This week on Chewing the Fat, I am utterly elated to welcome the lovely lady behind Battered Suitcases, Jill Cox! Jill is a twenty-something primary school teacher who worked for several years in the Middle East before taking a year to simply enjoy life and travel through Australia. After a year of camping, koala-spotting, and some fairly epic roadtrips, Jill recently returned home to the America’s Pacific North West. Throughout her travels, she has also developed quite the fondness for novelty snacks.
You never finish one of Jill’s short-but-sweet posts without a huge grin gracing your face, especially if you happen to be reading one of her brilliant rundowns of a country’s various novelty snacks. Having snacked her way from Azerbaijan to Bangladesh, Jill has certainly gotten around… and I mean that in the best possible way! Clearly I have far less self-control than Jill does, as when I stumbled upon her Novelty Snacks series on her blog, I devoured every single post in a single sitting. Though the same cannot be said for all the snacks she’s fearlessly feasted upon, I can safely say those posts will never leave a bad taste in your mouth and with no calories to feel guilty about to boot!
But instead of me trying to explain why Jill is so awesome, check out her interview and see for yourself! Read on as Jill dishes on inadvertently eating ants, offers up an indispensible guide to eating in the UAE, shares which country has the best (& worst!) novelty snacks, and so much more!
We’re a big fan of “foodcations”—on more than one occasion we’ve taken trips motivated solely by the desire to eat our way through our destination. Of all the places you have visited in your travels, if you were limited to only eating the food from one country, which place would you choose and why?
Mexico. Mexican food is the one cuisine that I have craved (and been disappointed by) all over the world. You would think that I’d know better than to eat at a Mexican restaurant in Vietnam, but nope. There’s always a little bit of hope that’s quickly dashed by the third bite.
And the flipside: of all the places you’ve visited, which country had your least favorite food? Why was that and were you surprised?
Probably Nepal. Although I found some snacks to enjoy, the food in general wasn’t very memorable. The local food was nice enough (nothing to write home about) but the “tourist” food was atrocious. After a long hike I had a craving for mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, what arrived at the table looked more like soup. It was a case of instant mashed potatoes gone very wrong.
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
I can’t think of anything too exotic/adventurous that I’ve tasted while traveling. Most “exotic” foods tend to be meat and that’s not an option for me. I didn’t even remember to try durian while in Malaysia! But there was that one time in Sri Lanka when my partner and I checked into our guesthouse and were offered glasses of Vimto with straws. Several sips later Mike grabbed my glass and we both looked in. It was swarming with ants. They were even crawling up the straw. Well, I didn’t want to be rude so I just kept sipping. Finally our taxi driver told the proprietress and of course she was mortified! So I suppose the most exotic/adventurous edible I’ve sampled would be ants! I can’t comment much on the taste but they went down easy.
Many travelers mention succumbing to McDonald’s or other fastfood cravings while on the road, but what is the guilty pleasure food that you indulge in when traveling?
Since being in Australia, I have definitely spent a fair amount of time at Macca’s (McDonald’s). This place is expensive and they have the cheapest ice cream! (30 cent cones, how could you not?) In general while traveling the familiar fast food chain that I find myself at most frequently is Subway. Subways are all over the place and it’s an easy source of vegetarian food, especially when I’m sick of the local fare, feeling queasy, or just need something quick. My one complaint about Subways in Australia is that they don’t have mustard (or chips. But I’m mostly annoyed about the mustard).
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone! If there were one food from back home that you could eat RIGHT NOW, what would it be?
I’m pretty lucky at the moment: Australia has fairly comprehensive grocery stores. However, I have yet to find vegetarian friendly marshmallows here.
If you knew we were coming to visit you in your hometown, what would be the one food you would make sure we tried?
I was going to rave about all the delicious and unique food carts in Portland, but they get enough love on the internet. Instead, I’d recommend you stop at Burgerville (founded in Vancouver, Washington 10 minutes from Portland. It’s my actual hometown).
Yes, Burgerville is fast food chain but it’s also something special. Burgerville is dedicated to “sustaining all we love about the Northwest.” The most obvious way this is done is by using fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients. You can only get my favorite blackberry shake for a few weeks a year, and it’s always a big deal when the Walla Walla onion rings are in season. In addition to only using the best ingredients, Burgerville buys green energy credits, partners with growers and the community, and provides affordable health care to its employees. All of that plus a million other things is why I was reading about Burgerville in my Environment Studies textbook during University. I’d personally recommend you order a black bean burger, but everything on the menu is good. There’s even a special sauce.
You spent several years living and teaching in the United Arab Emirates and have traveled quite a bit in the Middle East. For those of us who have never been, can you describe the staples that make up the local diet? What were some of your favorite and least favorite dishes that you had while you were there?
Local food in UAE is really hard to find. (There are only three restaurants that serve Emirati food in the entire country!) If you want to experience the local food you will need to make a local friend. I was lucky enough to work with several generous Emirati women who invited me into their home or brought dishes to school potlucks.
The most famous dish that you will see at every gathering is harees. Harees is a mixture of meat and wheat that has cooked for hours until it turns into a kind of paste. It almost looks like mashed potatoes but with a very tacky texture. Personally, I was very thankful that I didn’t have to try it. Between two of my coworkers, one loved it and the other could barely get it down. So I suppose it just depends on your tastes.
You will also nearly always find balaleet on the table. It is a noodle dish that always tricks me. Everytime I expect something savory, but it’s actually sweet (and fairly bland).
My favorite dish is a sweet snack called luqaimat. They are small balls of deep friend batter covered in date syrup and rolled in sesame seeds. They resemble donut holes but don’t have a cakey texture. If you can handle the sweetness, you’ll love it.
Probably the most common misconception is that Emirati food is the same as Lebanese food, it’s really quite different.
You have been a proud vegetarian for several years now. Have you ever felt that not eating meat limits the extent to which you can experience the local culture because there are certain dishes you cannot eat? Which country/part of the world would you says is the most veggie friendly? Which one is the least?
I don’t think that not eating meat has really limited me while traveling. Eating meat isn’t an option for me so I don’t really dwell on it. There’s always something veggie friendly to eat and I choose to dive into snacking as a way of experiencing local food culture. Some of the most veggie friendly places have been India, Thailand, and Berlin. If you do a little homework you can usually find a vegetarian restaurant in most cities. The hardest place so far to find a veggie meal has been Slovakia. I was one sad traveler eating a bowl of very expensive vegetable broth.
One of the features we love on your blog is the Novelty Snacks Spotlight you do on the countries you visit. What prompted you to start that? Also, which country has the best novelty snacks? The worst?
Novelty Snacking started when I moved to Abu Dhabi. There were so many new snacks to try and I love snacking in general. Somewhere along the way my friends and I started calling them “novelty snacks.” During our first break (we are all teachers) we took a trip to Azerbaijan where the novelty snacking continued. At this point the rating system and photographic evidence began to take shape. It is also when I fell in love with a cookie: Tutku is basically the most delicious novelty snack ever sampled (and then devoured). When we got home I added the snacking photos to the blog and it all took off from there. Now it’s great to have an excuse to try new foods and snack while traveling. I have to. I’m conducting research!
My favorite country for snacking is probably Thailand. During my first trip there I went a little overboard and had to present my findings in three parts. The snacks are cheap, inventive, and delicious!
One of the worst places for snacking was Bangladesh. It was just really hard to find snacks to try!
A big thank you to Jill for taking part in Chewing the Fat this week and for sharing such lovely, mouth-watering photos with us (she even makes that Jilly bar look good, doesn’t she?)! We’re just as outraged about Aussie Subway not carrying mustard (is that even possible?!?) as you are and expect a lot of angry supporters to rally in the comments! Also, luqaimat sounds awesome & Tony has yet to dub a dessert “too sweet”… might this be his downfall? Only one way to find out…
Like what you read here and want to be featured in a future installment of Chewing the Fat? Great! We’re always looking for new people to dish about dining with! You don’t have to be a long-term traveler, or even have your own blog to participate; all you need is a healthy appetite and an appreciation for food. Contact Us letting us know that you’re interested in taking part in this series, and we’ll get back to you with all the information you need to get started.