Food: A Crash Course in Culture for Travelers

My advice to anyone wanting to learn more about a culture through travel is simple: eat. My inner gym fiend hates me for saying this but we all know I only workout to binge on calories the size of Kanye’s ego.

 

Traveling on a budget has oftentimes caused me to suppress food as last priority. I’m the idiot who settles for pizza when there’s a perfectly fresh bakery across the street.

Mohamed bhai, our guide in India, changed all of that. He’d stop the Jeep at random dhabhas (street vendors) on crazy 16 hour drives and encourage us to devour one of everything on the nonexistent menus. Our digestive systems took a beating but it was worth every chomp and slurp.

Samosas and chai at Bombay Street Food in Toronto

Bhai would start arbitrary conversations with everyone from the chaiwalas to the paanwalas. Food was how he connected with people. Each little village had its own delicacy and every delicacy – its own story.

Food affects aspects of culture in ways that we often overlook. History, language, and politics are just a few examples. Here are some food stories I got to be a part of on my travels.

Who: A Companion in India

Radhunpur, India

The word “companion” literally means “bread fellow”. “Com” comes from “with” in Latin and “panis” from “bread”. Can you imagine? When the term was coined, the act of sharing a meal sourced an intimacy which we now express for the ones closest to us.

Mohammad bhai was raised in a small home and big family. As a child, having enough food was a “bara din“, “a big day”, he recalled. I sat in the front and when everyone fell asleep, he and I would stop for tea to evade my father’s gapping snores. He’d order kadak (strong) chai with elaichi (cardamom) in a cup the size of a shot glass with fingerprints of the last musafir (traveler) dancing on the rims. In midst of dark highways, his sigh of satisfaction would shine like a necklace of stars after the first sip. He’d say, “Nahi pasand ai? Koi baat nahi. Aagaywali aur achi hogi”, “you didn’t like it? No problem. The one ahead is better”, when I’d take too long to drink.

He said the last thing he’d want from his guests was to say “Mohamad bhai didn’t feed me”.

Mohamed bhai had been a guide for a decade and knew the ins and outs of every village. He was full of stories of the Prophet, the djins (spirits), and the pride of his country. I looked forward to every chai stop where he’d narrate with a cup in his hand.

When we’d refuse to eat because of whatever excuse, he’d have his chai alone under a raw shade while we waited in the car. This is where abbu would join him because it’s a cultural sin to refuse refreshments.

It wasn’t 24 cities in 19 days, it was countless cups of chai hand wrapped in priceless conversations.

What: You Are What You Eat

If brigadiero was a person, Alessandra was it.

Alessandra was my roommate in the city of Franca while I was volunteering in Brazil. She asked if I’d tried one before. I told her I had some at a Starbucks in Rio. She damned Starbucks like it had taken her first and insisted on making it homemade like her mom did for her.

Trying my first brigadeiro in Rio.

Brigadeiro is common Brazilian delicacy made from condensed milk, cocoa powder, and butter with chocolate sprinkles to cover the outside layer. This dessert was invented in Brazil after World War II, a time when finding fresh milk and sugar to make sweets was difficult. Because of this, mixed condensed milk and chocolate became a comfortable substitute.

 

I’d go to the gym after work and she’d have warm brigadeiro ready to eat out of the pot. No frills of paper holders or sprinkles, this was the real deal. It was Brazil without the glorification of beaches and butts.

In my last days in Franca, Alessandra and I cried for a couple hours while sharing a pot of Brigadeiro. She gave me the recipe and I made it several times when I got back until I stopped because it never tasted the same.

When: Diets Dependant on Days

My flight from Cairo was early morning so I’d emptied my fridge the night before. In midst tears mixed with the anxiety of packing, I forgot it was the eve of Eid al Ghadir, a day where Muslims all over the world fast. I went to a cafe around the corner of my apartment hoping to grab a bite but they were only serving coffee. When a busboy saw me walk away in disappointment, he invited me to have suhoor with his family. As a constant witness to Egyptian hospitality, I can’t say I didn’t expect it.

What was surprising was what we ate. The meal of Suhoor is usually a cousin of breakfast; bread, eggs, and tea paired with dinner leftovers. Not for these guys though, they ordered kibda, cow liver. By no means am I an adventurous foodie but I hadn’t had a meal in 10 hours.

I don’t know whether I gorged down the liver sandwich because iftar wasn’t for another 15 hours or if this invite was a sign from the universe to do my last first in Egypt. I said bismillah and had two.

Where: Living off the Land

In 2015, I went on a trip to Honduras to film a documentary at an agricultural school far from the bustle of Tegucigalpa. The kids loved our chunky cameras and flashy gadgets that we used to take their interviews. After filming, we’d share meal time and wash our own dishes.

Kaelan feeding a bull in Talanga, Francisco Morazan, Honduras.

A student was leaving dinner early so I asked why. He asked “quieres leche?” to which I responded in the only Spanish term I knew: “Si”. Somewhere in our broken English, we’d decided that I’d join him to milk the cows at 3 am by the barn. I didn’t sleep all night with excitement but almost chickened out when the time came to do the deed.

“Squeeze and pull. Squeeze and pull”, he repeated.

I was told to drink what I milked. It was warm and sweet.

I didn’t have an epiphany to trade my iPhone for a pair of boots but there was something about the pathetic fallacy of living off the land. For a moment, there was peace in putting the chunky cameras and flashy gadgets down for a glass of milk.

Why: Because Food is Political, too

Before it’s awkward later, let me make it awkward now. I had the biggest crush on Che Guevara growing up. Therefore, my trip to Cuba.

While researching for things to do in Cuba, I saw reviews on beaches, resorts, and some historic sites, but a large portion of the culinary scene was missing. It wasn’t until we actually ordered fries I understood why.

“We don’t have potatoes”.
“Can I get the mango juice instead?”
“Lo siento, no mangoes, sorry.”

I’d ordered communism because food is political.

For local Cuban restaurants, it’s common to not offer complex items or “run out” quickly because imports aren’t really a thing.

But I can’t complain. I’d pick rice and beans over fries any day.

I encourage you to think about the people and memories closest to you. You’ll be surprised at how every gathering is dependent on a culinary experience. The casual coffee dates, ice cream stops, and post-gym protein shakes construct our stories. So why should seeking them in our travels be any different?

I was inspired to write this blog after reading A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. Check it out here. 

What’s your favorite food memory? Let me know in the comments below!

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