This week’s Chewing the Fat is one I’m so excited to share with you. If you’ve spent any amount of time reading travel blogs, then undoubtedly you will have come across the chronicles of Gillian and her partner Jason over at One Giant Step. Based in Canada, they caught the travel bug and took off on an epic RTW trip in 2009/2010, right around the time Tony & I started hatching our own plan to take a leap of our own. We avidly followed as their travels took them around the world and back to their home and native land, only to watch as they relieved themselves of the few possessions they had and headed out again, this time to live in the world as serial expats. First Thailand…next up…Mexico!
What I love about Gillian’s journey is that even though it has always been her own, she has always made me feel that, whatever the adventure, anyone is capable of chasing his or her dreams. That said, she never sugar coats the process and hard work involved in the pursuit of happiness, but she also never lets the hardships and bumps in the road keep her down for long. In short, she’s not just an incredibly talented writer, passionate traveler, or admirably hard-working, she’s pretty much just an all around awesome human being. We have a long-standing plan to meet up for beers one day (preferably a pint in each hand, eh?), but for now we’re contenting ourselves with this interview. It’s not exactly the same, but the upside is you guys get to join in the fun as well, so pull up a chair and read on as Gillian dishes about the diverse and delicious authentic Thai food scene, the cloak and dagger routine of purchasing liquor in a Muslim country, books to inspire your next foodcation (Be sure to check out her most recent project, The Global Bookshelf, which is a curated collection of the best travel books to help your really connect to your next destination.), 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?
Just one country? Can I choose Asia? Specifically Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan…let’s call it Thai-et-pan. Why? Because I love noodles, and soups, and fresh, light, flavors, and spice, and beauty in food. I’m drawn to the simplicity, and yet the complexity, of the flavours from this region. Japan’s cuisine is carefully crafted and has evolved over hundreds of years to be held in high regard; whereas Vietnam’s food culture is such an organic development that has resulted in amazing flavors and regional differences. And I just never get bored of the diversity of Thai cuisine; in four months of living there we only ate ‘western’ a handful of times – I just love it!
And the flipside: of all the places you’ve visited, which country had your least favorite food? Why was that and were you surprised?
We found Turkey to have the least variety. Certainly in Istanbul and Ankara (the two largest cities) we could find all kinds of cosmopolitan meals but we found our time in the rest of the country lacking. Yes, we were surprised. We had heard great things about Turkish food and count Greece as one of our favorite culinary destinations so expected a similar experience from somewhere so geographically close in the world. We ate a lot of kebabs and versions of kebabs. Perhaps it was where we traveled or maybe it’s just one of those times when it was always just around the corner and we just didn’t go far enough, you know?
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
Probably cuy (guinea pig) in Peru. I thought it tasted like rabbit in the restaurant prepared version we had and it was inedible in the hyperlocal version we were ‘treated’ to outside of Cusco. I have a ‘no bugs, no organs’ policy about food so it didn’t get too crazy. I’m open to eating many things, and definitely ate plenty of unidentifiable meat, but I don’t go out of my way to look for the crazy. Just not my thing.
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?
Hmmmm…we don’t really seek out N.American restaurants while travelling although we have indulged in local versions of N. American fast food such as MOS Burger in Japan or various pizza incarnations around the world.
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone! During your travels, what was the one food from home that you craved the most?
For us, it was the most basic of things. A good cup of coffee or tea, toast, cheese, the ability to make a meal. We had some amazing meals around the world but it’s those comfort things that we missed the most.
If you knew we were coming to visit you in your hometown, what would be the one food you would make sure we tried?
After much consideration I have determined that Victoria, BC, Canada is my hometown. For me, it’s a debate determining whether your hometown is where you grew up, where you last left from or where you would return to… Anyway I digress…
Victoria has some really great, small, innovative places to grab a bite. I would take you to Red Fish Blue Fish for a tuna tacone; the best ‘fish taco’ I have ever had (I reserve the right to change my mind once I have been to Mexico!). Then to Hernandez for pork and beef tacos; the cheapest, most authentic tacos around (again…reserve my right…). One more stop at Pig for a pulled pork sandwich before we finish off at Canoe to sample the suds at the best brewpub in town. Man, we would be full and happy!!
I know that for you and your partner (Jason), food and alcoholic beverages (particularly beer!) go hand in hand. Where and what were some of the best drinks you’ve experienced during your travels? Which country has been the worst when it comes to scoring spirits?
Although at home we enjoy a good cocktail (gin and tonic for me thank-you-very-much!), when we’re traveling we usually stick to beer and yes, there are definitely better and worse places to score!
Germany is, of course, top of the list. Those people know their malt, hops, yeast, and water combinations! I love that there are so many different types of beer and that it is available everywhere. We went on a hike and there was a bierhaus at the top of the hike! Now that’s civilized!
Turkey was the worst. Antalya seemed to be filled with tea houses, no beer in sight. We were determined to find a shop selling beer to enjoy on the balcony back at our room. We must have walked for an hour and a half before finding a small shop that sold beer. The shopkeeper carefully wrapped our two bottles and placed them in an indiscreet black plastic bag that announced to all the world that we were lushes and had purchased liquor. We walked back to our inn and enjoyed the contraband enormously!
You’re currently back in our shared homeland, Canada. I’ve noticed on my own travels that many people we meet, while enthusiastic about Canada, tend to believe that it has no food identity of its own apart from poutine and maple syrup. Having spent some time on the East Coast and originally coming from Alberta, are there any dishes that you encountered that you believe are particularly representative of these pockets of Canada? To you, what dish best exemplifies *your* Canada?
Oh man, you know this is a hard one! In a country as big as this one there is no ‘national’ dish; it is definitely regional. On the west coast (where I’m from) there is an asian influence and a seafood bent, but cross over the mountains into Alberta and it’s beef country all the way. I just had my first ‘real’ poutine this summer and now I know why it’s so popular…YUM! But oh-so-bad-for-you! My Canada would best be exemplified with a burger and a pint at a brewpub. I hope we can share a pint with you one day!
This past year you launched a new online venture that revolves around connecting travelers with books to inspire them to take their next great trip. Can you recommend some titles that you have enjoyed that might appeal to gastronomic jetsetters planning their next foodcation?
Yes, I think that reading books – ALL kinds of books; novels, memoirs, history, travelogues, and cookbooks – can really connect you to your next destination. The Global Bookshelf is all about helping with that connection. We’re gaining quite a community, which means that we can all share the books that have most inspired us. We have a bit of a food section on the site and I’m always looking for more! Right now Dos Caminos Mexican Street Food is on my list as Mexico is our next target destination.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time hanging out in Thailand’s expat mecca, Chiang Mai. When most travelers think of Thai food, they tend to know little beyond mango sticky rice and pad thai, so can you clue us in on some of the other tasty dishes that are worth seeking out that have perhaps not gained popularity in the west but readily available on the ground?
What we typically think of as Thai food in the west, the coconut curries and paad thai that we all know and love, is usually southern Thai fare. The central and northern regions are quite different and we really liked it.
Chiang Mai, in particular, is known for khao soi, a creamy, sweet, curried noodle soup with both broad, soft egg noodles and crispy fried ones on top. Served with braised chicken, pork, or beef, pickled cabbage, red onion, and lime, it was our ‘go to’ meal while there.
BBQ is quite popular. Particularly chicken with sticky rice. There is a chicken stand on just about every corner. It’s basic but very tasty.
We also discovered sai oua, or northern Thai sausage. This came in many forms, from the small strings of balls and sausage coils in every market (filled with pork and often rice), to a more refined version we enjoyed in some restaurants with delicate spicing and sometimes heat.
Nam prik was something I had never heard of. It’s like the ‘veggies and dip’ of Thailand. The nam prik itself has many variations; essentially it’s a chile and fermented shrimp paste filled dipping sauce often with ground meat included. It can be quite mild or fiery hot so beware! It’s served with blanched vegetables – squash, green beans, cabbage, carrots and cucumber. We quite liked it and took to ordering it whenever we saw it on a menu just to see how it would be different from the last version we tried.
One of your long-term goals is to ultimately settle down as an expat—to this end, you’ll be heading to Mexico in the near future. What dishes are you most looking forward to trying once you’re south of the border?
Tacos!! Fish tacos. Beef tacos. Pork tacos. Bean tacos. All of them! I’m looking forward to learning more about Mexican cuisine. We don’t have much of a Mexican/TexMex culture in Canada so, to me, it all seems the same…ground meat wrapped in a tortilla and served with some kind of sauce. Call it a taco, burrito, enchilada, tostada or quesadilla…I don’t really see the difference. I am SO looking forward to being proven wrong!!
One giant thanks to Gillian for taking the time to sit down and so thoughtfully and thoroughly answer our burning questions. I can’t wait to read about her food revelations in Mexico (there’s also empanadas and tortas and chilaquiles for her to discover…) and maybe if we all get lucky, we’ll be sharing a cerveza or two in the near future!
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.