In a month where many of our posts have explored La Dolce Vita, I’ve been posing a series of questions to nomadic types on the sensory delights the wider world has to offer.
Week after week, we’ve seen that if there’s such a thing as a formula for The Sweet Life — La Dolce Vita — it lies in learning how to take pleasure in simple things.
And, bless my little cotton socks, I happen to be a very simple sort.
Confession: I’m a bit taste-bud challenged!
As this is our week for taste, I was tempted to make a rather tasteless joke — but then thought better of it. Instead I will quote from displaced Chinese writer Lin Yutang, author of The Importance of Living (aptly titled, given our theme):
What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?
As much as I love travel, I’m one of those who finds it challenging to sample new tastes. It does not help matters that people seem to detect this about me right away and like to take the mickey by tricking me into trying new things.
The worst instance of that was in an Egyptian bazaar. One of the vendors encouraged me to taste the bright blue powder that was piled up enticingly in bowls identical to the cumin and crushed garlic you see on every spice stall in virtually every Middle Eastern bazaar. He pantomimed that I should wet the tip of my finger and dip it in for a sample…then chortled like mad as my face screwed up and my tongue shot out in disgust. It tasted like soap! Indeed, it was soap — laundry detergent, to be precise, which they sell by weight. (Well, you’ve got to get your kicks from something! Actually, I think if I had to work all day long in a spice stall, I’d be playing tricks on tourists, too.)
Nothing like a Big Mac fix…
And now let us turn to the words of another wise man, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates:
The best seasoning for food is hunger.
For me this is borne out every time I hit the supermarket whilst hungry. Everything on the shelves sounds so delicious…far more so than when I discover it weeks later mouldering in the back of my cupboard, wondering why on earth I bought it.
It’s taught me never to go shopping on an empty stomach — a luxury that, for millions of people around the world, isn’t an option…
But back to Socrates. Hunger can certainly make anything taste better. After one particularly long (two-month) hike in Australia, where I lived almost exclusively on instant noodles, two-minute pasta packets, bread and water (and okay, a fair bit of chocolate!), I craved nothing so much as the rich, additive-laden satisfaction of a Big Mac. Even my wife agreed! The moment we reached Albany, Western Australia, the town the end of the trail, we didn’t even stop to rest our feet — just hiked straight through into McDonalds, and ordered about a thousand calories of heart-attack in a paper bag for each of us.
You know something? That burger tasted better than anything has ever tasted in any restaurant anywhere, ever. I mean it! I only wish I could have eaten more, but after a thousand kilometers on fairly limited rations, neither of us could finish more than half the meal. (For which I’m sure our arteries are still thanking us!)
…or a simple Thai stir-fry
In Thailand I was always at my hungriest after a full day’s diving. Diving seems like such a relaxing sport, but leading two dives a day gave me the most voracious appetite I’d ever known. I’d blast through the jungle on my little blue scooter with just one thought in mind: get to the market NOW!
Though I’d acquired a taste for quite spicy food, I always made a beeline for the same stall: a friendly old bloke with a wok and burner fastened to the sidecar of his motorbike. He served up thinly-sliced chicken on fried rice, with a small bowl of flavored water that I thought must be soup or tea, but was never quite sure which.
His stir-fries were plain, fresh, and SO delicious — I almost always went back for another serving! After I’d been going there for a couple of weeks, I didn’t even have to ask; the stall holder had a second portion ready for me as soon as I’d finished the first! I dread to think what happened to his takings when I left.
But the most delicate flavor of them all…
But there was something even more simple that attracted my taste buds while I was living in Thailand — so simple that it didn’t even involve cooking! I refer to the fruit salad I used to have for breakfast (on the rare mornings when I wasn’t diving) at the Thai resort where I lived. The resort owner, who was also the chef, was one of those people who whip up anything, and it was all fantastic. Pad Thai with crushed peanuts, various other noodle dishes, and deep-fried dumpling what-nots even the Thais can’t describe — so call them “no-names”!
But this woman’s fruit salad outdid them all — even though I had no idea what most of the fruits were! You can honestly taste the difference when you’re eating something that’s been picked less than fifty meters away. That fruit was so juicy, moist and colorful, it’s ruined me for fruit from anywhere else!
It just doesn’t taste the same when it comes from a supermarket down the road. Or maybe it did, before it was flash-frozen for transport and crossed an ocean or two.
It’s nothing to do with my carbon-footprint conscience, or a decision to support local industries. It Just Tastes Better.
Does that make me a snob?
It certainly makes me borderline malnourished.
Because I don’t get my 5 A Day. Not regularly. I just wait until my next trip to Thailand, where I try and eat my year’s supply of fresh fruit in two weeks.
As for what that does to my system…well, it’s not exactly delicate!
So tell me: what is the most delicate (or delicious) flavor(s) you’ve encountered on your travels? You can tell me in the comments, or jump on Twitter and drop a line to me @TonyJamesSlater +/or @DisplacedNation. And if you happen to have a mouthwatering photo to accompany your story, be sure to send it to me at email@example.com. I’m working on the promised “la dolce vita” slideshow! 🙂
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, an entertaining poll asking you to vote on which celebrities are most in need of a mid-life gap year! (Something fun for the holiday weekend…)
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Interesting! Even though I think I would never crave a Big Mac no matter how long the hike, I do agree that how yummy a food tastes can be circumstantial. I remember, on my first trip to China, getting so ill on the food that by the time I was on the plane back to Britain, I was elated to see that the airplane lunch included a whole-grain roll and butter.
Which brings me to your other point: keep it simple! For what is more simple than bread and butter? Even when part of an airplane meal, it can taste rather wondrous.
When living in Japan, I learned a lot about “simple” food, because the Japanese pare their meals down to what looks good on the plate and also tastes good: a simple grilled fish, rice, miso soup, seaweed, pickles and green tea.
And they, too, have a fondness for delicious fresh fruit. And now I’m going to agree with you again and assert that the most delicate flavor I’ve encountered on my travels is in fact a fruit: the large, dark purple Kyoho grape. You slip the skin off and then pop them in your mouth. So sweet and so juicy and so, well, grapey. This is the archetypal grape; it cannot be perfected. Absolute heaven…
Mmmm… sounds delicious! And simplicity is a key thing in my life – it usually is for a backpacker-type person, but I extend it into the realms of philosophy. In the kitchen it helps immensely because I can’t cook at all. Even a boiled egg is a challenge for me. So I quite often resort to bread and butter – and cheese – or even… hot, buttered toast! It’s my staple diet :0)
I like to think of myself as adventurous except when it comes to trying different foods overseas. I have an overwhelming fear of getting sick & spending most of my holiday hanging over or on a toilet. I tend to stick to carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice & potatoes. I volunteered in the ‘potato capitol’ of Peru & with 42 different kinds of spuds, I was in heaven.
I discovered the limits of my own adventurousness while on a two-week tour of China quite a few years ago. I was one of several in the party who got ill on the food. In fact, it was a little like one of those Agatha Christie mysteries with someone else not appearing at the breakfast table each morning. By the time we reached our last stop, Beijing, I was eating meals of rice, peanuts and beer.
I suppose that rice is the Asian equivalent of potatoes. Fortunately, I didn’t get ill when I went to Peru a few years back, but you are right, potatoes would have been the answer. I remember going to the covered market at the center of Cusco and was gobsmacked by the potato section. I had no idea that there were that many varieties!
p.s. Recently, I was talking with a Peruvian man and he mentioned that Peru now has a potato that when you cut it open, it looks like lips! Apparently, it’s used a lot to decorate plates and so on. Do you know the variety he means? Just curious…
I’m quite lucky; I have the stomach and constitution of a concrete elephant! Never get laid low by foreign food, in fact I make a habit of eating all the food that goes off in our house to avoid throwing it away! I was violently ill one time in Ecuador, but could never figure out the cause, and some people thought it was food poisoning – but then, I didn’t really think the symptoms fitted the bill. In fact I thought the symptoms were more closely related to impending death!
As for my favourite kind of potatoes… don’t ask. Yes okay, you guessed it – CHIPS!!! (especially drowned in mayonaise, lie they do in the Netherlands… Mmmm!)
Why does that not surprise me?!