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food, travel, food culture

Will travel for food – five places on earth with food worth the trip

Xian, China

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Clockwise: oven baked flatbreads at Xian night market; jelly noodles and bread soaked in mutton soup, a local specialty; the pagoda-shaped Xian Grand Mosque; a very happy Serena at the night market.

The Middle Kingdom is not surprisingly on the list of best places for food. My obsession with Chinese cuisine started a few years ago with the compulsive purchase of every Fuchsia Dunlop book ever written and peaked with actually going eating my way through the country. China was my “dream trip and I saved forever to be able to go on a 4-week independent tour – it was all worth it and Xian was an absolute highlight. This city in the Shaanxi region was the starting point of the Silk Road and it’s deeply influenced by Islamic culture, from cuisine to arts and crafts to clothing and folk music.

The night market in the Muslim Quarter (Huimin Jie in Mandarin, home to the local Hui Muslim population and of over 10 mosques), located in the center of Xi’an old town, is the best place to discover the city heritage and fill you tummy with delicious, inexpensive fare that’s unique to Xian and not at all “the usual Chinese food”. Think a Chinese-style pulled pork in steamed bread (rou jia mo), spice jelly noodles (ma jiang la pi), cumin lamb kebabs and Turkish-style flatbreads cooked in vertical ovens.

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Left: rou ja mo – pulled spicy pork in a soft bun. Right: more details from the Muslim Quarter in Xian and the night market

 

Luang Prabang, Laos

When travelling solo through South East Asia in June 2014, I chose small, landlocked Laos over Myanmar mostly by chance- mostly because of the relative ease of getting a visa and generally getting around without a lot of pre-paning (a local guide/tour operator seems to be a must in Burma). I thought I’d just spend some time in Luang Prabang, I ended up spending 12 days in the country and flirting with the idea of mysteriously missing my return flight.

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Left: Night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Right: Laotian barbecue

Yes, Luang Prabang is magical, the caves are spectacular, the party is cheap and the people are smiley and friendly –but what won me over in no time was the food. “Same same but different” from the grub in nearby Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, Laotian food is overall simpler, less spicy and somehow less refined, but incredibly tasty and goes well with BeerLao, the ubiquitous local brew. Unbeatable chilled to accompany a DYI barbecue, where you cook your choice of meat, fish, veggie and …unidentified cuts from a giant buffet. In Laos, local produce like water buffalo, crispy riverweed (yes, like seaweed but from river freshwater) and a myriad of vegetables are eaten with delicious sticky rice in a myriad of cheap street joints or luxurious colonial style resorts – I favour the former. The French heritage is evident in the bakery department, with croissants and baguettes that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris (except for the rock bottom cheap prices) available in the main cities of LP and Vientiane.

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Clockwise: Laos spices and herbs from a cooking class; sunset on the Mekong; Laotian duck (?) curry; Buddhist novice monks bathing at the Kuan Si waterfalls

 

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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Clockwise: Montreal famous Fairmont bagel; aged meat at Jean Talon Market; street vendors at Atwater Market; old industrial mills

There’s no denying it: although the London F&B scene has quite come round over the last few years from the bleak days of …let’s not go (back) there, the moment I step on the other side of the pond I always feel like they’re miles ahead on the trends curve. And you don’t even need to make it to New York or San Francisco, even a mid-sized city like the capital of Quebec can display an incredible level of quality and variety in its food offering (maybe the French heritage has something to do with it?) and flex its trend-setting muscles. The Mile End area, next to the well-established food & arts hub of the Plateau, it’s where it’s at. Take for example grungy, neon-lit pizzeria Magpie, dishing out perfectly executed Neapolitan style pizza with gutsy topping; vibrant, bike-and-coffee-culture meets Japan cafes like Falco; the vibrant farmer’s markets Jean-Talon (traditional) and twater (more “hipster”);  th renaissance of street food stalls; and I could continue….Oh and don’t forget to try the city staples – I’d skip greasy poutine anytime and much rather go for a heavenly crispy and doughy Montreal-style bagel at one of the legendary 24/7 bakeries.

 

Kelantan, Malaysia

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Kelantan-style assam laksa noodles (with tofu-filled vegetables); the wonderful waters of the Perenthian islands; chopping Coconut Chicken in Kota Bharu

 

All of Malaysian food (well, all of what I have tasted so far- I am far from done!) is delicious or at least interesting, with its mix of Malay, Chinese, Indo-Chinese and Indian influences. But a place has a special space in my heart, food-wise and because my better half hails from there: the northeastern region of Kelantan. It is one of the most traditional and in many ways remote areas of the peninsula, with strong Malay and Thai influences, and most tourists route hop straight off the coast, to he magnificent archipelagos of the Perenthians. But if you are interested in authentic, unspoilt Malaysian culture and food, it is worth spending a few days just eating your way through the coast. Dishes like Nasi Dagang (rice steamed with coconut milk, fenugreek seeds and topped with chicken or fish curry for breakfast), the local version of Laksa noodle or the unique Coconut Underground Chicken are worth the trip alone- and don’t forget the colourful and photogenic food market of the capital Kota Bharu.

 

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Left: stuffing my face :) Right: the wet & dry market in Kota Bharu

 

Abruzzo, Italy

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My pictures my Abruzzo mountains, hills and seaside – don’t really do justice to its beauty

Here I am not sure it is even classified as travelling – as for me, going to Abruzzo is really just going back home. Here, in the “tourist no man’s land” east of Rome, is where I was born and raised and where my family roots are. But I think I am not biased in thinking that the food of Abruzzo is amongst the best, tastiest and most authentic Italy has to offer. Typical dishes vary from town to town, as they’re shaped by our landscape – sweeping from snowy mountains to rolling hills, to the sea in a few miles. All of our cuisine features local seafood or meat, wild herbs, lots of egg and cheese (Abruzzo makes some great Pecorino cheese) and a wonderful, award-winning olive oil. Most of the dishes hail from the “Cucina povera” heritage – think “Le Virtu'”, a soup made with pulses and grain leftovers from the winter larder, revived with some spring vegetables; or “arrosticini”, skewers charred on hot coals on pit fires and made from the humble mutton. But Abruzzo also harbours one of the best (and most expensive) saffron productions in the world, and some of our winemakers are increasingly winnign awards for their refined creations. Try googling “Emidio Pepe wine” and forget cheap, harsh Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

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Typical Abruzzo dishes. Clockwise: homemade salumi from Vasto (with the proud maker); “brodetto” (fish stew); arrosticini (lamb skewers); “chitarra” egg pasta and local black truffles

 

I hope you liked my “glutton world map” with my top five food destinations, and that I have encouraged to check out one or more of these places for your next trip. This post is part of the Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There campaign, which I was nominated for by Giulia of Mondomulia blog. I nominate five bloggers to write their own favourite 5 destinations:

- Sylvia of PeachesAnd Donuts

- Sonia of Sonia nel Paese delle Stoviglie

- Niki of BeirutiBrit

- Federica of Pastabites

- F. of The Daily Out

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. great post! So many great destinations! Wow, ok. I need to give this some thought!!

    • I know, it is hard! took me forever to boil it down to five…

  2. Serena,

    Well selected top five. I have to agree with Xian for sure. Maybe after 6 weeks of rice and noodles and dumplings it was just nice to see bread when we arrived there but whatever it was, it tasted great. I liked that we had to sit upstairs away from street level in the Muslim quarter so we could have a beer with our meal. It felt kind of naughty but went down so well after a hot day on the streets. A fabulous market too.

    Of course Malaysian food is so full of flavour! A real melange of cultures providing a great taste explosion.

    And how could I argue with Abruzzo…?!

    PS I’ve not been to Laos. And I could kill for a decent bagel. Something Australia has only embraced in a few places, sadly none of them in Adelaide!

    Glad you’re back in the F world! Love reading your take on food.

    Cheers,

    MLT

    • Thanks MLT! Yes, Xian market is fabulous, isn’t it? We were coming from Pingyao where the food was on average very bad and touristy, so it looked like paradise ;) Glad to see that somebody as well travelled as you also considers Abruzzo a top place for food!

  3. Serena, great post – I am very jealous of some of these places as I have not visited them…yet thank you for nominating.. will post shortly :)

    • Thanks Fede! looking forward to your post, you have been to so many places, I am curious

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