FOOD: A Travel Wish List - Dishes To Dig
If you've ever met me before, it's probably no surprise that much like a puppy or toddler I can very accurately be described as "food motivated." Eating delicious food is one of the things that gives me the most joy in life and it definitely shapes the goals I set for myself when visiting a new destination. Make no mistake - before my little half-Asian feet step inside the aluminum tube jetting me off to a fun new city, they've already done the leg work to identify a list of delicacies that I'll eventually be putting in my belly.
My stomach's yearnings and my mind's wanderings aren't constrained by pending travel though. No sir! I keep a running mental list of things that I cannot wait to get on a platand devour with childlike glee. I can often be found in yoga pants laying on my bed with my hair in a pony tail, legs kicking up and down and plucking petals off a flower as I daydream about the sweet and savory treats that await me across the globe.
But why keep these thoughts to myself? I figured I could write a little ditty listing the ten most eagerly anticipated bits of grub I've been dying to get my hands upon. Who knows, maybe you'll be inspired to head out and eat a few of these things along with me. Or maybe you've eaten one of them and can give me some feed back on how amazing (or overrated!) some of these dishes might be.
So gird your food-loins people. Here's a list full of food porn that's guaranteed to banana split your dairy queen.
Canada - Pouding Chômeur
Translated as "unemployment pudding" or "pour man's pudding", pouding chômeur is a simple cake batter that is placed in a baking dish and then soaked in syrup or caramel. When baked, the cake rises through the liquid, soaking through the pastry as it rises and caramelizes at the bottom. The end result is a gooey, moist, sugary pillow of baked goodness that sounds like it might be worth committing a felony to taste.
To quote a overplayed pop song on the radio recently - "Man, you wouldn't believe the amazing things that can come from some terrible nights." That pretty much sums up the genesis of this delectable Canadian treat. While it's unclear whether it was created for the unemployed or by the unemployed, the pudding has its roots in the Great Depression and the province of Quebec. Originally made with chunks of stale bread, over the decades it has evolved into the more elegant cake variety that is so prevalent today.
My only journey into this area of Canada was a quick weekend trip to Montreal during the height of winter. While many would question my sanity for visiting with feet of snow covering the ground, I found the city to be full of life and quite charming. I had an amazing weekend exploring despite frequent stops to defrost my body, which strengthened my resolve to return sometime in the future. For some reason, the magic of pouding chômeur eluded my research and I left Montreal without managing to get my hands on a ramekin of this baked slice of heaven.
I've been quietly plotting my return to Quebec every since and I'd say a solid 40% of that desire is driven entirely by my need to taste this treat.
Egypt - Kanafeh
I've listed Egypt as the location to enjoy this particular parcel of pleasure, though in actually it's quite popular all over a large portion of the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. Egypt was singled out since the treat is quite popular there and I just happen to be headed that way in 2017. Trust that I danced a little jig when I booked the plane tickets knowing that a mouthful of kanafeh was just a few months away!
Kanafeh is a mix of pastry and soft white cheese that is layered together and then soaked in rose or orange syrup, quite similar in process to the more familiar baklava. While being soaked in syrup is enough to pique my interest, the textural interplay between the crunchy pastry and the creamy, soft cheese gives it that extra element of allure that brings it to my list.
Its popularity across a large swath of land has lead to the development of three varieties of the dish. Khishnah kanafeh is identified by the use of noodle-shaped pastry. The cheese is often rolled in the noodles to coat the outside prior to soaking. Na'ama kanafeh uses a semolina (wheat) dough to create a flatter, brownie shape. Mhayara is a mixture of the noodle and semolina base in a single pastry. Chopped pistachios are often used to garnish the dish.
With its mixture of cream and crunch and the added kick of sugary syrup, you can bet that kanafeh will be one of the first things on my to-do list when I land in Cairo in February.
Sri Lanka - Hot Buttered Cuttlefish
Following the attainment of independence from the British in the 1940s, Sri Lanka experienced a small wave of immigration from China. While dwindling in numbers now, the impact of this migration can still be seen in the popularity of Chinese and Chinese-inspired foods throughout the teardrop-shaped island nation floating in the Indian Ocean.
A true fusion food, hot buttered cuttlefish melds a variety of flavors and techniques from both nations to create what sounds like a delectable dish of mouthwatering proportions. Featuring cuttlefish or squid, the meat is tossed in a batter and then quickly deep fried. Once plated, the crispy rings of seafood are then slathered in a sauce created from a mix of butter, garlic, and chili paste. As if that weren't enough, the dish is often garnished with a handful of chopped spring onion and roasted cashew nuts.
There is genuinely zero redeeming health aspects to this dish, but forgive me if I don't give a shit. The thought of crispy battered seafood, spicy/tangy sauce, and crunchy nuts is enough to throw every diet I've ever had to the wind and say good riddance. Sri Lanka is another country that I've visited in the past but much like pouding chomeur I managed to miss out on this little local delicacy as I only caught wind of it about a year ago.
Sadly, Sri Lankan cuisine isn't particularly common in my part of the world, let alone the subset of food that is Sri Lankan-Chinese fusion. Looks like I'll have to plan a trip back to the nation formerly known as Ceylon to sate this hungry.
Trust that I'm not too upset about that!
Peru - Picarones
Surprise, surprise! Another saccharinely sweet pastry from a corner of the globe that I'm just dying to get my lips around. If anything I'm consistent, right?
I first read about picarones while doing a little research into the impact of the Spanish on Native American cultures during the colonial era (yes, I'm a nerd and actually look into stuff like that. Wanna fight about it?). The Spaniards that crossed the Atlantic craved little reminders of home, but their treasured little balls of fried, doughy goodness (bunuelos) turned out to be too difficult and expensive to prepare in the New World. Denying colonizers the right to doughnuts doesn't seem like much but in my humble opinion this was a good first step for God's wrath. Still, the desire for a sweet fried snack lead to the development of the picarone - a pastry made from sweet potatoes and squash (readily available in Peru, unlike the ingredients for bunuelos!).
Shaped into rings and then deep fried much like a doughnut, the finished product is then dipped in or soaked in molasses flavored with orange peels. Again, that interplay between crunchy fried dough and thick, sugary syrup is a texture profile that makes my tongue do a little jig in my mouth. Peru (and much of South America) has escaped my wanderlust so far, but the minute I touchdown in Lima, you can bet I'll be on the hunt for a plate full of these little buggers.
China - Dragon Beard Candy
Chinese food is revered the world over as one of the great pillars of cuisine. From xiao long bao to peking duck, the list of dishes from China that have beguiled the world goes on and on and on. The one thing you likely won't find on that list though? A dessert. Whether fair or not, China is not known as a land where one with a sweet tooth would be happily sated.
Maybe that perception can change though. Consider dragon beard candy for a moment - a puffy pillow of spun sugary floss wrapped around a chewy core of crushed peanuts, flaky coconut, or sesame seeds. As if that mixture of textures and flavors didn't sound enticing enough, the delicate nature of the confection means that it easily melts with the introduction of moisture. Yes, it appears to literally be melt-in-your-mouth good!
Made almost entirely of sugar, oil, and high fat content items like peanuts and coconut, this isn't a light and healthy treat to end your meal. But a little fanciful tidbit at the end of a meal never killed anyone. Next time I'm in China, I'll have my eyes peeled for this flossy little nugget of goodness.
South Africa - Bunny Chow
Another entrant into the list that showcases the fusion of culture and cuisine that has defined our globe. Bunny chow can be found all over South Africa but the coastal city of Durban is really the epicenter of this culinary oddity. The origin of this dish is murky and there's really no consensus on how it came to be, but a few things are very clear - the importation of slaves and indentures laborers from India into South Africa by European colonial powers and the need for a portable, handheld meal were key to the creation of this savory pocket of deliciousness.
How it got it's name is also up for debate, and to be honest I don't really care - as long as it taste's the way I think it will you can call it anything you want!
Starting with a hollowed out bread loaf and then filled to the brim with piping hot curry, the bunny chow is traditionally eaten by hand and guaranteed to be a messy meal. The dish typically comes in three sizes - a rather self-explanatory quarter, half, or full loaf. The curry filling is often bean or lentil-based to keep with the vegetarian diet of many Indians, though the use of meat curries (mutton and lamb are common) has grown popular since its inception. Sadly, as far as I can tell, the ironic addition of a rabbit curry has yet to take hold in the country.
Many shops that sell bunny chow will provide the removed bread stuffing on the side of the dish to give you more than enough to dip into the spicy curry. Loaded with carbs and excessively large, this isn't the type of meal to eat when you're watching your waistline. While I've been to South Africa before, I was unfortunately unable to track down a bunny chow during my stay due to the torrential downpour that blanketed the country for the majority of my stay. South Africa (particularly Cape Town) was stunningly beautiful though, so I'm not heartbroken at the thought of making a return visit in the near future. The ability to get my grubby little fingers on a loaf of bread stuff with curry is just icing on the cake.
France - Croquembouche
I have two words for you, people - PASTRY. TOWER. Close your eyes, open your mouth, and let that sink in to your metaphorical throat. And yes, that imagery was intentionally sexual. If you don't see the natural connection between food and sex, you're doing both wrong.
Behold the beauty that is the French croquembouche. A conical spire of choux pastry (think eclairs or beignets) that's held together by a generous helping of caramel and its sheer magnificence, this wonder of the culinary world has spread past the borders of France and can often be found across Europe. And can you blame people? It looks amazingly delicious.
I think the aspect of this dish that really draws my interest is the "picking" part. When I was a child, my American grandmother would always make monkey bread for us. A simple mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and biscuit dough placed into a bundt cake dish and baked with copious amounts of butter, this is the flavor and tactile experience of my childhood. The end product was a round circle of gooey bits that would be placed on a table and pulled apart slowly by anyone within smelling radius.
The instant I was introduced to the concept of the croquembouche I was reminded of this delicious treat from my grandmother's kitchen and the salivation started across the plane of my mouth. While it is perhaps a more elegant version of the dish, I'm eager to find a way to to pick at a croquembouche the next time I find myself traipsing across France.
India/Pakistan - Shahi Tukda
Noticing a bit of a trend here? I tend to favor bready, milky desserts over those with heavy chocolate. That's because of an odd allergy quirk that plagues my existence that essentially prevents me from enjoying anything with chocolate. I appreciate your thoughts and prayers but know that I've learned to cope over the years and do enjoy the vast array of non-chocolate desserts across the globe.
Like this pan-fried bread-based dessert from the Indian sub-continent!
Various versions and names are attached to the dish depending on where you venture, but the overall ingredients and process remains the same - pan-fried slices of bread soaked in hot milk and sprinkled with nuts and spices. The bread is often pan-fried in ghee, a clarified butter that's commonly used in Indian cooking. Cardamon and saffron form the base of the seasoning. Once sufficiently crispy and soaked, pistachios, cashews, almonds, and dried fruits are sprinkled over the top. Make sure you take your Lactaid before digging into this dish, folks! But come on - sweet, milk-soaked fried bread is worth it!
Sadly I've been to India four times and have yet to cross paths with this delightful dish. From what I gather it's quite common during Ramadan and on Eid, which might explain why I have yet to see it. Four times is far from enough when it comes to visiting India though, so rest assured I'll be back and looking for this on every street corner.
Colombia/Venezuela - Arepa
Moving away from the sweet and back to the savory for a minute, let's talk about my desire to enjoy an arepa!
I was first made aware of these little corn patties by friends who would either be visiting the various countries in Central and South America where these are made or from friends here in Chicago who were enjoying them at little Latin food joints across the city. The photos looked amazing and I immediately went to Wikipedia to learn a little more. Discovering that they were thick patty-like slabs of bread made from corn flour, I was already sold. Corn is one of my favorite types of food. I love corn flakes. Corn bread. I even ate and liked corn ice cream in Singapore. I'm half-Japanese but my other half is Midwestern and corn-fed.
While arepas in and of themselves sound delicious to me, they're often taken to the next level by being stuffed with a variety of ingredients to create a sandwich of sorts. What tickles your fancy today? Shredded beef? Fried plantains? Maybe some black beans and mango salsa? You name it - it's possible. While I haven't really spent much time exploring Central or South America, I'm eagerly looking forward to a time when I can eat arepas on the regular.
Philippines - Budbud Kabog
I've traveled through 18 countries in Asia, but the Philippines has eluded me so far. An archipelago stretching from Taiwan to Papau New Guinea, the cuisine of this island nation has a special place in my heart. Growing up on US navy bases across the Pacific Rim, many of my friends were Filipino. Having Filipino friends growing up translates into a ton of Filipino food being fed to you by friendly mothers who are very concerned you aren't eating enough. Pancit, lumpia, adobo. You name it, I gorged on it and still crave it to this day.
Which is why budbud kabog caught my eye recently. With as much experience as I have eating Filipino food, this sweet treat of stewed millet and coconut wrapped in a banana leaf never crossed my path. While it is indeed another milky dessert, the prospect of eating millet is really what intrigues me. A grain that is generally seen as one of the main components of common bird seed, it actually is a rather good product for foods and desserts due to its natural nutty flavor.
Throw in the coconut and I'm solidly sold on this dish. Coconut is pretty much one of my five basic food groups, so my interest is essentially a given. The dish features fresh coconut meat scrapped from the shell as well as coconut used during the stewing process for the millet. Wrapped in banana leaves and left to steam over a pot of boiling water, the potential sweet, nutty goodness of this dish is mouth watering.
The Philippines has a lot to offer - gorgeous beaches, colonial history, jungle-covered islands to hop to and fro. Even with all that, budbud kabog is one of the things calling me to visit.
So there you have it - the top ten foods on my travel wish list. Have you eaten any of these? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts!