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 – if not, 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. It would have been our first big trip together. Looks like it’s hopefully on hold until October. But overall, it’s a heart-breaking time for everyone.
Despite these unfortunate sacrifices, it’s for an essential cause. And thankfully, the world will be there to welcome us back once things get better.
In the meantime, the writing will persevere and I will continue unearthing my valuable memories from journeys abroad. And one of my favourite indulgences while traveling I’ve yet to cover is food! Prior to every trip, I research the best local restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and other cultural staples. I particularly cherish the cities with a vibrant and diverse international culinary presence – notably Berlin, London, New York and here in Toronto.
Amidst a stifling work schedule in February followed by pandemic anxieties, I’ve been posting a “foodie highlights” series on Instagram. I find great value in discovering those memorable dishes and my stories behind them. How I can still taste them years later, recall the smell, texture, maybe even the sizzle. What circumstances led me to these particular places? Was I alone or with someone else? What was so special about this meal?
Whether it’s drinking a cup of locally brewed coffee or dining entirely solo, I learned more about myself. I discovered what fuelled my interests as a traveller. My research was ultimately guided by my desire for local and authentic dishes. I overcame my self-consciousness of eating alone.
So here is a look at some memorable dining experiences taken directly from my Instagram:
Iceland: Trout and Feta in a Crystal Glass
This is familiar to those who read 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 outside our guesthouse on Muskoka chairs. 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 ales 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 reduced the dish by half when 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 the puncturing of my fork. My tongue detected strong herbs, salt and tenderness with each bite. Even for fish, that fishiness taste was 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 midnight 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
As I mentioned in previous posts, Berlin and especially Kreuzberg truly stuck with me. Berlin hosts a multitude of international tastes, with an emphasis on Turkish cuisine. The trendy art community of Kreuzberg is also home to a significant Turkish population. Many of them immigrated to postwar Berlin to find work and rebuild the city. Here, I uncovered plenty of unique places and stories. See my post about Osman Kalin for an example.
I had just finished a three-hour alternative tour in Kreuzberg, accompanied by an Australian girl from my hostel. Using Google Maps, she led us to a small joint – its doors were wide open, welcoming guests and shading them from the mid-September heat. For only 5 Euros, our plates held 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. It was, by far, my favourite meal during that two-week trip. And it shows the value in finding the small things outside the tourist hordes and appreciating local businesses.
Potato Pancakes in Prague
I keep hammering on about eating local, because feeling at home in a new place makes travel so meaningful. Take Prague as another highlight.
By the last evening, I felt at home in Prague, but I had yet to indulge in traditional Czech dining. My hostel recommended a tiny spot 5 minutes away. The place was a quiet, simple pub, but busy enough to ease my nerves about looking too ‘solo.’ Meat-heavy Czech fare wasn’t entirely optimal for my pescatarian diet. I nearly reserved to cheating for the sake of my grumbling stomach until I found a compatible comfort food option – potato pancakes.
The entire plate of six pancakes plus a cider came to only 180 Czech Korunas (equivalent to $10 Canadian). It was a sharp contrast to my Scandinavian trip 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, that was my second time there. The first was in June, 2014 at the peak of summer solstice. I had just left the UK upon finishing a study abroad program, and I wanted to ease the pain of 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, and luckily the staff were friendly enough to give me another one), 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. Surely, I was the only one dining in 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 with 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 even started watching Parts Unknown. Dessert however, was more familiar – a classic 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 alone 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? Yes, I did all those things. There’s always that habit of looking “occupied” to avoid eye contact. I might as well admit that it’s awkward at times. 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, the one I had was topped with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and fresh herbs. I found this mid-morning treat at a local food hall just outside the neighbourhood of Christianshavn. Sadly, I 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. Here, I learned two major principles in Scandinavian delicacy:
- Food halls are the essence of the Scandianvian food scene
- Just about anything – even 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 5-hour train from Stockholm was supposed 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, and checking with the staff for ETA, tears started streaming down my cheeks and my heart palpitated into my throat.
It cost me a 20 minute, $45 cab ride to arrive at my destination on time and quietly sneak into bed while others were asleep. Needless to say, I still felt the headache the next morning and needed a comforting drink.
Enter this smooth cappuccino from Tim Wendelboe, one of Norway’s most renowned coffee roasters. After a late and stressful trip, it made me feel right at home. It’s located in Oslo’s trendy neighbourhood of Grünerlökka, in a small 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 bags from Toronto roasters.
Gotland, Sweden: Crêpe Times in Visby
I have to admit, Visby sounds ideal right about now for some quality quarantine. It rests on the island of Gotland, 3 hours by ferry from mainland Sweden. I dream about returning someday to this tiny medieval town, walking along the castle walls and treading on cobblestone. Visby itself was quite empty during my stay, thus allowing plenty of space for some required physical distancing.
I stopped at a tiny cafe near my guesthouse for lunch. From what I recall, this crêpe – perhaps the only veggie option – was loaded with cheese, chickpeas, arugula, pickled onions and crème fraîche (an interesting common ingredient in my featured dishes). Twenty minutes passed, and I hadn’t omitted a single leaf or crumb.
This was one of my few dine-in meals in Visby. Due to steep prices, I frequented local supermarkets and cooked basic meals in my guesthouse. They were simple, but equally as hygge – a uniquely Scandinavian definition for comfort.
Amidst the chaos and scary media messages flooding our social media, let’s take some time to lean on what comforts us. To me, food is one giant comfort. 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. Except, I’ll be leaving out the fish foam.