by David Kitai
In summers, on exchanges, or during gap years, travelling is a fundamental part of life as a student. Even if the trope of “finding yourself” while on the road is as tired as you’ll be after that 18-hour flight to Bangkok, we can absorb a hell of a lot while travelling, often without actually noticing we’ve learned something. The best way to unintentionally discover more about an unfamiliar place and its culture is to eat.
You might hate museums, think clubs are unbearable and find the outdoors downright painful, but we all have to eat. Even if you eat every meal at McDonald’s, you’ll find out how an Indian McDonald’s (no beef) differs from the fast food joints in Jordan (no pork). More and more travellers are exploring the world with food as their foremost focus. These travellers are seeking out what locals eat and avoiding the overpriced world of tourist-focused dining in favour of cheaper, tastier and more genuine local fare. If you plan your next trip along those lines, be it to Chicago or Ulaanbaatar, I promise you will gain more than just a tasty meal.
Take for example the most ubiquitous food in Israel: hummus. The simple chickpea-tahina paste is eaten there with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Often it’s eaten as a meal in and of itself, in a bowl with a spoon and a few pitas. There are restaurants devoted to the stuff which serve such variations as hummus ful (topped with Egyptian fava beans) or masabacha (peppered with chunks of cooked but un-mashed chickpea).
In Israel, the ubiquity of hummus makes it stand out from North American Jewish food. Hummus is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli, Palestinian and Mizrahi cultures. Though Palestinian food is easily the best in that region, hummus restaurants give an interesting insight into the Mizrahim. The Mizrahim are Jews from the Middle East, largely Iraq, Morocco and Egypt, who were expelled in 1948 to the newly independent Israel. They brought their food with them and wove it into the cultural fabric of Israel.
In Prague, the beer drinking capital of the world, a thoughtful trip for a pint can tell you a great deal about a country coming out of communism. Beer in the Czech Republic is dominated by between four and six major brands. All of them make Pilsener, the clean crisp style of light beer originating in the city of Pilsen, West of Prague. The clean water, high-quality barley and famous hops all found in the Czech Republic make for a perfect Pilsener. Amber beers, stouts, and ales, on the other hand, are bloody hard to find in Prague. In the last decade a new generation of small-scale producers have started buying foreign ingredients, better suited to these styles. These young brewers are making foreign-style beers with a Czech eye for quality, serving them in tourist-oriented brewpubs.
So, if you want to learn history but can’t bear a museum, or understand a culture without studying the language, or just make sure you’re well fed on the road, travel with food in mind. Even if something’s not to your liking, you’ll see the place you’re visiting all the more clearly.