Sunday, September 24, 2006

Culinary Souviners - Jetwings international Jan - Fed 2006

hat would you do if you could travel back in time? Given the option, I would like to go shopping for food!

Food is an easy medium by which to explore traditions and cultures in countries we travel to, and a souvenir in the form of food or food related objects make excellent keepsakes.

Culinary Souvenirs (shall we say?) make excellent keepsakes. Ornamental and serviceable at the same time they also make lovely gifts for people back home. In her book “A taste of the Far East”, Madhur Jaffrey, iconic actress and the food writer says, “When a food is on my tongue, the taste is of course paramount. But while my tongue savors it, my mind relishes all the little details I know about it…” Like Madhur Jaffrey, I have discovered I like finding out more about the food I eat when I travel. And like the pioneers of old, I regale guests at my table with tales of the food I am serving, at every dinner I host.

Unfortunately, I discovered my culinary interests later in life, post my wandering phase. Today I think back and can only shake my head at the irony… the places I went to, the things I could have done… Italy, New Zealand, Africa…

So, offered a chance I would like to travel back to all the places I have been to with a shopping basket and a more educated palette collecting culinary souvenirs to bring back with me…

My first stop would be Kenya. While headed from Malindi to Mombassa, we once stopped at a roadside viewing point to watch the molten sun melt into the sea. Peddlers were hawking sticks of roasted Cassava and Cassava chips and the savoury aroma of the carried to us on the salty sea air, tempting us... Fried to a crisp and savoury with lemon juice and an added bite of red chilli powder they instantly inflamed our mouths and brought tears to our eyes. The very thought of that day makes my mouth water. The first thing to go into my basket would be a bag or two of Cassava Chips along with a couple of bottles of passion fruit concentrate!

I discovered Passion fruit with a vengeance on my first trip to Kenya. In season and present everywhere they were hard to miss - the crinkled purple ones that had dried out a bit, not the larger yellow egg shaped fruit – we’d tear off the tops with our teeth and suck the seed riddled soft pulp into our mouths, letting the tart-sweet pulp slide down our throats and scrunching our faces up when the tart flavour hit our tongues while the seeds crunched between our teeth. So addicted were we that we actually carried back a bushel full! A feat that has become legendary enough so friends coming from Kenya always bring me a bottle or two of Passion fruit concentrate to remind me of the more convenient option I did not think off…

I sampled Thai curry at an airport restaurant in Bangkok en route to Australia and fell in love with the combination of Chilli laced creamy coconut over steaming rice. I tried to recreate the flavors at home a number of times, with no success. Hearing about my obsession, a friend that migrated there sent me a bag of Thai sauces and Curry Pastes. Pre made sauces and sauce mixes are widely available but far more authentic when purchased in their home countries. City markets are the best source for what locals buy and the Thai addition to my basket would be some Nam Plah to eat with authentic Thai Curry and fiery Birds eye chilies!

My first inspiration for culinary souvenirs came from Italy. I was at the end of an idyllic trip to Aosta, a small town near Milan in Italy. I had been traveling alone. It had been two weeks of wandering through towns and the memories of good times spent with new friends over espressos at little cafes, freshly baked Brioches, Foccacias fragrant with Olive oil, Pastas, wood fired Pizzas and Risottos studded with chunks of fresh Porcini Mushrooms. I did not want to leave! In a desperate attempt to carry as much as I could back with me, I made my way to the local supermarket and spent an obscene amount of money on ingredients so that I could take SOMETHING back with me to give those back home a taste of the life changing experiences I had had! Pasta Sauces, Herbs, Olive oil, bags of handmade pasta and Parmesan Cheese, would all go into my shopping basket!

Cheese! I truly discovered cheese in New Zealand. For a tiny country, New Zealand is a gourmet Paradise. Just about anything you could as for in terms of gourmet ingredients can be found on the shores of this tiny island. Dairy production is strong and you will find a large variety of hand made cheese. Once you have gone through a cheeseboard of artisanal Cheese, chances are you will never eat another slice of processed cheese ever! I would add a selection of these to my basket. My next stop also does some delectable cheeses, South Africa but my basket would be loaded with other things.

There are some awesome places to eat along the scenic Garden Route in the Cape region of South Africa but the place I would like to revisit would be Knysna. We took the TchooTchoo train up to Knysna on a cold foggy morning in July. I hung out of one of the large window for the most part of the ride with the wind in my hair and soot in my face. On reaching Kysna we first took a cruise of Knysna lake on one of the John Benn boats. On board that sublime afternoon my 20 year old self discovered Oysters. Specifically, Knysna Oysters! Now while I would not be able to carry back Oysters, I would be able to carry back my other great discovery of that day, Gourmet Coffee! I discovered the world of coffee at a very special cafĂ© in Knysna. ‘Coffee Connections’ boasts exotic flavours like Sambucca, Irish Coffee, Butter Rum, a generous few packets would go into my basket…

Now I believe that good coffee needs a little sweet something to offset it. For this I would stop at Australia to pick up two iconic biscuits. Anzac biscuits are crunchy biscuits made with oats and treacle that became my staple on one busy trip escorting a group of Indian tourists around Australia and I still long for them with coffee on a tough day. The story goes that during World War 1, women were concerned about the nutritional value of the food being supplied to their men - food sent out was carried in ships with no refrigeration - took up to two months to get to their destinations. An enterprising body of women found the solution - a biscuit with the maximum nutritional value possible based on a Scottish recipe, incorporating items that did not spoil easily. ANZAC biscuits are still made today. They can also be purchased from supermarkets and specialty biscuit shops all over Australia. Tim Tams are Australia’s other favourite biscuit (Arnotts the company that makes them sells around 30 million packs - nearly 300 million biscuits each year!) made up of a creamy filling sandwiched between crisp biscuits with the whole then dipped into chocolate. Delicious!

There’s something empowering about a holiday. It utterly transforms you. You turn up in a city not knowing anything from anything, unable to get your tongue around the names for the simplest dishes, let alone tell anyone what it is... and yet by the time you leave you can hold forth with confidence about the everyday meal of that country, it’s culinary influences AND pronounce the names of everything… well almost! This connection between food and travel is natural. Food is an instant memory prompter, a single bite or whiff is enough to instantly carry you to happy times and Culinary Souvenirs are little pieces of your holiday attached to the memory of great experiences that will effectively bridge the gap between the wanting a tangible piece of heaven and practicality! So take a leaf from my book, go beyond the souvenir shops on your next trip. The best way to discover a place is through its food, looking for interesting dining experiences and the search for culinary souvenirs will open up new doors in terms of discovering a place while generating lots of grist for the mill of dinner table conversation!

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