I recently came across this post by LegalNomads.com where she explains how food works on a wonderful sensory level to bring back memories to us that seem just as fresh and powerful as when we first experienced them. This is something that I really agree with. I started taking photos of my food back in 2008 when I visited South East Asia, and I always find that it is these photos which paint a vivid picture of my experience. Food is such an important part of traveling. Tailing around buildings like the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower might give us a small glimpse of what makes up a country, but it is the food that (literally) gives us a taste of a new culture. The dishes that we eat can tell us a lot about the countries that we visit, the resources that a person can find there, and the history that underpins a certain way of eating or preparing food.
In 2011 I was lucky enough to have visited four countries, and lived in three. I have experienced a plethora of new and exciting tastes, and so this post is dedicated to my favourite eating experiences of the past year.
String Hoppers with fish and chicken curry, coconut sambol, and eggs – Sri Lanka
This was my breakfast almost every day during my time in Sri Lanka. I drove my motorbike down to a little cafe overlooking the sea and ate this delightful feast every morning. Not many tourists knew of this place, but it was always filled with locals. Occasionally I got curious stares from the customers who were surprised to see a white girl sitting down to eat string hoppers with her hands so far from the usual tourist strip. At first the waiters insisted that I eat the less spicy version of the curries, worried that the intensity of Sri Lankan chillies would be too much for me. But over time I learnt how to tell them in Sinhala that I liked it spicy, and I stopped even having to ask for what I wanted, because the second they saw me, they would bring it straight to the table.
Seafood buffet – South Korea
On the final day of my teaching orientation, the other teachers and I (now all fully certified and cleared to work in Korea) went out to celebrate together for one last day before all disappearing off to our separate neighborhoods to teach. Although orientation was just one week long, it felt like an end of an era, and yet the start of something new. This meal was a great way to end it all. The buffet was all paid for us, and consisted of heaps of deliciously fresh fish along with some deliciously tangy soups. It was as fantastic as it looks.
Kimchi jiggae, tuna kimbap, and banchan – South Korea
When I first arrived in my tiny little flat in Korea, I was dropped off by my co-teacher with no food, and no understanding of how to get any! I remember walking into the little kimbap cafe across the road from my flat and being terrified because I couldn’t read the menu or speak any Korean. I didn’t know what to do so I ran straight back out again! It took me a week to pluck up the courage to go back, and by this point I had picked up just enough courage to order the few foods that i knew the name of, and ask them if I could have it ‘pojang‘ (to take out). I ended up ordering far more than any person could possibly eat, but since I’d been living on nothing but bread that I had bought from the 7/11 up until that point, I was extremely proud of myself. I ate it alone in my flat, but it felt like a small accomplishment, and it tasted great!
Homemade bibimbap – South Korea
I love Korean cooking, and so after a few months of living here, I took it upon myself to learn how to make it in my own home. My first few attempts at making bibimbap were an absolute disaster, but after a while it got better. This was the first one I made that actually tasted good. I was so proud of myself that day!
Fried Duck – Thailand
In between diving mishaps in Koh Tao on my two week visit to Thailand over the summer, I managed to find some pretty good places to eat. This was without a doubt one of the best meals I had during my time in Thailand. The soup that came with the duck was so typically Thai – subtley spicy, mildly tangy, and with a strong hint of the aromatic taste of corriander.
Thai Green Curry – Thailand
I love Thai Green Curry, but this one was especially memorable. Whilst exploring Koh Phangan I came across a tiny restaurant built on stilts on the edge of a lake. Whilst I waited for my food to be prepared I made use of the restaurant’s rope swing to swing off from the restaurant and into the blissfully refreshing lake. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced such an exciting eating experience before! I ended up staying at the restaurant for hours, watching as other customers went flying off the rope swing and into the river.
Vegetarian side dishes at a Buddhist temple – South Korea
These side dishes don’t look like much, but they were eaten in a very special way. During my overnight temple stay up in the mountains in Korea, I was taught to eat like a Buddhist monk. Everyone sat on their knees in a room facing one another, and we used four bowls to put our meal into. One for rice, one for side dishes, one for water, and one for rice. When we had finished the meal (in silence) we used the water to slowly wash through each of the dishes. When all the water and leftover food was in the last dish, we drank it, leaving nothing but clean dishes, with hardly any water wastage. The water at the end was actually a surprisingly delicious way to end the meal!
Weird seafood at the Busan fish market – South Korea
Korea is one of those countries where just when you think you’ve gotten used to it, it throws up something crazy to surprise you. I’d been living on Korean cuisine for 9 months when I visited the fish market in Busan, but nothing could have prepared me for the taste of raw sea squirt, still-wriggling penis fish, and live octopus. Surrounded by bubbling tanks of water, filled with alien-looking sea creatures, I sampled some of Korea’s finest fresh sea food, before having to be violently sick into an ashtray on the table!
Thanksgiving meal – Korea
I’ve never had an American thanksgiving meal before, so I was delighted when my American friends invited me to have thanksgiving with them in Korea this year. I turned up at my friends house with very few expectations, but was amazed at the effort that my friends put in. There was candied yams, turkey, mashed potato, broccoli and bacon salad, green bean casserole, stuffing, cheese, cookies, and plenty of wine! It was a truly memorable eating experience, and one that I was really glad to have been asked to be a part of.
The best samgyeopsal in Seoul!
I love samgyeopsal. There’s very little not to like – fried pigs belly with lots of spicy side dishes. It always differs from place to place though, and sometimes my favourite side dishes are missing from the table. One night I was complaining to my friend Tom about the exact fact. I told him that I wanted to go for samgyeopsal, but that all my favourite side dishes had to be there. Being incredibly lazy, Tom denied my protests to hunt through Seoul looking for such a place, and so instead we tried a place just round the corner from his house. To my absolute delight, this place happened to offer up what must easily be the best samgyeopsal in Seoul. Every single side dish I liked was there, and there were even some I hadn’t tried before! It was one of the best meals I’ve had since I’ve been here!!