Food and Places

A person I know remembers places she has visited by the food she had in a restaurant in the town, or on the streets of that city. Perhaps we all do the same as many towns and cities are known not just for their iconic monuments but also for its iconic food. Every place has a speciality and it’s a part of travel to spot the delicacy, savour it and bear witness. These are not exotic items that can be found only in a seven star properties – sometimes they are the simplest things that have just added to the legends of the place. What makes these items popular is the love that the people of the place have for them and which they want to share.

 Many years ago before the advent of frequent commercial flights, my aunt travelled from Bombay to Kuwait through the khaleej[i]. En route, their steamer anchored off the shores of Muscat and she narrated how little boys in canoes came alongside selling a sweet confection packed in baskets made from date palm fronds. Decades later, on my first visit to Muscat, I understood that the boys were selling Omani halwa, a sweet made from a mixture of different flours, sugar, local jaggery, clarified butter and saffron. The confection had had a make-over, was packed in a plastic box and was as popular as ever. Omani halwa is famous to this day and many tourist groups go to the factories to see how they are made. There are outlets selling halwa in every little town and village in Oman.

 Every visitor to Cairo would have sat down for a mint-flavoured sulaimani[ii] tea in the Khan Khaleeli market. If that happens to be in the post-harvest season chances are that you would see hundreds of vendors roasting and selling sweet potatoes from mobile carts. The sweet potato grows in the villages on the side of the Nile. Freshly picked produce is roasted on-the-go and eaten hot by the roadside. It costs little but it’s an experience not to be missed. Cairo is also famous for its kushari – the dish of rice, pasta, lentils and tomato sauce garnished with caramelised onions.

 Thousands of people from Nablus live in Jordan’s capital Amman. Nablus is the town in Palestine that has given the world the Nablusi cheese that goes into the famous kunafa. Those who are familiar with this cheese turn their nose up at cheese that comes from anywhere else. One can find kunafa in the sweet shops of Amman and now in sweetshops all over the world – you become an informed traveller when you enquire if the cheese has come from Nablus.

 Teheran has given the world the chelo-kabab – this delicious dish of rice and lamb or chicken kababs are the top choice with both residents and visitors to the Iranian capital. There are hundreds of outlets selling the dish but the best choice will be to ask the taxi driver to take you to his favourite chelo-kabab eatery. Once you have enjoyed the national dish of Iran, it is even more interesting to go into the history of this combo.

 As one travels through the countries of Europe there are distinct foods to try in each place – kielbasa with sauerkraut in Warsaw, Wiener schnitzel in Vienna, a hearty ghoulash in Budapest, a pizza in Naples  and a fresh croissant in Paris. There is something unforgettable about tasting the speciality of the place. Can anyone forget the taste of the cucumber and dill tzatziki salad from one of the cafes outside the Acropolis in Athens? Or apple tea in Turkey?

 In large countries like India, the food experiences are varied and different in the regions of the north, south, east and west. Each region has its specialities but only a true traveller will be able to find them. A few national favourites like the tandoori chicken and biriyani have emerged as the choice of both locals and visitors. Some of the finest sweet and savoury delights in the country are prepared in the temples of India and served to devotees after the prayers. Temple food is truly the food of the gods.

 As a result of the patterns of migration, one can find distinct specialities in places like Australia, Canada and the United States – The people who left their homes and came to live in these new areas have brought their best food with them. Gnocchi verde and Ukrainian perohys add as much to the place as do the Statue of Liberty and the whales off the Gold Coast. It is worth looking for Little Italys’ and Ukrainian enclaves to get a taste of food that has found a new home with decades of migration.

 Many famous restaurants find mention in travel books and are popular with travellers. These are famous in their own right but may not be offering the speciality of the place. To really enjoy the local food specialities, one has to go beyond the print and talk to people who live in the area.



[i] The Arab Gulf

[ii] Sweet tea without milk