August 12, 2009

An interview with one of our culinary travel experts

Artisans of Leisure is well known for our private culinary tours in destinations around the world.

We hope you enjoy this interview with one of our culinary travel experts.

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Q: How does food influence how you travel?

A: Basically, I travel to eat. Quite often I plan my touring around a certain restaurant I want to try, or I’ll visit a town that’s famous solely for a particular dish. The first time I visited Hong Kong I made a point of traveling to Macau just for a lunch of delicious Macanese food–and to visit a bakery located far from the tourist sights because I’d heard they made the best dan ta (egg-custard tarts) in the world…and after eating a half-dozen of them in one sitting, I’d have to say I agreed. Whenever I’m in Barcelona or the Costa Brava in season, I go out of my way to find a restaurant serving tallarinas (tiny, flat clams with pinkish meat, usually served in a garlic and parsley sauce–scrumptious). In Jerusalem, I always stop at my favorite Jerusalem bagel vendor–warm and freshly baked, sprinkled with hyssop, there’s no bagel like a Jerusalem bagel! My main mission when I travel to Peru is to find the best new cevicherias, even if that means going far out of my way–I once went all the way to Pisco because I’d heard of a place specializing in scallop ceviche that I wanted to try. And I timed my recent visit to Mumbai to coincide with Alphonso mango season, one of the most delectable fruits on the planet and difficult to find (and not quite as good) outside of India. If there’s one thing I indulge in, it’s food…it’s a good thing I get a lot of exercise on my trips!

Q: What is your favorite type of cuisine?

A: I like just about everything! I have my favorite dishes from each country I’ve ever visited, but overall I’d say Spain, Italy, Thailand and Singapore are my favorite¬†culinary destinations. I also eat a lot of typical French brasserie food, as well as Japanese, Cuban and Mexican.

Q: Name a few of the most memorable dishes you’ve tried during your travels.

A: On a recent trip to India, I had the most incredible dish during dinner in Jaipur–lightly fried cottage cheese dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and nuts in a divine saffron sauce, accompanied by raw sweet onions sprinkled with lime juice and cumin…heavenly. Another dish that comes to mind is one I was served at a restaurant my guide took me to in Lijiang, China, called “crispy pork”–it was actually thick, delicious, crispy bacon, mixed with fried mint leaves, hot red pepper, sesame seeds and spring onions. I never would have thought of mixing bacon and mint, but it was just fantastic. In Vietnam–famous for its strong, flavorful coffee–I happened upon this hole-in-the-wall cafe, where I discovered the best coffee drink I’ve ever had: coffee with raw egg whipped into sweetened condensed milk. Rich and creamy, almost like a dessert. The coffee is served in a cup of hot water so that the egg doesn’t curdle.

Q: Does food influence the way you design your clients’ touring?

A: I design tours to incorporate what I think will be most interesting to my clients, and that includes food, especially if I know the client is a foodie. For example, instead of simply transferring travelers from one city to the next, whenever it makes sense I will time the transfer with a stop for lunch en route at a particularly exceptional restaurant. Even during city tours, I often recommend a quick stop at a noteworthy cafe or gelateria. I like to give tips on unique local dishes or drinks they might like to try, and if a client has a specific interest, such as Jewish touring in Venice, for example, I will think of a way to add food to the experience, like suggesting they have lunch at a kosher eatery near the old Jewish Ghetto.

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Q: What are your favorite food markets?

A: I absolutely love food markets and try to visit them wherever I travel. Some of my favorites are the Boqueria Market in Barcelona; Campo de’ Fiori in Rome; the Kauppatori fish market in Helsinki; the Central Market in Santiago, Chile; Crawford Market in Mumbai; and Eliseev in Moscow (not really a “market,” but it’s one of the most beautiful, well-stocked, gourmet supermarkets in the world, and a must-visit). I also love the hawker stalls in Bangkok’s Chinatown and Chiang Mai’s night market, and at Fu Lu Shou Complex in Singapore at breakfast-time.

Q: What are the most popular destinations for your clients who are food lovers?

A: Italy, Spain, France, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Morocco–the quality and variety of food is incredible in these countries, and there are so many wonderful dishes to try that are hard to find elsewhere. Many travelers to countries such as Japan and Thailand and even Italy tell me that they were amazed at how much better the food tastes in situ as opposed to what is served in even the best restaurants here in the States, and how excited they were to have tried typical daily dishes that they had never seen before. Our clients especially love the excellent cooking classes and visits to the best local markets, wineries and food production facilities (such as cheese makers, olive oil mills, fish farms, rice noodle factories, etc.) that we arrange for them.

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Q: Are there any other destinations that you would recommend for travelers interested in food?

A:¬†¬† Yes! Our tours of Argentina, Russia, Austria, Turkey and New Zealand are very popular, but most people don’t realize how incredible the food is until they’ve been there. These countries have very rich culinary traditions, and excellent gastronomic touring possibilities.

Q: What are your favorite foodie books?

A: I like books that make me want to eat the food being described. MFK Fisher is very good at this, as is Ernest Hemingway (especially in “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast”), even though his aren’t “foodie” books. I love Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone” and Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour,” which was one of the inspirations for my first trip to Asia. Recently I finished “Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India” by Madhur Jaffrey, and that really whetted my appetite for my trip to India! I enjoy food-themed movies as well–one of my favorite films of all time is “Tampopo.”

Q: Is there something you always like to buy when you travel?

A: Yes–any specialty food items I can get through customs! I also buy local crafts, such as textiles, pottery and jewelry. Some favorite purchases include a Kurdish kilim from Cappadocia, Turkey; a Rajasthani textile piece from Udaipur, India; glazed clay cookware from Pomaire, Chile; and an ikat weaving from Flores, Indonesia. I love that whenever I look around my apartment, I’m reminded of my past travels.

Q: What utensils do you cook with most often?

A: I have a ton of utensils, but really all I need is a spatula, wooden spoon, tongs and butcher knife. And my amazing Breville blender.

Contact Artisans of Leisure to start planning a private culinary tour that’s customized to your interests.

Destinations:  Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, China, Finland, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam

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