A local food writer shares lessons from eating, drinking and fasting in 15 countries in 13 months
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
For the past 13 months, I’ve lived in 15 countries. After that, the math gets muddy. I say that because there’s no real way to count the number of weird foods I’ve tasted, obscure local liquors I’ve sipped or meaningful meals I’ve shared, from Malaysia to Mexico, across five continents.
It’s an inspiring challenge to distill a few lessons from all of my experiences, but the following vignettes from the road represent the type of food and drink revelations that await, if you have the good fortune to find yourself in the neighborhood.
MALAYSIA: FOOD THAT’S READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP
If there’s one food to symbolize Malaysia’s intriguing and fast-growing capital, Kuala Lumpur, it’s rojak, a spicy, sweet, salty, tangy, soft and crunchy salad of tropical fruits and vegetables with tofu, fried dough and a zingy chili sauce. Just like KL, it’s a crazy, delicious, almost-overwhelming swirl of influences, from Indian to Chinese to Indonesian.
Partly because of these influences, a convincing argument can be made that KL is one of the best cities in the world in which to eat. My local guide there, Mohamed “Rez” Reezan, makes that argument enthusiastically—and after launching 19 startups, he can afford to live anywhere. “I’ve eaten all over the world,” he says. “I decided to retire here because of the food.”
He and his team took me all over the city, stopping for barbecued stingray, slippery chee cheong fun rice noodles, prawn mee soup, leaf-wrapped coconut rice with egg (nasi lemak), sardine roti flatbread slathered in curry and spicy sambal, along with bowls of shaved ice with palm sugar syrup, coconut milk, red beans and green rice flour noodles (cendol). We ate our way up the aptly-named Food Street and back, into the Indian Muslim Quarter, the Malay Quarter and Chinatown.
“KL is not just about the diversity or fusion of the food as we traditionally think,” Reezan says. “It is beyond that: It is the beginnings that have never changed, the tastes that take you back.”
One of the country’s celebrity chefs, Ismail Ahmad, is all about taking Malaysians back to their formative foods. He’s making it his life mission to expose the world—through his restaurant, international ambassador trips and TV programs—to unique Malay goodies like beef rendang, a spicy, rich, habit-forming beef stew made with local chiles, garlic, cumin, ginger and coconut milk. “Everybody knows spaghetti; Malaysian kids want spaghetti,” he says over lunch of the national food, nasi lemak, and river catfish in fermented durian sauce. “I want to put rendang on the world map, like spaghetti.”
PERU: POTATOES CAN SAVE THE WORLD
In truth, potatoes have already saved the world. Seriously. If it weren’t for the humble spud, you might be reading this in German. Peru is the place to thank. Depending on whom you ask, there are some 2,300–5,000 varieties of potato indigenous to this part of the Andes, ranging from the Peruvian Purple to the hearty Huamantanga.
Potatoes fed the Inca Empire, one of the world’s greatest civilizations, and then Spanish sailors brought them back to Europe. Eventually, the affordable tuber helped the continent survive grain famines, fueled the working classes that powered the Industrial Revolution and helped the Allies nourish the soldiers who would win World War II.
Gracias, Peru, which has been voted the best food country in the world, for its incomparable ceviche, internationally ranked Lima restaurants like Central and Maido and the local delicacy of guinea pig, which I found best prepared on a purple-pink bao bun and topped with seaweed at another stunning world-renowned spot called Astrid & Gastón.
For my sol (the local currency), the best Peruvian dish is the causa, a lasagna-like layered stack of whipped potatoes, seafood and salsas. Lima-born La Mar has become so good at making them that its branches have spread to places like Mexico City, Miami and San Francisco.
THAILAND: 7-ELEVEN FOOD CAN BE A GOOD THING
Forget pad thai. Chiang Mai has its own heavenly lineup of signature Thai dishes, including a khao soi yellow egg noodle curry, khanom khrok coconut rice pancakes and som tam green papaya salad. And the unforgettable night markets are simply overflowing with tasty and surprising stuff: ant egg omelets in banana leaves, crab dim sum boiled in the shell, pork balls in spicy fish sauce, Thai lemongrass-lime-galangal sausage, mini sesame cakes, fried banana flowers and more.
But the biggest revelation of the city isn’t those dishes, or the city’s sheer volume of gorgeous temples. (There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone, including my favorite, Wat Sri Suphan, which is made completely of silver.) It’s not the chance to hand-feed hippos at the zoo, or play with baby elephants at a sanctuary, or even to hang at The Hedgehog Café, where mango smoothies come with an optional real-life prickly pal in a handy wooden carrier, equipped with a ramekin of crispy grubs to feed him with tweezers. It’s not the opportunity to climb waterfalls or ride around in the bed of public pickup truck taxis known as “red trucks.”
It’s the fact that the most addictive foodstuffs in the country are served from a microwave at 7-Eleven. They’re called “toasties” and they arrive like a Snackmaster grilled cheese with a range of fillings and breads. I could live off of them if there weren’t so so so many other amazing foods to eat.
MOROCCO: THE BEST ORANGE JUICE ANYWHERE
Between the dancing cobras, brightly colored spices, maze-like Medina marketplace and aggressive restaurant barkers, Marrakech can feel as intense as it is beautiful. Its edge sharpens a little during Ramadan, when observant Muslims don’t eat or drink between dawn and dusk, and understandably get a little grumpy by the afternoon.
For reporting purposes, I’ve tried some ambitious diets in my day, including 10 days of drinking only maple-syrup lemonade for the so-called “master cleanse.” Two days of Ramadan fasting in Morocco felt harder.
Not eating wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be, but try as I might to keep myself distracted, I couldn’t stop thinking about a little liquid refreshment. At one point it took maximum willpower not to swallow foam while brushing my teeth; later, I was so eager to sip something, I repeatedly hallucinated hearing the cannons that signal it’s time to break the day’s fast.
Day two, thoughts of OJ consumed me. A key note there: Moroccan orange juice is delicious. One of the staples of Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza—along with the monkeys, magicians and musicians—is the juicers. So when the cannons sounded for real, I already had the juice, pre-poured. I remember OJ as my favorite taste of North Africa, even more than the complex and craveable tagines and the surprisingly tasty sea snails sold in the street. And that OJ hits a whole other level of yum after a day without a drop.
PORTUGAL: ANTHONY BOURDAIN LIVES
It turns out that barnacles, done right, are very tasty. I doubt I would’ve learned that—or had a steak sandwich called a prego for dessert—were it not for the greatest food-and-travel ambassador of our generation.
Anthony Bourdain’s blessing sent me to the Marisquería Ramiro in Lisbon, Portugal, for a magic family-style seafood meal of grilled jumbo prawns, fresh oysters, buttery razor clams and freshly cracked stone crab—all ordered by the kilo—next to a big tank where servers fished out lobsters by hand.
Bourdain also inspired pilgrimages to Cowboy Hat Lady in Chiang Mai for pork leg, pitchers of hot sauce and pickled cabbage; Bún Cha Huong Liên in Hanoi for the Obama Special of bun cha noodles and pork, fried seafood rolls and a beer; and Cantina Do Mori in Venice for wine from huge pots and tapa-like cicheti bites.
I was mid-journey when I heard news of his suicide, and like many of his followers, I may never completely heal from it. But also like many, I will perpetuate his legacy by seeking out common ground with oldfriends-I-just-met, the world over.
Bourdain helped enthuse countless individuals about food, and he’s done it while remaining ever vigilant about keeping it in context, channeling the world’s beauty and fragility in ways no one else can.
“Food should be part of the bigger picture,” he said.
CZECH REPUBLIC: PRAGUE AND PILSNER MAKE A BEAUTIFUL PAIR
At my favorite pub in Prague, Lokál U Bílé Kuželky, servers check off the number of beers consumed on a scorecard with little icons of half-liter steins. The card includes…99 icons.
This is on brand for the Czech Republic, where pilsner was born and the per-person intake of beer outpours every other country in the world—and the second-place Germans aren’t really that close.
Some 7 million travelers visit Praha every year, dwarfing its residential population of 1 million. They come for an overwhelming amount of city parks, breathtaking bridges, the romantic Vltava River and some of the coolest cemeteries on Earth. The magic here is real. The rich food, meanwhile, will lay you out, whether it’s the skunky marinated cheese curds or halusky potato dumplings with cabbage, bacon and mustard. But it’s mostly about the beer, in all its hyper-affordable glory.
A scenic 2-hour train ride takes visitors to the city of Pilzen, where Josef Groll crafted the first lager of its kind in 1842. The original recipe remains in use (and closely guarded), with all of its tedious triple decoction and parallel brewing. It’s also the only place to taste unfiltered Pilsner Urquell anywhere, drawn from the huge wooden barrels in the cool depths of the big brewery’s underground labyrinth.
SPAIN: WINE IS SO MUCH MORE THAN RIOJA
Though it is only out-produced by Italy and France—and as its vineyards and winemakers enjoy comparable quality—Spain sells its wines for a fraction of the price, even as Spanish wines enjoy increasing renown. Two recent visits to Spanish wine country revealed what bargains there are to be found, and a bigger surprise: Even Spaniards themselves automatically think of Spanish wine country as Rioja. But there’s so much more to explore.
A press junket sponsored by the Spanish government in 2017 turned me on to a wonderland of under-rated Catalan wines—cavas to rival Champagne (at half the cost), robust Garnachas, pioneering biodynamic Trepats—plus incredible regional eats like handmade butifarra sausage, ubiquitous garlic-rubbed pan con tomate and grilled bacalao cod.
When I returned the following year to the regions of Ribera del Duero and Rueda, the discoveries only deepened. Time-honored, family-run operations like Yllera pair outstanding verdejo whites with tours of historic cellar labyrinths deep underground. Bodegas Hijos de Alberto Gutiérrez sunbathes fortified wines in pot-bellied jugs called “dama juanas,” with great results. Destinations like El Lagar de Isilla and Gumiel de Mercado have elevated chef-driven restaurants on property to go with the very worthy wines.
For thrifty travelers, it’s awesome to know magical Iberian Peninsula wine regions await, without the price tag or crowds of more celebrated (and often more cliché) spots, as our tour leader Silvia Hernández points out: “The quality of the region’s grapes and passion of the winemakers make for amazing wines. What makes it even better is that it hasn’t really been discovered by mainstream wine lovers, so the value and access is awesome.” Wine adventurers, take note.
ITALY AND CROATIA: PIZZA GOES BEST BY THE SEA
For traveling food enthusiasts, the bucket list of edible items can stretch like hot mozzarella from a slice of pizza pie—in part because travel reveals so many new items to add to the menu. Classic bucket-listers helped shape my foray into Italy: 1) Spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, 2) Venetian seafood pasta in Venice and 3) pizza in its Naples birthplace.
The pizza in Napoli was somehow equal to the legend, and includes both what is easily the best margherita pizza these lips have kissed from the place that allegedly started it all (Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba), as well as a fried version of pizza that puffs into a huge ball before deflating into a pocket-like paradise of cheese and meats encased in a thin and chewy crust at Bill Clinton fave Pizzeria di Matteo.
But Croatia might have been the single biggest revelation from my trip, which I don’t say lightly—not just for the islands and the azure Adriatic, but for pizza on par with Italy’s. I heard one traveler call Croatia “Italy light.” I call BS. The pizza is just as good, especially at places like Bokamorra: Pizzaurant & Cocktails, and Merlin Bistro Café & Pizzeria, both in Split. Plus, the old Roman fortresses are incredible. The prices are more affordable. The sailing is world class. And there’s a newer, fresher, more welcoming feel to the tourism industry.
VIETNAM: FOOD HELPS US HEAL
My year’s arc across this Earth cut through a disproportionate amount of countries still very much defined by relatively recent wars. Memories of the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution are still fresh, as are the wounds from the horrifying conflict between Serbia and Croatia. My favorite food of the odyssey was named in wartime: Peruvian causas were originally made to support “the cause,” a war against Chile. In Medellin, Colombia, local Paisas’ immense pride in their beautiful city is a direct result of how far they’ve built it back up after being the cartel-terrorized murder capital of the world.
Many of these cities and countries are just starting to open their arms to tourists, and are all the more intriguing and welcoming as a result. Medellin’s Comuna 13, an incredible labyrinth of murals and outdoor escalators that for decades was a violent guerilla stronghold, is a prime microcosm of the pattern.
One place Westerners define by war could understandably be the least welcoming to an American. Instead it is the exact opposite. In Northern Vietnam, three different families invited me into their homes to sit on the floor and eat chicken feet, pork trotters, fried spring rolls, peel-and-eat shrimp, wholefried fish and garlicky greens while making homemade rice liquor toasts.
One family was honoring the passing of a patriarch, which included ritual gift giving and burning of fake money at his grave and a massive meal on the living room floor and, yes, a lot of toasts. The family and its guests basked for hours in the food and the glow from the moonshine and the energy of the playful toddlers who ran about. The family didn’t seem sad their loved one’s life was over. They seemed grateful his journey had happened.