Travel usually means marveling at spectacular sceneries. Five years ago, we noticed how much better food tastes in its home country. That is understandable because outside, the exact ingredients may not be readily available, or the recipes have been modified to cater to local tastes.
So, for those who truly love good food — we don’t have to be gourmets or the next Anthony Bourdain — we have to travel to taste the real thing.
1. Hainanese Chicken Rice
Singapore And Malaysia
This is one of my all-time favorite dishes. I discovered it in Singapore at the Hyatt Regency Hotel (now Grand Hyatt Singapore) in the early 1990s, when I was still traveling the world for corporate work. Reports are that the hotel chefs have perfected the recipe over the past 30 years and the Singapore branch is where they now have the best Hainanese Chicken Rice in the world.
Originating from Hainan in southern China, immigrants brought the dish with them wherever they eventually settled. So, it is also widely available for just a song in hawkers’ centers. It has become Singapore’s unofficial national dish and Malaysia has adopted it as a culinary staple.
It’s healthy and full of flavor, especially when served with sliced cucumbers and steamed bok choy. I make a poor man’s version, remaining true to three key secrets: poaching the chicken slowly at low temperature, cooking the rice with the poaching broth, and using the poaching broth as the base for the three sauces (garlicky, sweetened soy, and spicy).
Pro Tip: The KL International Airport 2 has a branch of the well-known Malaysian chain, “The Chicken Rice Shop,” that is built around the dish. Don’t miss it on a layover!
2. Spanish Paella Con Chorizo
During a week in the Andalusian region of Spain, we took day trips to the historic Alhambra and Generalife in Granada and the Plaza de Espana, the Alcazar, and the Catedral in Seville. We were based in Malaga right on the Costa del Sol, relishing the beach, sun, and building fancy sandcastles for hours.
Every waterfront restaurant was peddling its version of the world-famous Spanish Paella. My husband fell in love with the dish, so I had to learn how to make it! The secret ingredients are:
- Spanish chorizo sausage
- Expensive authentic saffron
- Special short-grain rice
They were cooking them in plain view and I saw that the chorizo slices were first fried to release their savory oil whereas garlic, onions, tomatoes, bell pepper, and rice were sauteed. Adding broth and covering finishes the steaming of the rice. Lastly, chicken or seafood previously fried with chorizo oil decorate the top.
I have found a special kiosk to buy good Spanish chorizos in Phoenix. I use either cheaper imitation saffron or substitute with turmeric and source the rice (paella, arborio, or sushi) from the grocery store. Bless my husband. Even if what I make is just passable, he loves it.
Pro Tip: Never use another type of chorizo, especially not the Mexican version. Mexican cuisine is very different from Spanish.
3. Desserts With Just A Hint Of Sweetness
We hosted two friends in the U.S. that we met on the Philippines’ island of Palawan. In turn, they hosted us in Slovenia. We stayed at the Airbnb property of our girlfriend’s family located at the foot of the castle in the Old Town of the capital Ljubljana. The National Slovenian Cuisine Restaurant was a tenant on the ground floor, so she hosted a dinner of Slovenian sausages paired with special buckeye wheat dumplings.
What we loved best was the prekmurje gibanica, a layered pastry filled with poppy seeds, cottage cheese, walnuts, apples, and cream. It had just a hint of sweetness. This dessert experience was repeated in beautiful Lake Bled where our other friend had a waterfront condo unit he lent us. He also led us to where tourists flock to sample kremna rezina, the famous Bled cream cake.
The secret to Slovenian cuisine is that very little sugar or salt is added. They depend on the natural sweetness or salinity of the ingredients. Every Slovenian house has a small garden where they plant their favorite vegetables and fruits. Water comes from crystalline sources, aplenty in the green country.
Pro Tip: Usually, dishes have no names at authentic restaurants. Instead, menus list all the ingredients used in a dish.
4. Vegetable Tempura
My husband and I are in our 70s and we have committed to eating as healthy as possible; vegetables are now center stage for us. It is generally believed that Japanese cuisine is one of the reasons for long lives in Japan. Thus, we try to make Japanese dishes at home; it’s also a good way to reminisce about our trips there.
One of my favorites is tempura. I always order it at Japanese restaurants because it has this light and soft breading that’s very difficult to replicate. The dish usually consists of seafood, meat, and vegetables that have been coated and deep-fried to perfection.
It was introduced by the Portuguese who had settled in Nagasaki and their fritter-cooking technique of the 16th century took root. The name comes from the Latin phrase quatuor anni tempora, historically the Ember Days, when no meat is supposed to be consumed. Tempura must have originated as a vegetable dish. That’s how I choose to make it — with sweet potato, carrots, broccoli, eggplant, and onions.
Pro Tip: I can now make my humble version at home, almost like the way they make it in Japan because this tempura batter mix is available on Amazon. Use the air-fryer for a healthier version!
5. The Belgian Waffle
We were hugely impressed by the absolute grandeur of the Grand Place and the Atomium in Brussels, Belgium. What struck us most was how food is celebrated on every corner with Belgian culinary specialties. Two of them, beer and chocolates, can be easily packaged to reach our homes in their original distinct flavors.
You have to try the Belgian waffle in Belgium. I am a waffles (instead of pancakes) girl because of its texture. Our waffle maker at home makes the ordinary kind, but much thinner. So, we were determined to have a Belgian waffle a day while we were there. At first, we had a tough time deciding which waffle place to enter and which ones to order. However, we soon learned to choose the least sinful.
The waffle itself is a treasure, made with a yeasted batter that makes it extra light and fluffy yet crisp on the outside. Baking powder and/or baking soda have been used of late but it’s better the original way. They are made in a special larger iron with a deeper grid pattern and finished with crunchy sugar. Choose to load up with healthy toppings.
Pro Tip: If you are in Belgium, don’t forget to sample moules-frites or fried mussels. I do not normally eat mussels, but I love this dish!
6. Cornish Pasty
When we are in England, my husband usually looks for Cornish pasties. I soon learned how different they are from meat pies. This British pastry was associated with the mining industry and Cornwall. It is made by placing an uncooked filling — of beef, potato, and the buttery vegetable swede (yellow turnip or rutabaga), seasoned with salt and pepper — on one half of a flat pastry circle, folding the pastry in half, and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.
There are variations in Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. But, all pasties are different from the meat pies from other cuisines and cultures like the Spanish empanadas, pierogies of Eastern Europe, Indian samosas, etc. They are much larger and have more veggies.
Pro Tip: The West Cornwall Pasty Company is the UK’s largest pasty maker and is number 51 of the UK’s top 100 Companies. Their pasties are available in UK groceries and cafes.
7. Dim Sim
My daughter’s first home was just a ten-minute walk to the South Melbourne Market. I was there at least once a week for food items like Hot Jam doughnuts. I also loved the famous Australian dim sim, a snack that dates back to 1928. Like dim sum, it’s a kind of dumpling.
Popularized by a Chinese immigrant in Melbourne, it consists of minced meat, cabbage, and seasoning encased in a rectangular wrapper. It’s much larger than the traditional dim sum, but also served deep fried or steamed and dipped in soy sauce. I have not seen them outside Melbourne so for this one, you definitely have to go there!
Pro Tip: The South Melbourne Market is the birthplace of the even larger circular version, commonly known as the “South Melbourne Dim Sim.”