With what we have collectively gone through this past year, we all can use a little happiness in any shape or form these days, especially in the form of international food. I always knew I loved experiences more than material things. Jennifer Dukes Lee’s The Happiness Dare confirmed it. Duke welcomed me to the “club of the beauty seekers, adventurers, and pay-attentioners,” sealing my “enthusiasm of a child and a deep sense of wonder finding supreme happiness by engaging in meaningful moments.” It reaffirmed what I have been saying for as long as I can remember, “You don’t look for happiness in a store — you look for it in moments.”
C’mon Get Happy
This mindset explains why both my websites, Cook With Zee and Around the Bay and Away, revolve around my two passions of international food and travel. Although one can argue that food is material, the consumption and enjoyment of it is experiential. Once consumed, it is no longer tangible.
One positive consequence for those of us who draw happiness from experiences is that it tends to last longer. We experience anticipatory happiness when planning. Then, experiential happiness happens when the moment has arrived. Finally, residual happiness when we reflect and remember those wonderful moments upon our return for both our travels and food adventures locally. Food plays a big part in all three especially with the pandemic limiting our physical travel capabilities.
In a previous post I wrote almost five years ago, How to Deal with Culture Shock, I encouraged my readers to seek out a restaurant close to home that serves the cuisine of their next destination. It helps to get a taste for the food before embarking on their adventure. However, not everyone is lucky enough to live as close to diverse international food offerings as the Bay Area. Making a dish yourself is a great alternative that can be done from your own kitchen. In fact, after purchasing a Norwegian cookbook and a gift card to the Nordic House to buy imported ingredients, the bride touted this bridal shower gift as one of the most thoughtful she received, as they were going to Norway for their honeymoon.
I have been thinking about my epidemiologist friend a lot this past year. The current environment reminds me of her years in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest researching her dissertation. She introduced us to our first taste of Peruvian food once she returned stateside. Always wanting to see Peru for myself, it was fitting that the first Peruvian dish I tried, Aji de Gallina, was one she recommended, followed shortly by a second, Papa a la Huancaina, to give me a taste of what is to come.
Embrace International Food’s Simplicity
Food does not have to be over-complicated. In some instances, recipes are merely a regional twist on a classic such as an egg sandwich. The Korean Egg Stuffed Garlic Toast Breakfast Sandwich, popular at Seoul’s Egg Drop is right up my alley. I may have salivated just watching the video of how to make it. After getting the Kewpie mayo for it, I decided to also make the Tamago Sando. This dish is so popular in Japan that, according to my cousin who went the year before, is available at the local 7-11. I was able to bring the taste of Seoul and Japan straight to my home.
Escargots, barramundi, and emu, oh my! Nothing against McDonald’s but unless they have a local specific product (Hello, limited-time Haupia Pie), I recommend experiencing what each region specializes in and look for restaurants that locals frequent. Even within the US, it’s always exciting to look out for regional specialties. Give Colorado’s buffalo ribeye and huckleberry glazed ribs or Arizona’s fried Indian tacos and prickly pear fries a try when you can. If you have always wanted to try escargots or paella, what better place than in Paris or Valencia? Sample dim sum in Hong Kong and if you are adventurous, Australia’s endemic kangaroo and emu. For the less adventurous, try their barramundi fish. Order the Italian Riviera’s anchovies and pesto-based dishes while taking advantage of Naples’ authentic pizza.
Even back in 2004, lunch was the most important meal of the day for Italians. It is not uncommon to polish off an entire pizza. This 110-pound girl was only one slice shy of doing just that in Lombardy’s Bellagio. Authentic Italian pizza has thin crust and is topped with a mere two to three ingredients. There is no such thing as this combo stuff. Their popular margherita is simply topped with fresh basil, tomatoes, cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil. The pizza I just could not stop eating was layered with just funghi and prosciutto.
Long Dinners on the Italian Coast
Dinner in Italy often lasts a few hours, unwinding with family and friends after a long day. Although unheard of in America where restauranteurs encourage fast turnover of tables, Italians commonly have a table for the entire evening. After we discovered this during our stay along the Italian Riviera, we felt thrilled to capitalize on this Italian cultural norm. During one of those languid evenings, I enjoyed a pesto minestrone for the first time. I fell head over heels in love with the recipe and have since recreated it myself many times.
In the Liguria region’s quiet Deiva Marina, I noticed locals all around us leisurely socializing over wine and food. Those who may have opted for heavier lunches went for lighter dinners of antipasti while other tables had a full course with a primi (often a pasta), secondi (fish or meat), and finishing off with dessert, dolci. Whatever you choose, what was most memorable was that unrushed feeling. It was such a refreshing luxury for us, but the norm for them.
Buy Local and Support the Local Economy
When visiting any locale, do not run for the nearest chain store. Avoid purchasing an item you can probably find at home. Instead, seek international food items that are specific to that area and preferably made at your destination, like pesto from Liguria. What better way to bring back memories of your Tahitian honeymoon than smoothing on a tiare-scented Monoi oil after a shower or breathing in the scent of their world-famous Tahitian Gold Vanilla while cooking?
The chances are you will also get a chance to interact with the locals. They may even give you some of their favorite recommendations. You’ll walk away with a “souvenir” that is priceless, such as an ingredient to help you gain residual happiness.
Food also allows me to relive those memories by recreating a dish we had during our travels. Our 20th anniversary was this past October. Unfortunately, our plans to return to the area of France we went to for part of our honeymoon did not materialize, nor did our annual trip to my happiest place on Earth, Maui. We have spent our anniversaries for the past 16 years soaking up the Hawaiian sun. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be in the cards this year.
Although we were on a budget for our honeymoon in our 20s, recreating simple international food recipes like socca, a chickpea flatbread, and pan bagnat, a particularly tempting sandwich filled with salade niçoise, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna, brought me back to sunny Nice. The feeling of strolling along the Promenade des Anglais overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is not easily forgotten. It always makes me reminisce about the funny incident where I asked in broken French if the tuna was raw or cooked, only to discover it was canned.
Having to actually cancel each component of our Maui anniversary trip, which we had planned since February, was like a punch in the gut. Nonetheless, I brought Maui to me through the dishes I recreated myself, such as Loco Moco, Spam Musubis Three Ways, and Lau Laus. Plus, I did my part to support the Maui economy from afar by ordering papayas, chocolates, and pineapple-infused spirits. It will help lift our spirits until we can return again, hopefully, this year.
Although travel has been limited, we can still find happiness in the present. We must enjoy the whole journey in anticipation of what is to come. What better way to do that by trying your hand at making some international food? Tucked away in the subtle moments of reflection, we can find happiness in the quiet reminiscence of our past experiences.
by Joyce Zee