Food is one of the main things that draws me to travel. I like seeing different ingredients or flat-out different edibles. Over the past year and a half, I have eaten goat, headcheese, clams on pizza (complete with shells), a 1000-year-old duck egg (that was disgusting), and other things that I haven’t been able to identify – and I appreciate the fact that sometimes you are better off not knowing. Many people have had far more outrageous cultural adventures, but my goal hasn’t been to purposefully try to find the weirdest food and eat it. I’m more the type to eat whatever is offered to me, available on the menu (nothing like pointing at something in a language you don’t read and hope for the best), or looks good.
But despite the strangeness of the food often served, what I have noticed is that, more often than not, food is simpler in many of the countries I have been. Presentations are beautiful, but ingredients appear to be fewer and less fussy. For example, here in Oman everyone here eats meat and rice (or chicken and rice – chicken is not considered meat. Seriously. If you say you are a vegetarian, you might get served chicken). What makes it a little more special is that the rice is seasoned with all sorts of things – bay leaf, clove, cardamom, and other spices I can’t identify. So meat and rice becomes a little more interesting. Though it’s still not something I want to eat every day the way the Omanis do. I once asked my class to name their favorite food. That was a mistake. In a class of 30, I got one saying pizza and the rest said either meat and rice or chicken and rice; see, I told you they were two different dishes. Such variety.
In Korea, each dish is preceded by several small bowls of pickled things and/or version of kimchi. I love this idea and vow to adopt this concept wherever I go. The notion that appetizers don’t have to be elaborate or even that filling. Just putting out a little nibble that helps welcome guests. In Oman, there are often dates (sometimes flavored with cumin – they’re delicious that way) and/or nuts placed in small pretty bowls.
In Vietnam, they are fond of hot pots – cut up vegetables and meats displayed around a bowl of boiling broth. Dump in the ingredients and let them cook at the table, serve and eat. They also commonly serve various soups. While the ingredients can be many to create that perfect blend of sweet, salt, spice, and sourness, the final dish is a basic broth with some meat, noodles, and colorful herbs. The fact that you are most likely eating this while sitting on plastic chairs barely off the ground emphasizes the simplicity of the meal.
This sort of simple eating reminds me of when I was in Seattle for a couple of weeks, visiting a close friend. We were both in need of healing and had each other. She was just moving into her new home and I had time to kill before I headed out to Toronto. Because her stuff hadn’t arrived yet, her kitchen was sparse in terms of cooking instruments and going out to eat every night was outside of our budget. Instead, we would go to the grocery store, buy hummus and carrots, pick cherry tomatoes out of her new garden, and eat that. A bottle of wine and her amazing view of Lake Washington from her deck made it idyllic. We sat in deck chairs and a cardboard box served as our table. I really believe that the simplicity of the food added to the perfection of those evenings.
I think that in the US we are too focused on making food special through elaboration. Odder ingredients, extra preparation, over-the-top combinations. A burger that uses grilled cheese sandwiches as the bun? Nachos with everything under the sun on top of them? I know it’s not always the case – America’s adoption of sushi shows that we can appreciate the simple. Yet even there the rolls are complicated. No one needs cream cheese with their rice and fish. Or mango. No one.
I could go off on the idea that all of this food that tries to out-do each other is one of the drivers of unhealthy eating, but I won’t. First of all, I am hardly eating healthy here: too much bread. Secondly, what is really striking me is the back-to-basics of food I am experiencing. I am appreciating the emotional comfort of food that is presented to simply, not its health benefits. Or maybe I am just grateful that there is a way that people like me, who are not great cooks, can still offer food to guests without embarrassment.
On one lazy Saturday morning, I puttered into the kitchen and made a plate of hummus, carrots, pickles, and olives. Dave and I ate it and although it was hardly filling, it did stave off my growling stomach. I was guilty of sprinkling some Kashmir chili powder (think paprika-inspired chili powder; it’s what is available here and it’s great) over the canned hummus before serving it, but to me I still presented simple fare that satisfied me both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it really doesn’t take much.