Fresh from the holidays, we’re kicking off 2014 with a truly fantastic installment of Chewing the Fat. This week, the lovely Jessica from Ways of Wanderers steps up to the plate and devours everything that we set in front of her (how’s that for mixing metaphors!).
Jessica is no newbie when it comes to traveling (or blogging, for that matter)—she and her boyfriend, Brent, left Canada back in 2011 when they booked one-way tickets to Paris. Ever since then, they’ve traveled through Europe and Asia, going slowly and really immersing themselves in the local culture way of living. Together, they seek out work and volunteer opportunities wherever they go, typically staying in each country for a few months at a time, and they’ve recently adopted a “serial expat” lifestyle. Jessica’s started Ways of Wanderers in order to provide inspiration and advice to help anyone who has ever wanted to see the world actually go and do it, no matter their budget.
Of course, a huge part of experiencing and understanding any country is trying the local food. In her many years of traveling, Jessica has tried more than her fair share of weird and wonderful dishes across the globe in a bid to better understand the places she lives. Even if your travel plans for 2014 aren’t finalized, I hope you’ll enjoy the journey the two of us have put together for you as we hop from continent to continent during this culinary Q&A! Read on as Jessica talks about best breakfasts around the world, unexpected foodie destinations, the best and worst Mexican food (outside of Mexico), 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?
I could probably eat only Italian food for the rest of my days and live a very happy life. In other countries, there are always a mixture of food hits and misses, but in Italy, it really seemed like I couldn’t go wrong. I never had to scout out the best restaurants because the food at any average, back-alley pizzeria was just as good as the food at a 5-star restaurant. For me, Italy hits the mark on all daily meals: flakey croissants and espresso for breakfast, pizza and pasta for lunch and dinner (accompanied by stellar wine), and then gelato for dessert. It’s a carbohydrate-y paradise.
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’ve never completed loathed the food anywhere, but I’d have to say that Indonesia was my least favourite. I wasn’t that surprised, I suppose. I think my dislike of the food in Indonesia had a lot to do with my frame of mind at the time. After nearly a year living in Thailand and traveling to its neighbouring countries, I was pretty SE Asia-ed out, and I was ready for something completely different. To me, Indonesian cuisine just seemed like a less yummy version of Thai food. It also didn’t help that we spent a little too much of our time on Kuta Beach in Bali, which was extremely touristy. The local restaurants seemed focused on providing Western food to cater to this tourist crowd, and it was hard to find authentic Indonesian food.
That said, we only spent a week there, so I can’t claim that I sampled a full range of Indonesian dishes. I’d like to go back and give it another chance someday.
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
Eating raw horse meat in Japan was the most psychologically weird food experience for me. I can see the logic: If I’m comfortable eating chicken, cow and pig, then why not horse too? Yet it just felt really wrong. It didn’t taste strange at all, in fact, the flavour was pretty similar to beef. But once I had tried one piece I definitely didn’t go back for seconds.
Many travelers mention succumbing to McDonald’s or other fastfood cravings while on the road… what is the guilty pleasure food that you indulge in when traveling?
McDonald’s is actually one of my biggest guilty pleasures. I used to eat it quite regularly when I was a kid, so there’s a huge comfort food factor there for me. There’s a McDonald’s in Hida-Takayama, where we’re currently based, and I eat there about once a month. It’s just often enough for me to get my fix, but not so often that it interferes with trying all of the amazing local food that’s available here.
Chocolate is also important for me. Whenever we stay somewhere for more than a few weeks, you can pretty much guarantee we’ll have some kind of chocolate kicking around in our fridge. I absolutely love the chocolate in the UK, so I went a little crazy when we were there.
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone! If you could eat one food from back home RIGHT NOW, what would it be?
Poutine! It’s one of only a handful of uniquely Canadian dishes. For those who don’t know, it’s basically thick-cut French fries covered with cheese curds and gravy. There’s nothing else like it.
Timbits from Tim Horton’s would be a close second. They’re essentially just donut holes, but somehow they’re so much more than that to me. I’ve tried donut holes from Mister Donut here in Japan, and it just isn’t the same.
If you knew we were coming to visit you in your hometown, what would be the one food you would make sure we tried?
If you ever go to my hometown, London, Ontario, then you must eat at Prince Al’s Diner. This restaurant has legendary status among anyone who has ever lived in London. It has this distinct, bright yellow exterior, and kind of a 50’s, greasy spoon-style interior. It’s an awesome hang-out, and my favourite place in the world for deep-fried and guilty pleasure foods, like burgers, Tex-Mex and hot dogs. My favourite dish is the Loaded Perogies with bacon, cheese and sour cream. I literally have dreams about it sometimes.
Like many North Americans you’re a self-professed fan of Mexican food. We know from personal experience that finding acceptable Mexican food when traveling to other continents can be an exercise in frustration and disappointment, but you haven’t let that stop you! Tell us about which country has dished up the best Mexican fare during your time abroad as well as which country you’d recommend fellow burrito-lovers staunchly avoid.
It was pretty easy to find decent Mexican food in Europe, but Asia has been challenging overall. Local food in Asia is always amazing, but it generally seems difficult to find well-prepared international cuisine.
I think Japan has been the most disappointing in terms of Mexican food. I’ve managed to find few restaurants, but most serve Japanese-style Mexican food. The preparation and flavours are a little different, and it just doesn’t do it for me. Our temporary home in Hida-Takayama has this little one-man-operated Mexican restaurant called Chapala. The food isn’t amazing, but the owner is truly passionate about all things Mexican. It’s so endearing that somehow we end up going back there again and again despite the below-average food.
I think the best Mexican food I’ve had on the road was at a place called El Diablo in Chiang Mai. While Thailand as a whole is not the place for Mexican food-lovers, Chiang Mai has some fantastic restaurants. They’re as yummy as any Mexican restaurant you’d find in North America.
Back home, one of our favorite things about the weekends was that they gave us time to concoct (and devour!) elaborate breakfasts. On the road that’s not really possible for us, but we have really enjoyed experiencing new and sometimes bizarre foods that grace the tables in the morning in all the countries we visit. As a fellow breakfast fan, how as your approach to the morning meal evolved with your travels? Any new favorite ways to start the day that you’ve discovered? Any foods you just can’t get behind first thing in the morning?
We worked at a B&B in Wales for a few months, which involved preparing Full Welsh breakfasts for guests every morning (that’s Full Welsh, not Full English – we learned very quickly never to confuse anything English with anything Welsh – it’s a touchy issue). Every morning was an opportunity to practice, and I think we pretty much perfected the art of the fry-up. It’s still my favourite breakfast.
In Europe, we often had bread, cheese, and jams for breakfast, which I really enjoyed as well. I’m a huge cheese-lover, so I’m more than happy to eat assorted cheeses any time of day. It sort of influenced the breakfasts I’ve been having lately in Japan too. There’s a bakery nearby our house, and I often stop there in the morning for a pastry or some fresh bread.
I’ve never been able to really get behind breakfasts in Asia. The food isn’t all that distinct from any other meal of the day. When we lived in Thailand, I got into the habit of picking up chicken and sticky rice from the market in the morning. It was good, but it never stopped being a little weird to be eating chicken at 8am.
One of the most delightful parts of our trip thus far has been discovering amazing food cities that we never knew existed until we showed up. For instance, when we visited Hiroshima, Japan we thought our time there would be all about the war memorials, and similarly, our visit to Hualien, Taiwan was meant to be all about Taroko Gorge. Instead we discovered that the food scenes in both cities were truly incredible and we ate some meals that we still get glassy-eyed over. In you own travels, what unexpected food cities have you uncovered that should be on every foodie’s itinerary?
I really loved the food in Luang Prabang. Laos borders China, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, and when you combine that with its stint being occupied by France, you end up with a pretty interesting mixture of culinary influences.
I’m a huge fan of street food, and the night markets in Luang Prabang never disappointed. The dishes usually involved a lot of fresh veggies, and herbs, as well as grilled fish and meat. I love the way Laos food is eaten: It’s typically served with sticky rice, and eaten with fingers. The desserts are amazing too: Sticky rice with fresh mango, or bananas in coconut cream.
So the more traditional Laos food in Luang Prabang is yummy, and then on top of that, there are many European restaurants serving steaks and wine, as well as bakeries making warm baguettes and awesome coffee. It felt like the best of Western and Eastern food all in one place.
You and your boyfriend are currently living in Japan, a country that we discovered actually has a remarkably diverse food scene that extends well beyond the sushi, teriyaki, and tempura that often constitutes the entire Japanese dining repertoire of most foreigners. What new dishes have you discovered since your move that you wish more people knew about? Does the particular region you’re living in have any particular specialities that visitors should make sure not to miss?
Japanese curry has probably been our best food discovery here. It’s typically quite dark and thick, and the flavour is so different from the curries we’ve tried in other countries. It’s usually less spicy, and almost slightly sweet.
I also love teppanyaki-style cuisine, which is food cooked on a big iron griddle. All kinds of foods can be cooked this way, but I’m a particular fan of restaurants where you have a griddle at your table, then you order fresh veggies and meat, and grill everything yourself. It’s a little bit like Korean BBQ.
In the region where we live, it’s all about Hida Beef. I’ve never particularly noticed beef quality before, but I can really taste the difference with Hida Beef. It’s incredibly juicy, and just kind of melts in your mouth. It’s so flavourful that it’s even delicious just served alone over rice. Mitarashi dango is also very popular here. It’s a skewer of chewy little balls made from rice flour and then covered in a kind of soy sauce. It tastes a little bit sweet, but also quite savory at the same time. It’s a great snack.
Thank you so much, Jessica, for being such a delight and taking part in Chewing the Fat. It’s hard to believe that we’ve yet to earn a Laos stamp in our passports, but your descriptions of the food have us salivating in anticipation! And the next time you’re indulging in some of that heavenly Hida beef, have an extra serving for us!
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.