Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To Eat The World

Food gives life and is my life. I want to travel to each corner, find the undiscovered flavours I crave and experience the endless opportunities of flavour combinations. And I want to hear the stories behind the food. I dream of traveling around the world and writing about my culinary adventures- my taste buds narrating my hands as I re-live each bite. I want to whet my readers’ appetites with words that make their mouths water and stomachs roar.

There are 203 sovereign states in the world, each with many regions and within each region a special cuisine with history, logic, politics and love attached. History is in every dish and the stories of the birth of dishes intrigue me. Dissecting a dish logically means taking into account all components of the dish - the ingredients, the preparation, the consumption- and then connecting all that information to create a unique story reflecting so much of a culture. Eating a meal will become an investigation into what types of products there are in the region and what relations these things have to one another. Let me use cheese as an example. The ingredients in cheeses around the world do not change too drastically but each is unique because of its parts, its story. In one bite of Camembert de Normandie AOC, with a sip of local calvados, you can hold a story on your tongue. A young farmer’s wife, Marie Harel, is the host to a young prince who is from Brie and is on the run during the French Revolution of 1798. To return her kindness, the young prince introduces her to some of the traditional cheese making techniques of Brie and by 1855 Madame Harel’s daughter is presenting their family’s unique and beautiful cheese to Napoleon II. Logically, the climatic conditions and the terroir of Normandy are what make this cheese taste as it does, but it is the love of the people and part of their identity which keeps this cheese alive, despite strict laws. An Italian chef once said to me, “What grows together, goes together” and this applies to every place. To pair with it locally made Calvados from locally grown apples, is only logical. The slightly tart brandy sweeps along your cheese-filmed tongue, melding the flavors, refreshing and preparing your mouth for another bite.

I will begin my journey in South Africa. I will start in Cape Town and drink their jammy red wines. The hot sun beams down on the red-skinned grapes, and when the grapes have basked in the sun long enough and have produced the perfect amount of sugars, they are gently picked and pressed. Perhaps I would roll a juicy shiraz along my tongue as I prepare a dinner of roast elk and vegetables bought from a local market. In the 13th century, The Cape was the halfway point between West and East and was always the logical place to rest from the fierce seas. This resting stop became a place to trade and re-stock, where cultures and foods mixed and from where Cape Town developed its eclectic and delicious cuisine. In 1971, The Stellenbosch Wine Route was the first wine route ever formed in South Africa, and today represents over 200 wine and grape producers.

From Cape Town I will travel to the Northwest corner of Africa and try fufu with stew. Fufu is made from the purée of root vegetables such as cassava and yams and is similar in texture to polenta. It is served with a goat stew prepared with cinnamon and cloves- depicting the years of trade with Arab countries. The hot, spicy stew opens up your pores and lets you sweat away the sun’s penetrating heat. It is tempting, but I would be naïve to ask for Palm wine to wash it all down. In a region where water is scarce and drought is frequent, Palm wine is a drink saved for ceremonies and special occasions.
With a belly still warm with stew I will have the energy to travel north to Egypt where I will snack on Lebb (roasted watermelon seeds) and drink Karkady. The latter is a tea served hot or cold and is one of the most popular drinks in Egypt. Made from the dried, dark red petals of the Hibiscus flower, it is tart and tastes slightly of cranberries. While I half-distractedly munch on Lebb I will watch my surroundings with new eyes and I will see the history behind the dish. I can imagine the Ancient Egyptians cultivating watermelon seeds for the first time in history and cherishing these melons for their water content so much that their seeds are placed in tombs alongside Kings. 

In much need of cooler weather, I will giddily jump to the north of Sweden with excitement and hunger. In Swedish Lapland, the food is hearty, and soul warming. When I arrive, I will slouch blissfully and sigh deeply at the magical landscape of white and blue. I will eagerly learn the history of the Sami people, who make up the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe. They have inhabited the northern regions of Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia for more than 2500 years. The Sami culture is alive and their passion for reindeer herding, traditional craftsmanship and folk music keep the culture strong. I will venture down to Stockholm and visit the Michelin-starred restaurant, Edsbacka Krog. Sweden has quickly gained world recognition for its gastronomical achievements. Edsbacka Krog is situated in Stockholm and specializes in traditional and local fare, prepared with passion and executed with innovation. Perhaps I would start with the ‘Lightly cured bleak (roe from Kalix) with king crab tail and baked small tomatoes’. From inside the 200-year-old building emerges delicate- but not fussy- dishes which highlight the success of combining old with new. 

Slightly overwhelmed with the multitude of flavors I have experienced on my trip thus far, I will decide to take a train to Mongolia. Along the way, I will sip German Reisling, taste the Romanian dish, Saramura (salty, grilled carp from the Black Sea) and chew on mouth-watering Shuzhuk, the Kazakh sausage made of smoked horse meat. When I arrive, the untouched beauty of Mongolia is almost intimidating: fresh air, pure water springs, sand dunes of the Gobi desert, high mountains, and deep forests all radiate an aura of health and beauty beyond words. Peacefully, I will sit atop a quiet hill and drink tea, holding the cup from the bottom in traditional Mongolian way. I will serenely walk to Lake Khuvsgul, Mongolia’s largest and deepest lake, and with a $3 fishing license, I will fish for: Taimen, Siberian whitefish and grayling, Lenok, Umber, Baigali Omul and River Perch until the far-away sun sets beyond the vast mountains and dusk silently rings the dinner bell. A traditional Mongolian dish of borlon: a 2-year old goat filled with hot stones and cooked over a fire. When the meat has cooked, the goat will be split open gently and the hot stones will be passed to each person. Hot and greasy, these stones are rolled between palms to eliminate fatigue and boost stamina. To not participate would be a terrible insult. We will sit around the campfire and respect and appreciate the food in silence- savoring each hot bite.

A quick jog north to Russia for a pint of Kvass, a fermented mildly alcoholic beverage made from black rye or rye bread (first mentioned in Old Russian Chronicles in the year 989 AD) is what I need to refuel before I go southeast to Japan. In Japan, I will gravitate towards the salmon sashimi immediately, excited to feel the firm flesh in its most pure form. I will try to gain a taste for umeboshi, the extremely sour and salty pickled ume fruit (similar to a plum). The flavour profile is believed to aid in digestion and the umeboshi are often eaten in small quantities with plain white rice. The oldest Japanese record of umeboshi being used as a medicine is in a medical text written close to one thousand years ago. So highly esteemed, the ume trees are cared for meticulously and are celebrated when in full bloom in Frebuary. Combining this flavourful fruit with rice is a tradition thousands of years old. Rice is undoubtedly Japan's most important crop. It has been cultivated in Japan for over 2000 years. Its critical importance to the country and its culture is reflected by the fact that rice was once used as a currency and has even influenced the language. The literal translation of “asagohan” (breakfast) is "morning rice".

My thoughts focus on rice and so will I venture to Korea and arrive during the three-day lunar holiday, known as “Chuseok”. These three days in August celebrate the first harvest through music, dance and food. Rice is cooked from the newest crop and offered to ancestors. This holiday is not complete without songpyeon: half-moon shaped rice balls that are made by the entire family. Also harvested at this time, and used in various seasonal dishes are taro, chestnut, ginkgo, giant radish, fernbrake (similar to fiddleheads) and balloonflower (whose root is used for medicinal properties). Celebrating the first harvest is an extremely important tradition in countries all over the world. It is a cause to be humbled by the Earth and amazed at her fecundity. The slow food movement is one which emulates this closeness to the Earth and holds appreciation for field to fork eating. 

The Philipinnes call to me and soon I am following Anthony Bourdain, bite for bite. Chef Bourdain has eaten his way around the world and so when he hailed the Filipino preparation of pork at the top of his list I became determined to also try the best. Prepared for celebrations, lechón (whole roasted pig) is a feast of crisped skin wrapped around layers of soft white fat and moist, slightly smoked meat. The salty pork is shared and effectively reduced to shiny white bones surrounded by smiles that come from the most natural satisfaction of eating an entire animal. My secret passion for sugar makes my eyes widen at the mention of Halo-halo. Translated as “mix-mix”, halo-halo is a cold dessert made with shaved ice, milk and sugar with regional ingredients such as coconut, halaya (mashed purple yam), caramel custard, plantains, jackfruit, red beans, tapioca and pinipig (crisped rice). 

Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman’s conflicting findings in Samoa emphasize the importance of see-for-yourself. Whether or not her account was correct, it has been 81 years since Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, which provided a rare account of Samoa’s culture and landscape. These beautiful gems in the Pacific Ocean move my heart and inspire my curiosity for the things I may discover. Aquamarine water licks the white-sand beaches which rise up to become the two large, rain forest-covered volcanoes on the main islands, Upolu and Savaii. The enchanting waterfalls pour through the mouths of fertile valleys and into the ocean. The striking beauty everywhere is enough to lure anyone. 

It is here, in Samoa, where I will rest and reflect. This is where the stories, history, and all I have learned will sink in and temporarily sate my curious appetite until it becomes anticipation for my next culinary adventure. That is my plan and I will see it through, full-bellied and smiling. Food fills our stomachs with warmth but the stories fill our hearts with true appreciation for life. It is a dream and an honor to be able to write those stories.

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