It may not have the adrenaline rush of free falling from an airplane but for our columnist there is nothing quite as thrilling as making a new culinary discovery – Stacey Teo
Travellers today are given the choice of dozens of kinds of adventure holidays. For me though, instead of zip lining over a 300-foot gorge or swimming with great whites, I like my adventures served to me on a plate. There is a real excitement in trying a local dish for the first time or discovering a new flavour.
In my wanderings I’ve stumbled upon some excellent places. I will never forget, and still long to return to, a busy little stall in Bangkok’s Otoko Market for their perfectly grilled Mekong River prawns. I had another memorable experience many years ago on a trip to Hong Kong where I discovered some of the world’s best egg tarts at the Tai Cheong bakery.
Those were lucky moments. Really special finds like those have been rare. In between I’ve had my share of dreadful food experiences. I know I can limit the risk by picking up a guide, and there are a lot of good ones out there, but I have made it a personal rule to go by word of mouth instead. Of course this doesn’t included big name, award winning restaurants. I don’t need a guidebook for that. I normally reserve a Michelin star, or two or three, before ever packing my bags. No, what I’m interested in finding are the places that only the locals know. Finding these little gems is the kind of adventure I want in my travel.
Basically wherever I go, I am in search of the rustic fare that forms the base for that destination’s cuisine. As a chef, I know that in order to appreciate the flower one must understand the root. Ferrán Adrià’s brilliantly deconstructed tortilla means nothing to anyone who has never had a slice of the humble Spanish potato omelette.
One of the advantages to working for a company with a multinational staff is that, without leaving the office, I can get great insider tips on local restaurants that normal tourists would never find. Before I set out on any journey I ask around to get a few pointers and now that I have a pretty good idea of whose culinary instincts to trust, the system works like a charm.
This is how I ended up at Mak’s Noodles in Wellington Street, Hong Kong. I’d been in the city countless times but it was thanks 01 to a co-worker that I enjoyed one of the best plates of wonton noodles I’d ever had. Thanks to another recommendation I also had one of the best pizzas in my life at a place called L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples where the Condurro family has been making pizza since 1870. Five generations later it is no longer a tightly held secret, especially since Julia Roberts in the film Eat, Pray, Love ate here, but the two types of pizza they serve (Neapolitana and Margherita, that’s it) are out of this world and the plainly decorated dining room still has a very local feel to it.
One sure sign of food globalisation I have noticed recently is that I am no longer being recommended just the fish and chips in England or the tacos in Mexico. Like my office, the food world has gone international and I am just as likely to hear about a good paella in Washington DC as a fantastic burger in Madrid. A recent trip to Paris was highlighted not by the French food of a famous chef, although there was plenty of that too, but by the falafel served at Chez Marianne followed by a sorbet at Maison Berthillon.
Before my last trip to London a colleague steered me to a little place called Brindisa in the Borough Market where I had a chorizo roll served with rocket and roasted Navarrico Piquillo peppers. I had to wait out the 20-minute queue that snaked its way into the market (I had been warned) but the smoky intense flavour of the barbequed chorizo was well worth it and probably just as good as anything I could get in Spain.
Next up? A colleague from Montreal who insists there are two stops I simply must make if I’m ever in the city. One is to a humble little establishment called Patati Patata for an order of what she says are the very best fries in the world. The secret apparently is to use a little basil in the frier. The other is to Schwatz’s deli for a thin sliced pastrami sandwich. Normally I’d choose New York for my Jewish deli sandwiches but I’ve dined with this woman numerous times. I know her and trust her taste, so I’ve promised myself that if I ever make it to Montreal I will make time, and room, for both.