Our ex-pat chef travels far and wide for a very good reason
People travel for many reasons. Some travel to find the sublime beauty in the world’s endless grandeur while others seek out those sublime moments that serve as signposts on life’s winding path.
Travel allows us to encounter the familiar within the unknown, the extraordinary hidden only by distance and fear, and the thrill of discovering that the Lonely Planet guides and Travel Channel episodes were completely wrong, or right, or both. I travel for all of those reasons, which is to say, I travel for the food.
When I say I “travel for the food”, I don’t mean that I plan my destinations simply based on the meals awaiting my hungry maw at the end of a long flight. I travel for food because of the power of food and the culture that produces it.
Food has the ability to create indelible memories and bring archeological depth to an otherwise linear journey. Food helps form the backbone of life and community, transforming who we are over the course of one meal or a lifetime of meals. For travelers, there can be no authentic experience of a place without the cuisine that feeds that place and its people.
The soft pancake, crunchy sugar cane and chewy coconut of bo bia served from a bicycle vendor on the streets of Hanoi; the herbaceous and slightly sour bite of red tree ants with raw beef eaten in a nameless back-alley shop in the heart of Phnom Penh; the surprisingly spicy, crunchy and cooling flavors of Burmese tea leaf salad in one of Yangon’s open-air teahouses—these are moments that not only shape our recollections of that place, but provide a sensory context for how we view the world and our place in it.
For many folks, the idea of traveling halfway around the world for food that, many times, is readily available in Chattanooga, Atlanta or any number of American cities, seems unnecessary or even ludicrous. When I admit that food is the driving force behind my travels and why I’ve moved across the world to Northern Thailand, I often am asked the same question. Why would you travel to Vietnam for pho or Thailand for phat krapow moo when there are Thai restaurants in Chattanooga and scores of authentic Vietnamese restaurants on Buford Highway in Atlanta? My answer is always the same; because there is so much more to eating than just the food.
No painstaking reproduction of a dish, no meticulously followed recipe, and no hand-picked pantry of ingredients can ever replicate that first bite of khao ka moo from a street vendor in Chiang Mai because there is so much more to that moment than just the flavors.
There’s the fragrant smell of star anise, cinnamon and cloves that softly announce the cart’s presence. There’s the gentle tap-tap-tap of cleaver on wood as the vendor slices through soft, slow braised pork leg, while a slight breeze from a tuk-tuk brushes your calf as it whizzes by so close you could reach out and touch the driver. There’s the row of competing vendors lining the street, offering competing flavors and aromas with the sing-song chorus of “sawadee kaaaa” for every passing, potential customer.
There’s the precarious feeling of teetering on a tiny plastic stool in front of a rickety folding table set with repurposed soda bottles of mysterious, but intriguing smelling sauces and condiments. These are as much a part of the experience as the food, but go far beyond what is served on the plate.
It’s often been said that “food doesn’t travel well.” That sentiment is not a commentary on the portability of grandma’s potato salad or the uni nigiri you just couldn’t finish last night. It’s a concise insight into the layered experience around what makes a particular meal, dish or destination memorable.
But most importantly, it’s a statement about how so much of what we experience when we eat while traveling cannot be packaged into a cookbook, television show, restaurant menu or Instagram post.
The food close to home may be spectacularly delicious, the chef may be award winning and the recipe may be perfectly authentic, but when you travel to eat you take in not just the flavors of a place, but its essence—its soul.
Traveling to eat not only immerses you in a particular taste at a particular time, it informs the memory of every other time you enjoyed that same food. What we eat when we travel becomes an anchor, a common thread that ties us back to that moment and ultimately to why we travel.
I travel to eat.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits