I never thought snails would look so appetizing. Truly. I want to eat it. Now. Also, I’m reading this far too late at night.

    Your article makes a great point though. Food makes you think. Creating food, eating it, digesting it. It makes you think about things. I wish I could put it a little more eloquently than that but suffice to say, you said it well and thank you for sharing :)

  3. says

    I had to read and view this post when I’m hungry! What a mistake. Again, your food photos are astounding, mouthwatering, making my stomach gurgle.. ugh, give up, Jeannie, get some lunch now. :)

  4. says

    Great piece. One of my biggest missions when I travel is to find where the locals eat and what the specialties of the areas are. In Paris, I was able to find a vegetarian spot which is probably one of my least expensive and most impressionable meals in the city. The food was fantastic, the owner was so hospitable and it completely changed my outlook on the city.
    The food in Amman is pretty unbelievable as well. I’m still on the hunt for a good bowl of Foul and falafel like I had there. I’ll probably have to go back for it soon. :)

  5. says

    Oh you guys… Terrific. I love this so much, including the shout-out to my country (Greece!) and so many places I wish to experience myself. Have you read the book “Days of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War?” I think you’d really love it!

  6. says

    @Ellen: We have a few meals that are rather memorable and where we learned a lot that we don’t necessarily want to repeat…Kyrgzstan comes to mind :)

    Thanks for sharing your story from Uganda. What an experience and one of the most important lessons one can learn.

    @April: We were also surprised by how great the snails looked and tasted! Food is one of the ways we connect with people when we travel – such a great way to meet people.

    @Jeannie: Hope you found yourself a delicious lunch after reading this! Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Lane: Food is such an important aspect of travel – really makes you enjoy a place all that more.

    @Colleen: So true. And yes, the msabaha was amazing. Such fresh tastes.

    @Cori: Isn’t it funny how eating experiences can change your perspective on a place, not only with what you eat but the people you meet in the process? Thanks for sharing your stories from Paris and Amman. It is hard to beat its foul and falafel.

    @Roxanne: So glad you enjoyed this! And we are always singing the praise of the food we ate in Crete – stay tuned for a food post from there :) No, I haven’t read the book you recommended – will add it to the wish list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. says

    Food really brings people together. Once a friend of mine and I travelled around New Zealand and we spend new years eve working in a hostel. The owners were friendly but quite reserved. To come closer we managed to set up a BBQ to celebrate. All the different people from all over the world made something traditional from their homecountry. Even the owners participated and made Pavlova with Kiwi.
    The first thing to talk about when we started was the food and therewith a funny evening began.
    Even if I really didn`t like the Pavlova ;)

    And the snails really look great… I´m getting hungry.
    Next week I`m travelling through Italy and it`s going to be
    a week full of delicious Italien food!

    greetings
    Emily

  8. says

    @Skiurlaub: We always say that food is the great equalizer. Everyone needs to do it and it is such a great way to bring people together and get everyone talking. Like you said, often the topic starts with food but it moves into every other topic and conversation. Just wonderful.

    I’m sure you are eating very, very well right now in Italy! Some of the most delicious food on the planet – so fresh!

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