After a long pause, I’ve finally returned!
I never anticipated such a drastic change in a short period of time. It felt like a matter of days that our upcoming trips were upended and the world reached a standstill. Like thousands – perhaps millions – of fellow travellers, my travel ambitions came to an abrupt halt. My boyfriend and I were supposed to be in Portugal this very moment, sipping sweet Port wine on the Douro. It’s hopefully on hold now until October. But it’s a heart-breaking time overall for everyone.
Despite these unfortunate sacrifices, it’s for a necessary cause. And thankfully, the world will be there to welcome us back once things get better.
In the meantime, I will continue to unearth those valuable memories from journeys abroad. One of my favourite indulgences while traveling I’ve yet to write about is food! Prior to every trip, I research the best local restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and other cultural staples where I can leave a footprint.
Amidst a stifling work schedule in February followed by pandemic anxieties, I’ve been posting a “foodie highlights” series on Instagram. What makes eating while traveling so meaningful are the plethora of stories – my first tries, “hole-in-the-wall” discoveries, those abnormalities in tastes and my role as the solo diner in strange environments. Years later I can still recall the smells and textures, hear the sizzles and see the steam pockets billowing forth.
Whether it’s drinking a cup of strong macchiato or spooning fish foam, I learned more about myself through each new dining experience. I discovered what fuelled my interests as a traveller. These places vary from restaurants and cafes to markets and food trucks, enticing me with their community spirit and touches of authenticity.
Iceland: Trout and Feta in a Crystal Glass
This is familiar from my post Day One in Iceland: Finding the Centre of the Earth. I wrote a descriptive passage that brings this meal back to my dinner plate through observation of the five senses. Courtesy of my creative travel writing class:
I felt my stomach rumbling as my Mom and I lounged on Muskoka chairs outside our guesthouse. It was 8 pm, and the evening sun warmed my face, emanating a golden hue over subarctic moss of Snæfellsnes. A warm intoxication filled my body – from both the Einstök ale and the Icelandic climate.
We retreated indoors for dinner. The feta for the salad came first. It was chopped in tiny cubes and brushed with olive oil and savoury herbs, resting in a crystal goblet. We ate the pieces, one-by-one. The absence of salt and the potency of basil and oregano blended perfectly with the feta’s soft texture. We had already reduced the dish by half by the time the meal arrived.
Pungent sweet steam billowed from our plates. I took a deep breath, allowing it to soothe my nostrils. The trout was soft pink in colour and flaked apart freely from my fork. My tongue detected strong herbs, salt and tenderness with each bite. Even for fish, that strong fishiness taste was basically absent. A vibrant tropical mix of yellow mangoes and tomatoes draped overtop.
Rather than an assortment of leaves and dressing, the salad was a large intact bed of leaf lettuce topped with cold cucumbers and juicy cherry tomatoes that exploded in my mouth. We scooped the remainder of the feta and wrapped them in a green lettuce blanket.
Twenty minutes passed and I saw nothing but remnants of mangoes and salad, with droplets of olive oil shimmering on my plate, illuminated by the evening sun. Our stomachs reached a perfect threshold of full but not stretched. We mutually agreed that the freshness of ingredients, especially the trout, were worth the steep prices. Now, it’s time for another Einstök.
Berlin: An Affordable Turkish Feast in the Belly of Kreuzberg
The quirky neighbourhood of Kreuzberg remained in my consciousness (and taste buds) years following my visit. Berlin hosts a multitude of international tastes, with a special emphasis on Turkish cuisine. This trendy art community is also home to a significant Turkish population, many of whom immigrated during the postwar years to find work. Kreuzberg itself unearths a dynamic history when it was once Berlin’s roughest neighbourhood. But it certainly wasn’t short of commendable people. For example, read about Osman Kalin.
I had just finished a three-hour alternative tour, accompanied by an Australian girl from my hostel. Using Google Maps, she led us to a small place with its doors wide open, ready to welcome hungry guests seeking shading from the heat. For only 5 Euros, we had a smorgasbord of vegetarian specialties: hummus, falafels, beans, salad, pomegranate seeds, a fried egg and much more that I’ve admittedly forgotten. At that point, my overbearing hunger clouded my memory. We also had a basket of pitas and a bottle of mango soda on the side. It was, by far, my favourite meal during that two-week trip in September, 2018. And it shows the value in breaking free of the tourist hordes and appreciating local businesses.
Potato Pancakes in Prague
I know I keep hammering on about eating local. If you want to feel at home while traveling, then start browsing those maps a little closer.
By the last evening in Prague, I had yet to indulge in traditional Czech dining. My hostel recommended a tiny spot just five minutes away. The place was a quiet, simple pub, but busy enough to ease my nerves about seeming too lonely. Meat-heavy Czech fare wasn’t entirely optimal for my pescatarian diet, and thus I nearly reserved to cheating for the sake of my empty stomach until I found a compatible comfort food option – potato pancakes.
The entire plate of six pancakes plus a cider cost only 180 Czech Korunas (equivalent to $10 Canadian). It was a sharp contrast to my trip to Scandinavia in 2017, where $10 for one beer was considered a bargain. Never until this point had I reaped the benefits of an affordable dinner in Europe.
Iceland: A Foamy Fish Salad with Crème Brûlée
Despite my road trip recollections of Iceland, it was actually my second trip. The first was in June, 2014 at the peak of summer solstice. I had just left England after finishing a study abroad program, and I was hoping to ease the pain of my departure.
I decided to splurge on a premium package at the Blue Lagoon. This came with a free drink, a volcanic mud mask (which I accidentally dropped in the water, but the staff were friendly enough to give me another), and a table reservation at Lava Restaurant.
Until 4 pm, guests were allowed to dine in their bathrobes and sandals. It was about 2:30 when I slipped in, spa gear and all, with wrinkly fingers and sulfur hair. A group of diners in suits and dresses sat two tables away from me. I was pretty sure that I was the only one still wearing a bathrobe.
So what was this strange, frothy concoction? Thankfully, the taste counterbalanced its off-putting appearance. On the top left was a small filet of cod accompanied by radishes and shallots poking out of the foam and avocado slaw on the other side. While eating I felt like Anthony Bourdain, years before I watched Parts Unknown. Dessert was a more familiar scene – crème brûlée with a raspberry sorbet cleaved down the middle by a wafer.
Traveling solo often requires a mental adjustment to dining alone. I would have regretted letting my ego impede my curiosity for new tastes. Not many of us are accustomed to sitting solo at a full-service restaurant, something that’s traditionally considered a social custom (at least by Western standards). So, what do I do? Twiddle my wrinkly thumbs? Stare out the window or watch my phone screen? Repeatedly press the on and off button? There’s always that habit of looking “occupied” to avoid eye contact. I admit that it’s quite awkward half the time. However, I’ve slowly begun to invite some minimal discomfort as a necessary means to enjoy an elevated experience. This moment at Lava was crucial to this realization, a turning point in overcoming self-consciousness. And after all, if people judge you, they will never even see you again!
Copenhagen: More Smørrebrød, Please
Smørrebrød is one of Denmark’s staples. Served on an open-faced sandwich, mine was topped with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and fresh herbs. I found this mid-morning treat at a food hall just outside the neighbourhood of Christianshavn. Sadly, I later learned that this place would be imminently shutting its doors for condo development.
Although the size didn’t justify the high cost, its premium ingredients made up for it. After leaving Norway, I learned two major principles in Scandinavian delicacy:
- Food halls are the essence of the Scandinavian culinary scene
- Just about any item – even purchased from a 7-Eleven – is made fresh. And it always comes at a hefty cost.
Oslo: Celebrating the Finest Local Roasters
I arrived in Oslo the previous night with only 30 minutes to spare before my hostel supposedly closed check-in. My five-hour train from Stockholm was scheduled to arrive at 9:30 pm, but signal issues and traffic caused a two hour delay. After frantically emailing my hostel, whose check-in ended at midnight, tears started streaming down my cheeks.
It cost me a 20 minute, $45 cab ride to arrive at my destination on time and quietly sneak into bed. Needless to say, I still felt the headache the next morning and needed a comforting drink.
I was relieved to have finally had the honour of holding a cappuccino from Tim Wendelboe, one of Norway’s most renowned roasters. After a late and stressful trip, I felt warm and once again, at home. It’s currently located in Oslo’s hip Grünerlökka neighbourhood, perched on a street corner by the ravine.
It’s more pertinent now than ever to support your local roasters at this extraordinary time. Tim Wendelboe may be too far geographically from me now, but I’ll celebrate in spirit by ordering some bags from around town.
Gotland, Sweden: Crêpe Times in Visby
Visby sounds ideal right about now for some quality quarantine time. This medieval settlement rests on the island of Gotland, about three hours by ferry from mainland Sweden. I dream about returning here someday and walking along the old castle walls. Visby itself was quite empty during my stay, thus allowing plenty of space for some physical distancing.
I stopped at a tiny cafe near my guesthouse for lunch. From what I recall, this crêpe was loaded with cheese, chickpeas, arugula, pickled onions and you guessed it, crème fraîche. Twenty minutes passed, and not a single single leaf or crumb escaped my fork,
This was one of my few dine-in meals in Visby. Due to steep prices, I frequented the supermarkets and cooked basic meals in my guesthouse. They were simple, but made me equally hygge, like eating that savoury crêpe whole.
Amidst the chaos and scary media messages flooding our social media, let’s take some time to lean on our pleasures and comforts. To me, food is one of my biggest comforts and enjoyable hobbies. Remembering good food and even greater travels is one way to bring us back to those places – if not physically then emotionally.
For now, perhaps my next project will be recreating these delicacies from my own tiny kitchen. But, I’ll omit the fish foam this time.