The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Living La Dolce Vita with Food Writer and World Explorer Robyn Eckhardt

Veteran travel and food journalist Robyn Eckhardt is here. A few months ago, she shared some insights on Southeast Asian cooking with Displaced Dispatch subscribers, but for this post I’ve asked her to supply a recipe for La Dolce Vita, or the Sweet Life — drawing the ingredients from her extensive world travels and their sensory delights — along with an easy version anyone can try!

Robyn Eckhardt’s Personal Recipe for La Dolce Vita

Mix together the following:

3 heart-stopping sights

1) The Bund, Shanghai, in 1990 before the city underwent its construction boom. It was of those moments when you realize that a place you know by heart from books (I studied Chinese history in college and grad school) is actually real.
2) Istanbul’s Blue Mosque from a taxi at 1:00 a.m. on a crisp, clear February night. It was my first time in Turkey; I’d just arrived from Shanghai, where I was living at the time. The combination of jetlag and being somewhere so foreign and utterly different to the place that I called home was like a slap in the face, in a good way.
3) When I was 17 I saw the Statue of Liberty up close on a Circle Line tour. Even though I was your typical cynical, jaded teenager, my jaw kind of dropped. I imagined the thousands and thousands of immigrants to the US arriving by ship and having that same view. It’s still a pretty amazing sight, I think.

11 intoxicating scents

1) In most any neighborhood in Chengdu (capital of China’s Sichuan province) at around 5:00-6:00 p.m., the scent of dried chilies hitting hot rapeseed oil.
2) Just-off-the-boat anchovies grilling in Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea.
3) Chicken barbecuing anywhere in Thailand.
4) Chòu dòufu, or “stinky beancurd,” in Taipei — funky yet beguiling.
5) Jasmine flowers in bloom on a hot summer ‘s (which is actually in September or October) evening in the San Francisco Bay Area.
6) On winter evenings in Santa Fe, burning piñon tree branches in a hundred fireplaces.
7) The seafood section in the market in Butuan, Mindanao in the Philippines, which smells like nothing but seawater — it smelled so good we didn’t mind eating kinilaw (the Philippine “ceviche”) prepared by a fish vendor, right smack in the middle of the market.
8) In any Turkish town or city very early in the morning, the first whiff of rising dough and baking bread from any bakery.
9) The enveloping, almost chokingly overwhelming scent of spices freshly ground in huge quantities at an old, Indian-run spice shop in George Town, Penang.
10) The dining room at a tiny osteria in Calosso, Piemonte, which my husband and I frequented four years in a row. It didn’t matter what was on the menu that day, as soon as I walked in the I knew that I was going to eat wonderful foods, drink good wines and leave very, very happy.
11) Last but not least, the smell of China. You smell it as soon as you get off an airplane. What is it? I’m not really sure. It’s certainly not magnificent but it is intoxicating to me because it never fails to transport me in a single second to my 21-year-old self, abroad and on her own for the first time, arriving in Chengu. Lots of emotions there.

4 dreamy sounds

1) The call to prayer one late afternoon as I sat on a hill overlooking the ruins of the theater at Aspendos, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. One muezzin started, then another from the opposite direction began, then another and another, from mosques in nearby villages. Their voices alternately intertwined and competed — one of those incredible moments that leaves you almost gasping for breath.
2) The sound of calling/singing/chanting vendors at wet markets. Especially when they get into a groove, sing-songing the same phrase over and over again. Like at Pudu Market in Kuala Lumpur: satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit! When I hear a great call from a market vendor I just stop and listen while the market frenzy continues around me.
3) The sound of the rain forest waking up on Langkawi Island from the vantage point of the top of a hill, above the forest canopy. I arrived to perfect stillness; as the sky began to lighten there was movement in the trees — creakings and squawks and chirps and rumbles and knocks and grinding noises. Just before I left, ten or so hornbills simultaneously rose from their perches, making a tremendous, wonderful racket with their wide wingspans. It sounded like a jet flying low overhead — whoo whoo whoo whoo. I could feel that noise in my gut. Incredible.
4) A trio of genggong (Jew’s harp) players on the front porch of a cottage on the edge of a rice field in northern Bali. Bali is magical to begin with. This was an unexpected treat.

A particularly delicate flavoring

Normally, I’m attracted to bold flavors, but as this is La Dolce Vita, I’ll probably throw in the sap from the cut flower of an aren palm, which I tasted when I went out at dawn with a palm sugar maker in northern Sumatra to get the sap he was collecting in bamboo tubes from dozens of trees. It was sweet and flowery but in a very, very restrained way — what’s incredible is that after just three hours of boiling it becomes one of the most intensely flavored sugars in the world.

An extraordinary physical sensation

For this recipe I’ll include the most amazing physical sensation I can remember: riding an elephant bareback and solo, which I did last year in northern Thailand near the border with Burma. Grabbing its leathery ear to pull myself up, palming the spiky, hair-sprinkled knobs of its massive forehead to keep my balance, feeling its shoulders move under me when it walked — something I will never, ever forget.

A memorable encounter with strangers

My husband and I ended up eating lunch with an elderly Turkish couple in their traditional timber farmhouse on the Black Sea. The experience sticks with me, for many reasons. Rather than retell the story here, let me point you to the relevant post on our blog, EatingAsia.

A place that stimulates all five senses

For me, this can be anywhere unfamiliar, or where I haven’t visited for a long time. Right now, especially, it’s eastern Turkey, which I’ve been getting to know in bits and pieces over the last two years.

The food is new (to me) and surprising — interesting twists on familiar Turkish dishes and curve balls out of nowhere, like dolma made with cherry tree leaves(!) or dough spirals seasoned with copious amounts of ground poppy seeds that taste like cacao.

I love the way the Turkish language sounds; I speak enough to get by but am nowhere near even half-fluency. I desperately want to be better at it, so when I’m traveling there my ears and brain are hyper alert to conversations around me; I’m constantly trying to understand what I hear, writing down unfamiliar words, trying (and often failing) to communicate well with strangers. That’s fun in a certain way, though ultimately exhausting — but it’s a level of engagement with everything that is going on around me that I don’t always have.

Outside Turkish cities the sky is big and the population sparse. To me — a resident of Southeast Asia — that is incredible and wonderful. When my husband and I go, we rent a car and do long, long road trips. I’m always eager for what’s around the next bend in the road or over the next pass because in two or three hours the terrain can change tremendously.

I can never get over the scent of air in that part of the world: nothing but air, clean fresh air! We make it a point to go once or twice a year when it’s cold; this past February temperatures in Eastern Anatolia averaged about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there was lots of snow. It was that kind of cold where the hairs in your nose freeze as soon as you walk outdoors and ice cracks under foot and snow crunches with an especially hard “c”. I loved it.

And I’ve had so many great people experiences there — strangers opening their homes and kitchens to me. Even though I’m always a wee bit tentative in that way that you get when you are among strangers somewhere unfamiliar, eastern Turkey is probably the place where I travel with my heart the most open. When I arrive there I take a deep breath and just relax and let whatever is going to happen, happen. I can’t and don’t always let my guard down like that when I travel, so it’s lovely to be somewhere where I can.

Art by 2 artists who understand La Dolce Vita

1) Well, I am biased, but this recipe definitely calls for my husband Dave Hagerman‘s portraits and people-focused street photography because they often capture, I think, that moment when a subject decides to just let it go. Those sorts of photographs only come when a photographer is willing to extend his or herself, take a risk and show utmost respect to his or her subject.
2) I also love the work — paintings especially — of California realist John Register. The empty-room paintings, the diners-at-night paintings. I can’t say much about his heart or his soul when he was painting them, but to me they show that mundane things can evoke emotion. That is beautiful.

An inspiring travel quote

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
– Rudyard Kipling

As one who travels most of the time on her stomach, I can especially identify with this sentiment.

* * *

After adding a pinch of salt to all of the above, Robyn is living the sweet life. And if you’re not as well traveled as she is, not to worry. Robyn offers this simple recipe to try at home.

Robyn’s recipe for living La Dolce Vita at home

You don’t have to physically get on a plane or train or bus to travel. Do something unfamiliar in the place you know best, your home:
1) Go to a neighborhood you don’t usually frequent, go to a museum if you are an outdoors person or to a park if you’re an indoors type.
2) If you are not an early riser, go out before dawn and watch your town or city or neighborhood wake up, or if you’re an early-to-bed sort of person, take a nap in the evening and then go out late and see what where you live looks and sounds and feels like when you’re usually asleep.
3) Ride a bus or some other form of public transport if you’re always in your car.
4) Try a new restaurant or bakery or cafe, or shop at a farmer’s market if you usually buy your food at the big box or grocery store.

Penang-based freelance food and travel journalist Robyn Eckhardt is a contributing writer at Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, a contributor at ZesterDaily and to publications like The New York Times Travel Section, Saveur and SBS Feast. With her photographer husband David Hagerman, she publishes the food-travel blog EatingAsia. As this interview hits interwebs, the two are hiking village-to-village in far northeastern Turkey, learning about beekeeping and cow-herding and tasting lots of honey and cheese.
Final note from ML Awanohara: Extra points will be awarded to anyone who recalls Robyn’s husband, David, being featured in the series I ran at the end of last year: “The 12 Nomads of Christmas.” He’s just as extraordinary as Robyn says!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with Laura Graham, author of Down a Tuscan Alley, a semi-autobiographical novel about her mid-life move to Tuscany. (Ah, la dolce vita!)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Img: Robyn Eckhardt writing in Tokat, Turkey (by David Hagerman).

4 responses to “Living La Dolce Vita with Food Writer and World Explorer Robyn Eckhardt

  1. Matteo May 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    You make me cry…i live in Indonesia but my country is “La dolce vita italiana” 😉
    Nice to meet you

  2. Barbara Conelli June 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Robyn, I absolutely love your lists. So Chique! They reflect the beauty, inspiration and charm of travel, and they’ve really touched my traveler’s heart, reminding me of my own list of special sounds, sights, scents, colors, textures and experiences. Thank you!

  3. Karen June 5, 2012 at 3:46 am

    What a gorgeous post this is – well done all around for the sensations shared.

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