Travels with a knife and fork. And chopsticks
From feta salad in Greece to dumplings in Beijing, my memories of countries I’ve visited are inextricably linked with their food
One the things you discover on your travels is that the food of a country tastes so much better in its place of origin. Photograph: iStock
Food. Let’s be honest, it’s one of the best things about travelling. Or the worst.
Though sometimes the worst thing about it is that it’s neither good nor bad. It doesn’t provide a story then. Nobody really wants to hear about the mediocre and overpriced tapas you had on the Costa del Sol. But the spectacular six-course tasting menu at that place nobody knows yet? Serious culinary travel points at your next dinner party, not to mention its five-second scroll-by value as Instagrammable middle-class porn.
No, it wasn’t in San Sebastián. Everyone goes there these days. Gijon is the place now. Well, that’s what you read in one of the weekend supplements. And you can always spin a yarn out of the scorpions in the backstreets of Shanghai or the 16-hour bus ride you endured after that prawn curry in Goa. Though you’ve moved on now. Haven’t you?
Seriously, we often remember our holidays through the prism of food. Or the lens, as we can’t seem to eat now without taking a photograph first. When I think of my first holiday after college – to the Greek Islands – what I remember is the yogurt with honey and the warm bread in the morning, the Greek salad at lunchtime in the shade of a taverna, the kebabs spiked with rosemary and garlic for dinner, and, it has to be said, the fairly awful but reassuringly cheap red wine.
Listen, it was the late 1980s. Feta hadn’t reached Ireland. Greek salad was cosmopolitan, exotic, not something you bought in a two for €4 salad deal at M&S when you were too lazy to make sandwiches for lunch. And it tasted of all its components in a way the supermarket version never can. Actual vine-ripened sweet tomatoes (how else would they ripen, I’m sure the Greeks would say, and not only the ancient ones), crunchy crispy cucumbers, crumbly sheepy feta, and fat juicy olives. And sun of course. Studies show that eating anything in the sun makes it taste 4.5 times better.
Chinese food is designed to be eaten in large groups and not, emphatically, not, from a takeaway container. The sharing is the whole point of the exercise
I made that bit up. It’s true though. One the things you discover on your travels is that the food of a country tastes so much better in its place of origin. I went to live in China in 2007 and food was not high on my list of priorities. I’d never been a fan here. In fact, I packed my Barry’s tea and my McCambridge’s brown bread and was ridiculously excited to discover that my local supermarket stocked Dubliner cheese and Kerrygold butter.
Now when I get nostalgic and frankly almost homesick for Beijing, and crave dumplings or gan bian sì jì dòu (green beans with chilli) or yú xiang qiézi (fish flavoured aubergine – no fish involved) I head to the M & L Sichuan off O’Connell Street, dragging anyone who is willing to come along. You need a gang, because Chinese food is designed to be eaten in large groups and not, emphatically, not, from a takeaway container. The sharing is the whole point of the exercise, as I’ve had to teach some people – you know who you are – who like having their own plate of food in front of them.
A country the size of China has dozens of regional cuisines, the familiar Cantonese – though miles better; Yunnan, with its south-east Asian vibe using lots of lemongrass; Hunan, which blows you away with its hot spicy flavours, and many others. Then there’s food as theatre. Noodle-making is turned into performance art in Shanxi restaurants, Peking duck demands elaborate contortions (assembling duck, vegetables and sauce into a pancake and then folding it up using only chopsticks, a skill I failed to acquire) and hotpots involve doing your own cooking in a steaming bowl of broth and then fishing out the often unrecognisable stuff afterwards. I never quite got the point, but it’s good fun for a group, especially if there’s a mix of languages.
For food, especially when you don’t speak the language, is the entry point into another culture. We can all manage to order in France, Italy or Spain, and, of course, elsewhere we can just point. It’s often the only time we actually talk to people from the place we’ve come to visit. It’s also a way of learning about the country. Who knew the reason meat and vegetables are cut up so small and stir-fried so quickly in China is that there was never enough firewood for long cooking sessions? Most Beijing apartments still don’t have an oven because there’s no real tradition of roasting or baking at home.
As an expat I did have a rarely used oven, which came into its own for a Thanksgiving dinner with Chinese-American friends, where I made a few cultural discoveries of my own. Mac and cheese with turkey, anyone? That’s when I discovered the Irish mantras “we always have roast parsnips/Brussels sprouts/five different veg/ fill in as appropriate” apply across cultures. Hardly anyone actually ate the mac and cheese, but we had to have it because “we always do”. This was food as ritual, food as bonding, food as memory far from home.
When a Chinese friend invited me to make dumplings with her mother and aunt on the eve of Chinese New Year, the ritual was different but the meaning was the same. Sitting in a Beijing kitchen with fireworks exploding across the sky, I finally felt a connection to my adopted city. My dumplings may have been rubbish, but at least my chopstick skills were capable of demolishing their superior versions in record time. Xin nián kuài lè!