I couldn’t dedicate just one blog to food, now could I?
So, instead of thinking broadly with cuisines, I’ve put my thinking cap on and zeroed in on my favourite meals. Here I was mighty glad that I have ignored people who laugh at me and make a point of taking a picture of most things I consume abroad, so many of my photos have helped jog my memory.
I’ve made a concentrated effort to focus on budget eating. Not only because that’s what I can afford, but also because there’s often no need for backpackers to have to eat stale bread and packet pasta (well, not every night). Save for a few cities where it’s mighty hard to eat well unless you cash in your plane ticket home (hello Paris, Amsterdam and Venice) some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been for less than what you’d pay if you’d instead decided that it was all too hard and opted for Macca’s.
Next: Favourite town squares
10. Hot chocolate and croissants, Paris
Paris was the first stop of mine in mainland Europe, and the city and I didn’t exactly get off on the best foot. I wasn’t particularly fond of the French capital and its famed cuisine seemed elusive to someone used to having to eat out of supermarkets. Thankfully, my Aunty Leanne had drawn up a list of things I had to do in the City of Lights, including visiting the famous Angelina’s, a teahouse in the shadow of the Lourve. As it was early March I didn’t have to line up (usually the queue stretches down the street) and despite wearing my fleece, I felt like a lady for an hour. As someone who’s never really encountered a stereotypically rude Parisian, the staff at Angelina’s proved no different. I drank the best hot chocolate I’d ever tasted (the first one I’d had to mix myself with different pots of melted chocolate and whipped cream), accompanied by a melt-in-your-mouth croissant. Divine!
9. Wine tour, Wachau Valley
I was very, very excited to have a couple of days off in Vienna earlier this year. Without hesitating, I signed up for Vienna Explorer’s Grape Grazing tour, which takes you into the Wachau Valley wine-growing region a couple of hours north of Vienna. The tour is insanely popular and for good reason. Unlike other wine tours where you might get a sip of a couple of wines, this one gives you your first full glass before eleven in the morning. The wine is just how I like it – white, crisp and dry – and drinking it with the Danube River as a backdrop ain’t too shabby. On this tour you travel from winery to village to winery (et cetera) by bike and dine on local produce in a picturesque vineyard. It’s a small group and unhurried, and by the end of it everyone feels like they’ve seen a special spot unknown to pretty much everyone who’s not Austrian.
8. Tapas, Seville
I have loved tapas almost everywhere in Spain but there is one place where it is consistently amazing; Seville. We got in to the city at about mid-afternoon, seemingly prime tapas time. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to settle for so-so tapas and ventured out, determined to find something that would blow me away. We quickly found somewhere that was buzzing and completely full and quickly realized we’d stumbled on something pretty special. We diligently waited for a table, and were rewarded with racion-sized tapas that were all as good as one another. Four raciones and four canas (beers in a cute little glass) set us back eleven euro, a far cry from what’s charged in the rest of Europe and Oz too. For dinner that night we tapas hopped, munching down countless serves of patatas bravas and jamon croquettes at eateries all over town.
7. Yuba set meal, Nikko
What is yuba, you say? Well, to be all technical, it’s the skin on tofu. Yes, it sounds gross but it really isn’t. In Japan I was constantly surprised with the price of meals; I would hardly spend more than AU$10 for a good feast. So, when I saw a yuba specialty house in Nikko advertising set meals, I thought, why not? All five courses were made of yuba, from the tempura to the tofu itself and even the dessert, which tasted like a caramelised crème brulee without the crunch. I held my breath when I took the bill. AU$25. What does everyone complain about?
6. Gratin, Tours
I haven’t had many good meals in France; I can easily count them on one hand. So when a group of us were trying to find somewhere for dinner in Tours during our guide training, I didn’t for one moment have a positive attitude. We were going to be screwed over by tourist menus and overcharging, I was convinced. But we weren’t, not even slightly. Finding a jam-packed place in the shadow of a crumbling church, we all quickly agreed that this one looked like a winner. The specialty of the house was gratin; a potato-based dish made of slices of potato, cheese, cream and some sort of filling, I chose mushrooms, bacon and chicken. Another chose snails (and after a taste, I declared that they tasted like chicken.) It was so French; just looking at it almost gave me heart palpitations. We washed it down with house wine and finished off with a dessert tasting platter, complete with crème brulee and homemade icecream. The bill? Less than fifteen euros each for the lot.
5. Pad Thai, Ko Phi Phi Don
A lot of people have a certain dish that they try whenever it’s on the menu. For Paul’s it’s usually a hamburger. Amy always goes for spring rolls. Mum is always certain to order the mushroom risotto and for Dad it’s often some variation on a parmagiana. Me? It’s gotta be the old favourite, pad thai. As a national dish, rather than a regional specialty, you can pretty much find it everywhere in Thailand. From my first one on plastic furniture on Khao San Road to my last in a Bangkok shopping mall, they were all surprisingly different. Taking the cake was definitely the one offered by our guesthouse in Ko Phi Phi; served to me in the pool and in the rare traditional style; completely encased in the fried egg. Perfect.
4. Catfish spring rolls, Ha Long Bay
Just like how everyone has their favourite dish, everyone has a food that turns them into a monster. I actually have two; Pringles and catfish spring rolls. The setting was pretty much bang-on; our first meal on our junk boat, cruising through Ha Long Bay. We were treated to a seafood banquet, fresh from the bay, and the nine of us all went a little bit mental. The spring rolls were unlike any I’d ever seen before, crunchier and wrapped up in the food equivalent of bubble wrap. The filling was also something that I can’t say I’ve ever remembered eating, but catfish is pretty damn tasty. I think I may have eaten over two dozen of the little fried parcels.
3. High tea, Hong Kong
I love a good high tea. I kind of like any meal where you can try a lot of little things, hence my obsession with tapas/pintxos, yum cha and the sweet equivalent invented by the English. Over the years I’d heard of the famed high tea at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel, and began to investigate. They took no bookings, so we’d just have to show up, dressed appropriately. So off the O’Dowd family toddled one chilly January afternoon and, with a string quartet in the background we feasted on tiered plates full of sandwiches, scones and sweets. Very discerning, and, as a side note, less than half of what you’d pay in hotels in Melbourne.
2. Xiao long bao, Shanghai
I became obsessed with dumplings in China. Yum cha feasts in Hong Kong would feature them almost exclusively, and a particularly memorable meal in Beijing had us order sixty of them for three people. But they’re best in Shanghai, particularly when presented in the local way; xiao long bao. Recently made popular in Melbourne since Hu Tong opened in the city, this is the soft dumpling which has its meat swimming in yummy liquid. You have to be careful eating them, as being burnt (or drenched) by the juice is a distinct possibility, made even more likely due to eating them with both chopsticks and a spoon. The best spot in Shanghai to eat them is in Yunyan Gardens in the centre of town. We queued up for almost half an hour for a takeaway portion; they were so good we lined up to dine in the next day. Oh yeah.
1. Pintxos, San Sebastian
I have gone on about San Sebatian’s pintxos many times in this blog so it’s little wonder that I find the food here hands down the best in the world. Big call, you say. Ask just about anyone who’s visited the Basque town and they’ll agree. Pintxos, for those who haven’t yet been lucky enough to discover them yet, are like tapas, but smaller and more intense in terms of flavor and presentation. The word ‘pintxos’ actually means ‘toothpick’ in Basque (the language of the region in the north of Spain, including some of France), which is the basic system of ordering and paying. Most pintxos are displayed on the bar, so you just walk in, say “platos por favour” to get a plate and just pile them up. Take the toothpicks out of them, show the number of them to the waiter at the end and pay accordingly. My favourite regular pintxos is a type of crab mixed with mayonnaise and served on a piece of crusty bread. You’ll find it pretty much everywhere. Other, more specialized pintxos (every place has a specialty) need to be ordered at the bar, such as solomio (seared pieces of steak served with pepper) or cow’s cheek (the most tender piece of beef you’ll ever taste). Wash it all down with sangria, local cider or calamoxos (red wine and Coke). Expensive, you’re thinking? You’ll eat and drink like royalty for under twenty euro.