I honestly believe that there is nothing like food to bring people together. I think if Chewing the Fat has proven anything, it’s that just TALKING about food can be enough to unite people and make us happier. I know that every time someone reaches out telling me that they want to take part in this silly little celebration of gluttony it brings a smile to my face and, obviously, the emails that I tend to read the most hungrily (pun, totally intended) are the ones containing their answers to the questions we have cooked up for them. Through this interview, we’ve “met” plenty of likeminded travelers and foodies with whom we hope we’ll one day get the chance to actually break bread out in the real world… but for now these virtual chats will have to suffice.
Today our guest is the wonderfully witty and awesomely acerbic Esther of NZ Muse. Esther never wanted to do the typical Kiwi OE (overseas experience) in London. But the travel bug bit hard as she was trying to plan a small, drama-free wedding (ha!) and that wanderlust quickly morphed into a beast of a honeymoon – a six-month RTW trip. Less than a week after tying the knot, she and her husband hopped on a plane to backpack across Southeast Asia, then Europe and North America. Now they’re back in Auckland and enjoying all the comforts of home – but desperately missing some of their new favourite dishes.
As Tony and I will be leaving Asia in just under two months (!), I am already experiencing panic and distress at the thought of all the delicious foods we will soon no longer have easy (and cheap!) access to, so, Esther, I feel your pain! To the rest of you, join us as I psychologically torture Esther by having her relive and revel in the glory of meals gone by and she lays down the law about coleslaw cardinal sins, carb cravings on the road, 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?
Would I have to cook for myself, or could I eat out all the time? If I had to cook only one type of cuisine, I would go with Italian. It’s food I could make and eat every single day. A few fresh, quality ingredients go a long way. I marvel at how healthy yet indulgent a simple pasta dish can be – slick ribbons threaded through with grated cheese, tomatoes, or heck, even string beans. Grilled courgettes drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And Italy introduced me to burrata, which I will never forget.
(But if I could eat out all the time, I might choose Malaysian – there’s just such a rich variety of dishes to keep you occupied. Kway teow! Nasi lemak! Rendang! Laksa! Mee goreng! Roti canai! Huge pain in the ass to make some of them, though.)
And the flipside: of all the places you’ve visited, which country had your least favorite food? Why was that and were you surprised?
I’m not sure … Swiss? To be fair, we were only in the country for a few days, only ate out a couple of times, and we were in a holiday spot. I like cheese, and I love potatoes, but overall the cuisine was a bit plain and didn’t particularly grip me. Surprising? Not hugely – I know what kinds of flavours I gravitate towards, and they’re generally more exotic.
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
I would have to go with whale – I tried whale meat in Reykjavik and was boggled to find I really liked it. Tender and subtle!
Many travelers mention succumbing to McDonald’s or other fast food cravings while on the road… what is the guilty pleasure food that you indulge in when traveling?
Yeesh. We definitely had McDonald’s way more than I’d like to admit, but a lot of the time it was due to convenience rather than cravings. But I can’t lie – potatoes are my weakness, in any form, and golden fries are definitely one of the best ways to have them.
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone! While you were traveling, what was the one food from home that you craved the most?
Thankfully, I didn’t have any strong cravings. We don’t have that many iconic foods, to be honest… T missed meat pies terribly, and there were a few moments in which I wouldn’t have minded one either. Towards the end, I almost started to miss Nutri-Grain (cereal) and Grain Waves (a chip-like snack).
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 guess it depends where you’re from. If pies are new for you, that would be the first stop! Otherwise, it would probably be ice cream or seafood (our seafood is crazy expensive and sometimes on the small side but it’s good stuff).
In 2013, you and your husband embarked on a RTW trip traveling for 6 months. We’ve found that traveling for such a long time tends to prompt a lot of introspection and many people wind up having unexpected revelations about themselves. So, regarding food, what was the biggest thing that your time eating your way around the world taught you? What was the biggest food-related struggle you faced on your travels?
That I need to eat real food. Real food makes me feel incredibly good. I have kind of a delicate constitution – I frequently get stomach pains, gas and other nasties on a regular basis. While we were away, though, I hardly had any problems – minus the requisite initial sickness in Vietnam. We rarely snacked (and amazingly, I didn’t miss it), avoided sweets most of the time, and ate fresh as much as possible. Out of 5/6 weeks in Italy we ate more or less vegetarian for nearly a month while HelpXing, and while I was hungry all the damn time, I otherwise felt amazing. Apparently Mediterranean cuisine agrees with me. Since we’ve been back, I’ve been mostly eating Italian-inspired lunches.
All through Europe and Asia, T had a real issue with the lack of meat. He grew up in a meat and two veg type household, so going from steaks and burgers and roasts to noodles and stir fries was tough, and he was always hungry an hour after eating. Don’t get me wrong, we eat quite a varied diet at home, including a lot of Asian dishes, but even going from that to rice and noodles 24/7 was a big shock. Dealing with breakfasts throughout Asia was probably one of the hardest things for me too, actually. I love that kind of cuisine, but I’m set in my breakfast ways – I only eat cereal or toast, or occasionally, pancakes or bacon and eggs. We spent a little too much on Western style foods for breakfast as a result.
Another side effect of long-term travel is discovering a newfound appreciation for home—what’s one thing about the food scene in New Zealand that you have learned to better appreciate? And the flipside, what’s one food-related source of contention you’ve grappled with since returning home?
I’m so happy to be back in the land of humble Kiwi suburban bakeries. I’m loving custard pies, mince and cheese pies, and apple cream doughnuts.
(On that note, I’m glad to be back in a country where high fructose corn syrup is not totally ubiquitous. I have to say I’ve become incredibly sensitive to sugar in my food; I used to love cheap curries, for example, but nowadays they just taste sickly sweet to me.)
We both desperately miss Mexican food. At least with Italian food, while we might not have amazingly fresh produce like we enjoyed in the Mediterranean, we can still buy good EVOO and cheese and balsamic vinegar, and recreate some semblance of the stupidly simple yet fabulous meals we enjoyed. With Mexican food, it’s a lot more work – though I may have to suck it up – and there really aren’t any good Mexican-style eateries here. I would give almost anything to sit down with a plate of rice, refried beans and a big ol’ burrito. I would even settle for Chipotle.
We actually just went to a Mexican chain outlet that opened a branch in our neighbourhood while we were away. I wasn’t expecting much, since I recall being underwhelmed the last time I ate there at its central city branch, but I can’t articulate how much of a disappointment it was this time around. Totally bland, 50-75% smaller than an American serving, and almost twice the price of what we would pay in the US. We’ve tasted the real thing and what we get here just doesn’t measure up. There are a couple non-chain Mexican restaurants that are on our list to try, but in all honesty, I don’t have high hopes. I’d like to see an authentic, hole in the wall type joint open up rather than a trendy and fancy eatery or a lame chain. Excuse me while I go back and drool over my Instagram feed.
In reading through some of your eating adventures on your site, you seem to have a bit of an obsession with coleslaw… what’s up with that? What separates a superb slaw from a second-rate one?
I don’t really do salads. Tucking into a plate of leaves (even if generously punctuated with nuts, cheese and meat) just isn’t my thing. But there are two types of salads I DO eat: potato salad and coleslaw.
After one horrendous experience with sweet salads early on in New Jersey, I swore not to ever eat a creamy salad in the US again. I had never tasted a salad like it in my life and it was traumatising! But despite my protests, T kept on trying with the coleslaw (mostly as a BBQ side), and I find it very hard to resist when something is in front of me (which is why I try not to buy potato chips or king size chocolate blocks…). And every single time it was a disappointment.
A bad slaw is sweet. A good slaw is tangy, sometimes even painfully so.
(I am aware this is quite possibly a regional thing, and there must be SOME people in the US who like sweet slaw or it wouldn’t be sold, but for us, it’s about as wrong as taking a big slurp of a chocolate milkshake and having it taste like, say, miso soup…)
You revealed that your decision to spend over a month in Italy during your RTW was motivated by food (the very definition of a foodcation!). In your opinion, which regions of Italy are the best for foodie travelers to target if they don’t have a month to glut themselves? Which ones did you find most “skippable” on the food front?
Oh, gosh. I don’t think there are any bad regions, to be honest. Even in the most-trafficked places there is so much amazing food to gorge on – you really can’t go wrong. Even the most touristy restaurants in Venice were excellent. We had some outstanding seafood around Naples and the Amalfi coast, which almost brings tears to my eyes thinking back.
However, I would suggest avoiding Naples during the prime August holiday season – so many Italians go away and close down their restaurants over that period. We had some great food there for sure (ALL THE PIZZA), but I feel like we potentially missed out on lots of other fantastic meals because the city was relatively dead. The worst meal we had was actually in Naples – our mistake for giving in to hunger and trying to eat at about 4.30pm, which of course is a huge mistake in Italy.
I’d love to go back and head further south to try out the southern cuisine, and try to get to some really off the beaten track gems. I have this one regret – we were wandering around Naples and I found this one tiny restaurant that I’m sure would have been fabulous to eat at, but they didn’t seem to be quite open. The guy inside was yammering away in Italian at me while I sort of smiled and nodded blankly, kind of frozen, you know? I was kind of hoping to pick up on what he was trying to say through his gestures and any words I might recognise. T was silently standing off to the side all this time – we were both a bit frazzled from the heat and the walking and gnawing hunger and trying to find this place and all that. I should really just have asked if the guy spoke any English, but instead I just turned and walked away. I had the feeling he might have been saying they would be open for dinner soon, just not quite yet … but in that moment of fatigue and frustration I gave up. Still kicking myself for that.
If you could fly back and relive just one meal from your RTW trip, which one would it be?
You do get that this is an impossible question to answer, right? If you asked me this every day for a week I would give you a different answer pretty much every time. For today …I’m gonna go with the random restaurant in Rome that we found off a small square, packed with locals, with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. We started with a divine cheese platter with about five different kinds of soft cheese, served with honey. We followed that up with bechamel lasagne and eggplant parmigiana, both executed perfectly. I was torn between wanting to wolf my plate down as fast as possible and wanting to make it last as long as I could. Every mouthful was sublime. Alas, there are no photos – it was super dark inside and, more importantly, we were famished. The one bung note was that we ordered a bottle of water and accidentally wound up with sparkling water, which neither of us can stomach.
Our understanding is that NZ and Australia have a bit of a rivalry going on and that one of the biggest sources of contention revolves around whence the dessert pavlova originated. Set the record straight for us once and for all! (Also, are there any other quintessentially Kiwi dishes that the Aussies try to pass off as their own?)
Aw, pavlova is so great, it should belong to everyone. But it started here. We also made the world’s largest pavlova (50 sq m) a few years ago.
It tends to be celebrities, rather than dishes, that we fight over. (They can keep Russell Crowe, though.)
Although you live in Auckland, your family has roots in Malaysia and you’re a vocal supporter of Malaysian cuisine. In your opinion, what is it about Malaysia’s food that sets it apart from its Asian counterparts? Why do you think that Malaysian food has thus far failed to make it big internationally (unlike, say, Thai or Japanese)? What dish would you offer to convince sceptics of how awesome Malysian food is?
Heh, this is an interesting one since Malaysian food is pretty big here – not quite up with Thai or Japanese, admittedly, but not that far behind. Hmm. Are there just not enough Malaysian migrants in other countries? Or perhaps is Malaysian food difficult to easily categorise and describe, because it’s so diverse? I feel like you can’t pigeonhole its cuisine (and the variety is what I love about it and sets it apart), but in turn that might make it difficult to ‘sell’ to people off the cuff. /end speculation
One single dish? You’re killing me here. I would probably go with laksa – it’s equal parts delicious and visually appealing. If that wouldn’t convince you, well, there is no hope.
Bonus question: In the battle of laksas, which one wins—assam or nyonya—and why?
Dammit, it’s been way too long since I had assam laksa. I need to rectify that, stat (it’s much harder to find than curry laksa)! I would grudgingly cede to nyonya … much as I love the intensity and complexity of assam, it’s not something I could eat all the time. I love digging down through the layers of the bowl, reeling in the two kinds of noodles, and that bizarre but wonderful contrast of hard boiled egg in the coconut curry. And since I’ve finally learned to eat tofu, it’s that much more enjoyable.
Website: NZ Muse
Thank you so much to Esther for putting herself through the pain of remembering so many culinary highs & lows from her six months abroad and not batting an eye when I sent her WAY more than the usual number of questions. Here’s hoping that one of these days we’ll get to sit down over a bowl of nyonya laksa (obviously the correct choice, by the way…) and chew the fat together live!
ATTENTION FELLOW FOODIES! Want to be featured in a future installment of Chewing the Fat? Great! We’re looking for new people to dish about dining with! As I said above, 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.