Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chew on this - Culinary Souviners.

So I am off to Singapore today. I am looking forward to the trip. There are lots of foodie experiences on the menu and lots of food shopping. What was the food like? Is always the first question I ask when someone I know returns from a trip. I love to get them talking about their gastronomical adventures. Of course the best part of it all is when they whip out a special something they picked up just for you!

The connection between food and travel is natural. Food is an instant memory prompter: a single bite or even just a whiff of something is enough to instantly carry you to that the extraordinary feast at the Sarova Shabba in Kenya when you dined by candlelight on a meal of chicken grilled with green chilies as a river flowed by. Culinary Souvenirs are little piece of my holidays I can bring home, attached to the memory of great food experiences they effectively bridge that gap between nostalgia and practicality.

One evening you're standing in your kitchen, cooking dinner for your family and, the scent of basil at that precise moment it releases its flavor into the tomato soup bubbling away in its crock-pot assails your senses, carrying you back to that lovely meal you had at the idyllic Bagni Iris in Italy with the sea washing up on the beach and the romance of Italy in your blood.

One of the most fitting things to bring back as a memory of a trip is a Culinary Souvenir. Food plays the part of a window into the culture of the places we visit. We visit local restaurants; share meals prepared in the homes of friends, old and new and explore markets and shops marveling at the strangeness and sensuousness of new cuisines. And culinary souvenirs also widen the spectrum of options where gifts for people back home are concerned. After all they are functional, come with a story attached, and bring gratification in being thought about.

Alcohol, Wine, Chocolate and Cheese are things most picked up as culinary souvenirs but there are a variety of other options available. From ingredients; herbs, spices, spice mixes nuts, dry fruit and cooking mediums; oils, vinegars to dries, preserved, pickled foods, cured and salted meat and seafood and even cookware, crockery, cutlery, flatware, glassware and serving dishes.

Wild Oregano from Greece or Turkey, Lavender from the South of France that entraps the sun in its aroma… Herbs and herb mixes make good gifts and souvenirs. They have long shelf lives, do not occupy too much space and are welcomed by cooks of any stripe. Look for indigenous herbs from other countries you visit as well - New Zealand’s Kinaki wild herbs packages Horopito a local herb with a peppery flavor which always sparks of interesting conversation at my dinner table.

And Spices! There are as many Spices as there are countries in the world and bought closer to source, they tend to be of a better quality with a longer shelf life. Look for chilies from Thailand, Mexico, India, Hungarian Paprika, Saffron from Spain and Vanilla pods (just a single pod makes a great gift) and Cinnamon from Sri Lanka. The number of spices available in the world is beaten by the variety of spice mixes available. Bring home Pesto mixes from Italy, Zahter (great to sprinkle over bread with a bit of olive oil and grill) and Ras El Hanout, the king of spice mixes (used to flavor Tagines) from the souks of Morocco. Closer home, every regional cuisine has special spice mixes. Look out for local masalas such as Bottle Masalla and many other fragrant blends to spike curries, rub on meats and flavor vegetables with.

Wherever you go in the world you will find local oils and a bottle brought back can add variety to your pantry. Truffle oil is a must from France or Italy but go past the obvious for the lesser know. Look for local Walnut oil in Italy for example, it makes flavorful salad dressings. Pick up Austrian Pumpkin seed oil or oil pressed with lemons or infused with herbs, spices, garlic or chilies. I was gifted Horopito infused Apricot oil in New Zealand and it still makes a great story when I serve something cooked with it.

All manner of ready sauces are available to stir into meats, curries and pasta or use as dips for starters are available in the by lanes and corners of the Culinary world.. Porcini Mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, Moroccan preserved lemons, Spanish Jalapenos. Pickles that run the gamut from hot Indian Achars to pungent fermented, Kimchi of Korea and smoky sweet relishes from England. Try the Serbian Avjar, a sweet pepper paste, fiery PiriPiri sauce from Africa or Wasabi from Japan.

Carrying fresh seafood and meat could be more hassle than it is worth. But you could bring home canned Sardines from France, Smoked Salmon from Norway, Back Bacon from Canada, Chinese dried sausages, Salted dried “Billtong” from South Africa and Salamis or cured meats like Serrano and Parma ham from Spain or Italy (ensure you buy them in large pieces – unsliced, so they don’t dry out as quickly as pre-sliced meats).

And don’t limit yourself to food for your culinary souvenirs. There is indigenous cookware and serving ware to be found in every country you visit. Look for paella pans in Spain, Tagines in Morocco and Copper Urlis in India. A Samovar or interesting coffee mug can be an interesting addition to a friend’s collection.

The most extraordinary Culinary Souvenirs are of course your memories and the selection presented above is just a beginning of the treasures waiting to be discovered on your travels. Whether your next trip is for business or pleasure, drizzle some olive oil over it, add some zest of lime, spike it with chilies and fill it with flavor! When you are done experiencing it, trap a little bit in your suitcase and bring it back!
A few things to watch out for:

Customs restrictions. Some countries have restrictions on what food stuffs and souvenirs you can carry in, so check those out. You don’t want to carry a few dozen Alphonsos from Bombay and then find that you have to ditch them at the airport in Australia or blow all your money on raw milk cheeses from France only to find you can’t carry them into the USA!

Tips and tricks
Buy wines, at the higher priced end of the market than at the lower, you will get a wine that you probably couldn’t afford at home. Half bottles are a good buy for more regular indulgence.

Try not to leave all the shopping for your last day or the airport shops. Space out your shopping over the period of your holiday, souvenirs bought from the local shops around your hotel or resort, rather than from the point of departure will offer more variety. Also exclusive boutiques tend to focus on packaging and price more than quality or quantity.

When you visit local festivals or street and flea markets, try to go with locals. Your foreigner status will be a beacon and might attract unsavory elements but at the same time be wary, ask yourself if there might be a hidden agenda at work. Taxi drivers could be getting a commission, or a kindly shopkeeper might just be trying to bring custom to his cousin’s otherwise empty restaurant.

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1 comment:

Bombay-Bruxelles said...

A must-do activity when we are on vacations are vist(s) to the local markets! Have a nice vacation!