This week we welcome the wonderful couple behind World Flavor to Chewing the Fat! While in Koh Lanta, Thailand (we know, we know… the blog is horribly behind!), we actually had a chance run-in with these two when they spotted us scoping out snacks in the local 7-11! We shared a great meal with them later that evening and a foodie friendship was born!
Rachel and Jeff are a food-loving couple who have been exploring the world for seven months, following a year teaching English in South Korea. Rachel likes cheese, reading, and riding horses, while Jeff enjoys fruit, board games, and fruit-related board games.
Sound like the perfect candidates for this interview series, no? 😉
Read on as Rachel & Jeff unravel the mysteries of kimchi, offer advice on what to do when you don’t like the local food, talk about the experience of sinking their canines into man’s best friend, and 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?
Rachel: Probably China. China is an enormous country and so it has a huge variety of food. It would be hard to get bored of it like I have with some other cuisines. And I seriously love Beijing-style dumplings.
Jeff: We’ll see how I feel after getting through the cheeselands of Europe, but for now I’d pick Malaysia. Since it’s a Muslim country, drinking culture is minimized and food and non-alcoholic drinks seem to rise in importance, perfect for me. The cuisine is influenced by immigrants from India and China, the proximity to Thailand and years of Western colonization as well as the native cuisine. What remains is an amazing food culture that combines all these influences and has amazing tropical fruit available year round.
And the flipside: of all the places you’ve visited, which country had your least favorite food? Why was that and were you surprised?
Rachel: That would definitely be Mongolia. The food largely consists of meat and milk, and that’s about it. Vegetables don’t grow well in the harsh landscape so they don’t much appear in the food, beyond a few potatoes and carrots here and there. The meat eaten is almost entirely mutton, which is a rather strong and fatty meat. It wreaked havoc on my digestion. I wasn’t surprised, since I had read about the food in advance and knew what to expect. But anyone who has eaten at a Mongolian grill and thought it was actually a representation of Mongolian food would be in for a shock! Though strangely that has been imported to Ulaanbaatar, where you can now eat at a JB’s Mongolian Grill.
Jeff: I would also pick Mongolia. While noodles with root vegetables are pretty good, it gets old fast and my body couldn’t handle the giant chunks of sheep fat very easily. I never really expected Mongolia to have a gourmet food culture, but what did surprise me was how good some of the Indian food we found in Ulaan Baatar was.
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
Rachel: Bugs at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing. Small scorpions are tasty but centipedes are disgusting.
Jeff: The problem I run into when trying to answer this question is that many of the strangest foods I eat are difficult to identify. There will often be no one who speaks enough English to tell me what I’m eating or there might not actually be an English word for it. Bugs are a great answer because they are so recognizable and gross. What tops my list though are things like the mysterious poppable pus sacks that would sometimes adorn school lunch soups in Korea.
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?
Rachel: Yep, it’s McDonald’s for me. I usually reserve it for those times when for one reason or another, I can’t stomach anything other than familiar food. Like recently after finding more than 5 hairs in my salad in Phuket. And I ate at Taco Bell in Korea.
Jeff: The food that I must often get cravings for is fruit and that can’t really be considered a guilty pleasure. I do, though, think there is nothing wrong with indulging in whatever you’re in the mood for (Within moderation for health reasons). Why make yourself suffer because of what you’re “supposed” to be eating in a particular country? Now, I certainly think that if you spend all your meals eating fastfood while travelling you’re really missing out, but I don’t think going to McDonald’s from time to time should be considered a guilty pleasure at all (except for health reasons). My rule: Eat what you like, but spend enough time trying new things so that you actually know what you like.
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?
Rachel: Macaroni and cheese! I’m an addict.
Jeff: Salad from Whole Foods. At least in the DC area, their salad bar is the stuff of dreams.
If you knew we were coming to visit you in your hometown, what would be the one food you would make sure we tried?
Rachel: I’m from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and you’ve got to come to the Exmore Diner with me for breakfast and get a sharp cheddar covered pancake. No one has ever thought this sounded good, but you’ve just got to trust me. We put cheese on everything…
Jeff: There’s a little burger joint that Obama goes to from time to time called Ray’s Hell Burger. Unfortunately, his visits have really increased the size of the lines! I can’t say whether quality has changed at all in the last two years, but these burgers are magical. Somehow, eating one of the enormous things always leaves me feeling energetic and alert instead of ready to fall into a food coma.
You spent a year teaching English in South Korea, so could you tell us a bit about the cuisine you encountered while there? Were you fans of Korean food before arriving? And what’s the deal with kimchi?
Rachel: Ahh, kimchi. It is seriously ubiquitous. Korean food is usually some meat and vegetables covered in red pepper paste, served with at least rice and kimchi. I didn’t like kimchi before arriving but I got used to it and now I love kimchi fried rice. An interesting thing about Korean cuisine is that there’s no particular time of day that most dishes are appropriate to eat. People eat for breakfast basically the same thing they had for dinner the night before. Korean food is not as spicy as Thai food, but the thing is, almost every food is a little bit spicy. Living there will increase your spice tolerance for sure! I got tired of Korean food eventually because there are only so many flavors involved. But it is delicious and eating out is inexpensive.
Jeff: Kimchi is the figurehead food for the cuisine portion of the national identity. I heard claims that it could protect you against anything from bird flu to cancer. I often got the feeling that if you didn’t like kimchi, people would think that you didn’t like Koreans. After eating it at every meal for awhile I almost stopped noticing it. Korean food generally comes in a limited range of flavors. There’s red pepper flavor, fermented bean flavor, and pickled flavor. There are plenty of dishes that I really liked, but I was definitely craving more variety as my year there progressed.
Even for many adventurous eaters, dog is one thing that is quite literally off the table. Based on your own experiences in South Korea, what is your perspective on this issue and what advice would you offer to any travelers who are curious about chowing down on man’s best friend? What is your rule of thumb when you’re in a situation where locals are eating something you feel is ethically questionable?
Rachel: It’s definitely true that people eat dog in South Korea. But less people are eating it these days, and the younger generation is very much moving away from the tradition. It’s considered a stamina food so it’s mostly eaten by older men. We met a young man who loves eating dog who took us to a dog restaurant. I felt guilty afterwards because the raising of dogs isn’t regulated in South Korea, meaning the conditions they live in are questionable at best. My general rule of thumb is if something you find ethically unclear gets put in front of you, try a little of it or go ahead and eat it since otherwise it’s getting thrown away, but don’t go out of your way to order it in the first place.
Jeff: My food ethics rule of thumb is that what I do on average is more important than what I do in individual situations. My ethical judgement also leans more towards environmental factors than animal welfare factors. If I eat dog once or a single piece of bluefin tuna, but consume 30 kilograms less beef per year than the average American, I still see my moral high ground as being at a moderately higher elevation. Conveniently this allows me join in on potentially questionable meals occasionally.
You wrote quite candidly about visiting Thailand but not really being able to enjoy the local cuisine. Do you think that eating the local food is an essential part of travel and understanding a place, or do you believe that you can get as much out of a trip to Thailand eating pizza as you would eating pad thai 24/7? Do you ever feel like you face food snobbery from fellow long-term travelers?
Rachel: I think trying the local food is important because food is such a huge part of culture. But on the other hand, trying other cuisines in a particular country can be interesting too because it is often a local interpretation instead of exactly what you’d get in the US or elsewhere. In that way you can try pizza in Vietnam and you will often actually learn what the Vietnamese interpretation of pizza is. Since we’re traveling long term I see no point trying to make myself eat only local food. Sometimes, I just eat what I enjoy. I thought after I posted my Thai food confession I would face out and out snobbery but so far I haven’t gotten any of that. Though I have certainly overheard plenty of food-snob conversations. We’ll see!
Jeff: Since my interests lie in the direction of food, for me eating the local food is an essential part of travel and understanding a place, but I think this can vary between both people and places. If you are especially interested in fashion and you are visiting Milan, food might not be the most important thing for experiencing the culture. In most places though meals are some of the best places to bond with people (especially if you don’t drink) and the food scene can tell you a lot about the people. I think most people would really be missing out if they went to Thailand and didn’t eat any Thai food.
One of the reasons many travelers stick to the local fare wherever they go is because the renditions of international cuisine you get abroad often only vaguely resemble the dish you had in mind. What are some of the weirdest spins on dishes you have encountered, and have you discovered any “foolproof” dishes that travelers can turn to if they’re burned out on the local food scene?
Rachel: In South Korea, pizza is pretty different. The sauce is a bit sweet and they use kind of plasticky “pizza cheese.” But what’s weird to most foreigners is the toppings. Most pizzas have sweet corn, and a lot feature mayonnaise. My favorite had potato wedges on top too. I once had a slice from Pizza Hut with a scoop of mashed potatoes, barbecue sauce, and broccoli on top. A lot of other expats in Korea hated the pizza but I actually loved it. I also once ordered beef tacos in Hanoi and got what was basically a quesadilla with way less cheese instead. As far as “foolproof” dishes go, I think this is why people keep going back to fast food. Though many fast food outlets, McDonald’s especially, adapt their menus slightly for foreign markets, they usually have something you know well too. A Big Mac is a Big Mac, and it tastes exactly the same whether you are in the US, China, or Thailand. Arby’s curly fries taste the same in Turkey. And that’s what makes fast food so useful to the home-food-sick traveler!
Jeff: My host mom in Japan once served hamburgers. They were about the size of meatballs and were served without a bun. The were made with ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, bonito flakes, and blueberry jam and were eaten with tonkatsu sauce. I haven’t really found one foolproof dish that doesn’t have built-in uniformity (like fast food or a particular brand of crackers). Pretty much everything is influenced by what ingredients are available, who’s cooking them, and who the customers are. I suggest you try to find some dishes that you really like, but aren’t very picky about. These should give you a taste of home. For me that means pesto, Indian food, and pizza.
Rachel, we know that you proudly have several tattoos… if your next tattoo had to be food-related, what would you pick and why? As far as we know, Jeff doesn’t have any tattoos, but feel free to respond as well!
Rachel: I’ve been considering getting some new ink to commemorate my latest world travels, so this is a great thought exercise. I’m imagining the globe stylized to look like a pizza. So it’ll be round and have a crust, but the cheese will sort of look like the continents and the sauce is kind of the oceans. What do you think?
Jeff: It’s true that I’ve never gotten into tattoos, but if I had to get one, I already have an idea. You know those tattoos that are meant to seem like you can see inside a person? Maybe it appears like a torn patch of skin with some bones and organs visible. That’s what I’d like, except my body would be filled with food!
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.