‘What was your best meal?’ That’s the first question I ask friends when they have returned from a trip – whether it’s a three month backpacking trip to Africa or a week holiday in Queensland. Trying (and savouring) different foods is such a big part of travelling for me, so I love to hear about other people’s culinary adventures. Recently I asked that question to a friend and they told me that their food highlight was a meal at a local’s house. ‘It was better than any restaurant meal we had,’ he said. ‘And better wine!’ I must say that on quite few trips of mine I have eaten with locals (and not at a restaurant) and had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Not only is it truly authentic local food, it is often lovingly prepared. But, you don’t have to know a local to eat a local meal. There are a number of websites where you can ‘book’ a table at a local’s house. EatWith and WithLocals are much like Aribnb by connecting people who have an interest in cooking to people who are looking to eat out and eat local food. Dinner guests pay a fee similar to what you would pay if you went out to a restaurant. I’ve been lucky enough on many occasions to experience local food (and local hospitality). Here are some of my favourites over the years:
Leava, Wallis and Futuna
There is only one restaurant on the tiny island of Futuna (population: 5,000), but even then it’s pretty much empty most of the time. That’s because Futuna hardly gets any tourists (150 or so last year apparently) and the locals cook at home. I was not only lucky enough to be staying with a local, I was also there for one of the biggest feast days of the year. That feast was an umu, which is food that is wrapped in banana leaves and buried over large hot rocks in a big hole in the ground. My host Alesio had got up at 5.00am to bury great chunks of pork, fish, taro and breadfruit. He’d also put a dozen chickens into a big wood-fired oven in his backyard. Because I was the honoured guest I was seated with all the women on the verandah looking out through a line of swaying palms to the crashing surf. Grandma piled a huge banana leaf high with food which I thought was for everyone to share, but it was all for me. There was a large chunk of fish (in coconut milk and lime juice), a slab of pork and an entire pig’s trotter, half a breadfruit (which is about as big as a melon), a pumpkin-sized sliced taro and, wait for it, a whole chicken. There was enough food for a family of six. The food was was amazing and after I’d taken a few bites grandma piled yet more food on to my plate. People kept dropping in and as they did they were given a huge plate (as in a banana leaf) of food. ‘I always cook a lot more because extra people always turn up,’ Alexio shrugged. ‘Some of them I don’t even know their names.’
Ripley, Tennessee, USA
I went to the the Lauderdale County Tomato festival in Ripley, Tennessee because I love tomatoes (and for a story for my book The Naked Man Festival). At the three-day festival there were lots of tomato based activities, including tomato art, tomato throwing, tomato competitions and even a Miss Tomato Queen competition, but my favourite event was the Tomato Tasting at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center. I was expecting to sample a few tasty tomatoes (and perhaps some loaves and fishes), but it was a veritable feast of tomato-inspired dishes. I walked into the Life Centre to find the place full of people sitting at long trestle tables hoeing into whopping plates of food and, before I knew it, a large empty plate was shoved in my hand and I was ushered to join the line for food. I ended up getting (and trying) 25 different tomato dishes including, three kinds of tomato soup, Fried Green Tomatoes, Black-eyed Pea Tomato Salad, Beefy Tomato Casserole, Cheese Tomato Quesadillas, the ‘World’s Tastiest Salsa’, Impossible Green Tomato Pie and, for dessert, Amazing Tomato Spice Cake and Tomato Soup cake. Each dish was made by local women with their very own tomatoes and I ate so much that I missed the crowning of Miss Tomato Queen because I couldn’t get off the sun bed by the motel pool.
Eat Ripley tomatoes!
Very Fresh Greek Salad
Tiny village somewhere in the middle of Corfu, Greece
In Corfu we went to a restaurant that wasn’t a restaurant. I was with a couple of mates on a scooter ride around the island and we had stopped in a tiny village, which was made up of a small row of ochre, white and mulberry-washed houses. We pulled up by the dusty roadside where rickety chairs were set out under the shade of a vine-trestled patio. The inside, which was empty, had a couple of tables and chairs. We sat down and an old woman appeared out of nowhere. After five minutes of trying to explain to her that we wanted lunch, her face suddenly lit up and she said,’Greek salat, goot?’ We watched as the little old lady waddled to the back of the room and began shouting at a man who we guessed was her husband. A minute later I noticed the less than agile husband running up the road. Ten minutes later we saw him shuffling back down again carrying a large bowl filled with tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions. There was still masses of greenery hanging off the tomatoes. He’d picked them fresh from a garden. The Greek Salad was (and still is) the best I’d ever eaten. The funny thing is, we later realised that it wasn’t even a restaurant. We didn’t see any menus and there didn’t seem to be a kitchen, only a coffee machine. It was a local coffee shop. They had made that Greek salad from ingredients in their own garden and pantry.
Riding through Corfu searching for Greek Salad
Giant Plates of Meat
While couch surfing in Santiago, Chile for my book Sleeping Around I was invited by my host Juan to a family barbecue (or asado in Chilean) to celebrate Chilean Independence Day. In the back yard of Juan’s grandma’s house two long tables had been set up underneath a wide trellis entwined with vines, while under an enormous lemon tree was one of the biggest barbecue I’d ever seen. Under a thick cloud of smoke three men were tending to what looked like an entire cow cut up into bits. After a few delicious, and huge, empanadas – accompanied by a couple of pisco sours – we were seated for lunch. After an entree of steaming jumbo mussels, I was handed a plate that was piled so high with meat it would have made a vegetarian faint. I ended up with a slab of pork ribs, a lamb shank, thick juicy pork sausages, chicken legs and beef legs (I think got two entire cow’s legs). We sat down to lunch at 12.30 and didn’t leave the table (except for toilet stops) until 8.30. At the end I didn’t even have room for dessert – and that is very rare for me because there is always room for dessert.
Juan’s mum digging into the Chilean barbecue
Plov and World Famous Jam
While researching my book Where’s Wallis? I met a girl on the plane from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan who invited me to her mum’s house for dinner. We went to her mum’s apartment straight from the airport (after she had called her to tell her that a complete stranger was popping in for dinner) and, as soon as I sat down we were served a veritable feast. For starters we had a salad of bright-red juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with fresh Turkish-style bread. The main course was plov, which isn’t a window filler, but a massive bowl filled with delicious rice, meat (of some sort), carrots, raisins, dried apricots and huge chunks of garlic. This was all washed downs with shot glass after shot glass of vodka. When I finally finished off my plate of food Mum brought out a bowl of jam and said something in Russian. ‘My mother said that you have to try the homemade blackcurrant jam,’ my new friend translated. ‘Kyrgyzstan is world famous for it’s jam.’ I was already full, but I still managed to eat three slices of bread topped with probably the the most scrumptious jam I’d ever tasted.
The very tasty, but unappetisingly named plov.
Dumplings and Mongolian Donuts
Somewhere in the middle of Mongolia
There are not many restaurants in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I was on a two day horse trek through the mountains of central Mongolia and when it’s time to eat (and find a place to stay the night) you simply drop into a stranger’s house. Except in the wilds of Mongolia a house is a ger, which is a circular, wooden-framed tent, insulated with homemade wool felt. A ger is also never in the same spot because the shepherds and herders are nomadic and they move their home around to follow the seasons and the pastures. We were welcomed in by a friendly family of goat herders, but I wasn’t looking forward to dinner. I was sure we were just going to eat mutton fat for dinner. I was very pleasantly surprised, however, when we were served up a delicious three-course meal. For entree our host plopped a large white bucket on the table in front of us that was filled with a white substance like jelly. ‘Yogurt,’ our host told us. I was tentative at first, but if you don’t at least try anything that is offered to you in Mongolia it is considered very rude. The yogurt was sweet and delicious and I couldn’t get enough of it. Our main course was meat dumplings. I wasn’t quite sure what meat it was (our hosts simply said ‘it is meat!’). It was probably mutton, but it could have been goat (they were goat farmers after all). Or it could have been one of the other meats the Mongolians eat: they include mice, rats, dogs and – a Mongolian favourite – boiled sheep intestines. Either way it was incredibly tasty. And finally, for dessert we had bordzig, which is a Mongolian donut (cooked in mutton fat) that is served with lashings of thick cream. And, quite amazingly, our delicious meal was created without a supermarket or a garden or a fridge within a hundred kilometres.
The local hotel/restaurant (somewhere in Mongolia)
Raclette and Chocolate Fondue
You can’t get more Swiss than this. We were invited to a friend’s house who owned (and lived above) a cuckoo clock and Swiss Army Knife shop, and we were served up a traditional Swiss raclette followed by chocolate fondue. The only thing missing was some yodelling music. I spent a couple of ski seasons working in the small village of Lauterbrunnen (in the Jungfrau region) and in that time I had never been invited around to anyone’s house for dinner. But, on a return trip years later we were invited to a few home-cooked dinners. One friend made us Alpen Macaroni (pasta with a whole lot of swiss cheese), another made us fondue (bread with lots of Swiss cheese) and our cuckoo clock friends made us, my favourite of the lot, raclette. The traditional Swiss dish is (surprise, surprise) lots of melted cheese eaten with boiled potatoes, small gherkins and pickled onions. In the middle of the table is a ‘raclette grill’ where each person has their own little tray, which you fill with potatoes then pile cheese on top of it. You then grill the cheese until it’s all gooey and delicious. The very cheesy dinner was followed by a chocolate fondue. What can I say. It’s fresh strawberries, bananas and marshmallows dipped into hot, melted Swiss chocolate. Now, that is heaven.
Our host (holding my daughter Jasmine) owned and lived above a cuckoo clock shop!
Snake Soup and Stir-fried Deer
‘Stand back!’ our guide yelled. On the path in front of us was a large snake. Our guide then casually brought out his machete and chopped it’s head off, then stuffed the whole thing in his bag. We were on day two of a three-day trek up through Northern Thailand (somewhere near the Burmese border) and a few hours later we saw the snake again. Except it was all chopped up and swimming in a bowl of spicy and very tasty snake soup. Not long after our guide snatched the snake his assistant shot a deer with a bow and arrow. That would be our main course. The meat was stir-fried with vegetables and fresh Thai spices and, although, it didn’t look very appetising, was absolutely delicious. And best of all, at least I knew the snake and deer meat was fresh!
Tonight’s dinner – fresh snake!
Preparing the snake soup in the ‘kitchen’