- Food tourists versus food pilgrims, and the cultural responsibility of both
- Eating your way through history: an international food tour of Dubai
- In defense of flour tortillas: an origin story with Gustavo Arellano
- America's Test Kitchen discovers Wisconsin spicy cheese bread
- New restaurant Amara showcases connection between Moroccan and Mexican flavors
When food lovers travel it's often to find and enjoy a very specific food, dine at a well-known restaurant, shop at a popular market, or discover the origin point for a certain cuisine. But have you ever wondered about the lasting effect that our food-centric travels have on the people and economy of the places we visit? Dr. Lucy Long not only thinks about, she researches the results as part of her work with Bowling Green State University and the Center for Food and Culture (CFC). As she explained to Emily Thomas, host of the BBC's Food Chain, Long is working to promote cultural responsibility for both food tourists and food pilgrims - and she explained the difference between those two types of travelers.
Lucy Long: I lived in Spain for a year. Part of what I was doing was studying the food culture, and people kept telling me that I needed to go to the north of Spain during a certain season and try their bean soups. I was told that every village had their own variety of bean and would make these into soup or stew. And people who were knowledgeable about this tradition, they could look at a bean and tell that it came from a particular village. They'd spend a day, maybe a weekend, traveling to these villages to eat these beans.
I did go to one or two restaurants in villages and try these. To me, it was just bean soup. I was eating out of curiosity. I didn't have enough knowledge to fully appreciate the distinctions that were being made. I wasn't going there as a pilgrim; I was going there as a tourist. I could definitely tell that some of the other eaters were there as pilgrims because they were eating very carefully, they were tasting very carefully, and they were experiencing this on a much deeper level that just eating some bean soup.
LL: A food tourist tends to be primarily motivated by curiosity about a food, whereas a food pilgrim is very knowledgeable. There's a sense of seeking the sacred and seeking the authentic, but authenticity also tends to mean that it's unmediated by marketing concerns or by trying to adjust taste to different audiences.
LL: That's where looking at this as a food pilgrimage is helpful. Technically, pilgrimages were journeys that were assigned by the church to people to atone for something, and at the end of their pilgrimage, they were then transformed back into an innocent person. They atoned for their transgressions. Now, I'm not saying that food pilgrims today are trying to atone for any transgressions, but they are seeking some kind of a transformation.
LL: I think that's possible. When you eat food in the context in which that food developed, you start understanding the logic of it. You start understanding why certain choices were made for ingredients or certain preparation methods. You start seeing what that food means to the people in that particular context. You're able to gain a fuller understanding of the food as an aesthetic form, but you also are able to experience it as a cultural form, so that it's not just about the taste. It's about the meanings that are being given to it by the people who developed it.
LL: Well, food tourism that is done without sensitivity can have massively harmful effects on a food culture, on the host community, the economy, the local environment. Frequently the tourism industry, in order to attract the tourist, focuses on finding dishes, ingredients, or ways of eating that are very different and considered very exotic. That frequently, then, exoticizes the whole culture. It takes foods that are not necessarily the most representative foods of a culture, but because it's different for the tourist, that's the food that's highlighted. A good example of that is you go to Peru and have llama meat. It is something that is eaten occasionally in Peru, but the restaurants that are catering to tourists feature it on their menu. So, now people are thinking the national food of Peru is llama.
LL: Yes. It can end up changing the local economy. If there's a food that is generally used just for celebrations, for example, and now there's much more of a market for it. Then farmers end up shifting from growing one food to another, producing that food just for the tourism market, and it shifts the whole economic commodity chain in that way. It can also have massive environmental impacts. If local farmers are going to mono-cropping – only raising that one thing – that can be very bad for the environment. Overfishing and overharvesting happens, just for the tourism market.
LL: Probably yes.
LL: I think, first of all, recognition of the complexity of food, that food itself carries people's identities and carries their histories. If you're consuming a food purely for its aesthetic qualities, that's fine, but when it comes to then creating a market and emphasizing that particular food over others, we need to be aware that these are identities that are being traded off.
You may think of Dubai as the most wildly opulent place in the world, a city in the desert with both indoor tropical rainforests and ski slopes. But there's a fascinating and important other side to it - Old Dubai, where migrants and refugees from all over the Middle East and beyond have come for safety or opportunity. Arva Ahmed was raised there by parents who came from India, and is passionate about leading food tours in her hometown as a way to tell stories while making you salivate. Her Frying Pan Adventures include tastings and cooking classes in parts of the city that few tourists and newer expats visit, areas called home by dozens of nationalities. She also shares all the culinary treasures of Dubai with the world as co-host of The Frying Pan Diaries podcast.
Francis Lam: You lead food tours through the city for, I'm assuming, primarily international travelers and guests. What tends to surprise them when you take them around?
FL: If we were to go out with you, looking out your window in whatever direction you want to take us in, what are some of those neighborhoods? Who would we meet there and what would we eat there?
Arva Ahmed leads food tours of Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures. Stops include restaurants, street vendors, markets and spice shops.
FL: And I'm really fascinated by what you said before, especially about the people who are coming from places where there's conflict. And they didn't necessarily leave because they wanted a better life or because they wanted to go somewhere else. They left because they had to. And I would imagine that impulse to hold on to what they can remember is intense.
Arva's food tours include a wide range of foods from Middle Eastern countries all often within walking distance.
FL: That sounds incredible.
FL: Yeah. Especially there. You're in a new place, you're living a new life, you've got to make your new pastries.
Recently, we had a guest named Jorge Gaviria, who is a corn tortilla evangelist. Francis Lam talked with him about corn tortillas, and it got us more excited about corn tortillas than we'd ever felt before. Since then, we realized that flour tortillas have lost a lot of love. So, we wanted to give them equal time in the Great Tortilla Debate. Enter writer and taco historian Gustavo Arellano, who told Francis that we should be giving flour tortillas a second look - and taste.
Francis Lam: You used to write a column called 'Ask a Mexican', so now I want to ask a Mexican: How do most Mexicans feel about flour tortillas?
FL: Why is it not the case? Because when I think of flour tortillas, I think of, frankly, Taco Bell and this very commodified version of Mexican food. But, it's not exactly that.
FL: It's funny you say that because I do feel like I've had a good flour tortilla. I don't know if objectively in the universe of good flour tortillas where it would stack up. But the first restaurant that made me truly love Mexican food - it was my first exposure to Mexican food that wasn't something like a Taco Bell - was a place call La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I remember the tortillas were chewy and they had so much texture and character. I'd ask why they were good and the people said, "It's because we make them ourselves by hand. They're not from a machine." But every time I'd ask for them, they would look at me with a sad look of disappointment in their eyes, because they really wanted me to ask for the corn tortillas. Let's talk about the universe of good flour tortillas. You say they're parts of different kinds of Mexican tradition. Are they regional? Are there different styles?
FL: Oh, wow.
FL: That's so poetic.
FL: That's huge! I don't even know how much food you would put in that tortilla.
I'm curious about the history of the flour tortilla. We recently talked to two chefs who were looking into the Moorish influence on Mexican food. I think primarily through the fact that the Moors conquered Spain and ruled Spain for 800 years right before Spain came to the new world. So, there's going to be a lot of Moorish influence in that Spanish culture that came to the new world. And this may be goofy – and I'm probably totally wrong – but is it possible there's a link between pita or Moorish flatbreads and the flour tortilla?
FL: Oh, that's fascinating. The world is so big, but sometimes it's so small.
Wisconsin is a state that prides itself on cheese, cheese production, and cheese loving. So, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that a fan favorite snack at a famous famers market in Madison, Wisconsin is bread baked with chunks of cheese inside. Managing Producer Sally Swift talks with Tucker Shaw, from America's Test Kitchen, about the spicy, cheesy treat and how to make it at home. You can bake the Cook's Country recipe for Spicy Cheese Bread. As Tucker suggests, be sure it set some aside for grilled cheese toast the next day!
Sally Swift: I have been thinking about farmers markets lately, and there is one in Madison, Wisconsin that is just beautiful. It surrounds the capitol and it's been there for years. I have heard that one of the things that people buy all the time at that market is this cheese bread. You guys have done a little work on it?
SS: I am quite certain I have never had good cheese bread. Tell me what you guys did to duplicate this recipe. What's the key?
SS: What do we need to do?
SS: I'm surprised by the sweet part.
SS: And you just pop that right in the oven. It sounds great. I can just imagine that toasted.
Mourad Lahlou came to America from Morocco, not to work in restaurants, but to study economics, until he missed the taste of his food so much that he decided to become a chef. And in his restaurants, he makes beautiful versions of Moroccan food – like traditional hand-rolled couscous and modern, jet-black aerated smoked eggplant purees. Now, he and his chef Louis Maldonado are opening a new restaurant called Amara, where the food is a mix of Moroccan and Mexican flavors – two cuisines with more in common that you might think.
Francis Lam: To be honest, if someone said to me – out of the blue – "Let's go check out this new Moroccan Mexican restaurant," I would have been, like, "Say, what?" That's kind of bananas.
FL: But you don't think it sounds bananas.
FL: What have you found, Louis?
FL: What are some of the combinations and commonalities between the cuisines that you've found and that you want to work with?
FL: White rice and black beans.
FL: It's funny, too, because one of my favorite tacos is tacos al pastor. And if you look at the way they make it, it's a trompo. Basically, it's a rotating rotisserie of all these slices of pork that are stacked into this cone of meat that they roast in a rotisserie and keep slicing off. It's delicious and it looks exactly like shwarma.
FL: Yeah, it's a gyro, right?
FL: I think that happened more with Lebanese immigrants into Mexico, but there are so many flavor similarities that connect.
As you explore the menu you want to do in this new restaurant, what are some of the flavors that you want to play with? What are some of the things that you think will be important in your cooking?
FL: As you're experimenting right now and you're looking into your research and getting inspired, what are you playing with? What will we taste if we were to walk into your test kitchen today?
FL: This is fascinating. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with.
Mourad Lahlou is the chef-owner of Mourad restaurant in San Francisco, and Louis Maldonado will lead the kitchen of the soon-to-open restaurant, Amara. If all their talk with Francis about tacos al pastor made you hungry, try this recipe for tacos al pastor (with related recipes for abobo, salsa rojo and faw salsa verde) from Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman.
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