Food and travel: inseparable companions

In this extract from A Moveable Feast, Don George, editor of this new collection of food travel tales, reflects on the inseparable, wonderful relationship between food and travel.

I had ventured way off the beaten track, into a weather-beaten fishing village on a foggy spit of land that slides into the Sea of Japan. Because I spoke Japanese and was the first foreigner who had passed that way in decades, I became the town’s guest of honour, and I was taken with great ceremony to what I gathered was the local equivalent of Chez Panisse.

I was feted with the usual bottomless cups of sake and glasses of beer, and the endless succession of little indescribable delicacies artfully arranged on thimble-sized plates. Then, for a moment, the whole restaurant seemed to pause as a dish was carried regally to the table and set before me.

It was a whole fish, arranged with its head and tail twisted to look as if it were still leaping. Its flank had been cut open to reveal thin-cut slices of glisteningly fresh flesh. All eyes were on me as I picked up my chopsticks and brought them to the fish. I reached in to choose the most savoury-looking slice – and the fish jumped. Thinking this was some bizarre reflex reaction, I reached in again. Again the fish jumped. This was when I looked at the fish’s eye – and realised it was still alive! This was the village’s delicacy: the rawest raw fish in all Japan. What could I do? Whatever discomfort – piscitarian or gustatory – I was feeling at that point, and however much I identified with that fish, there was no turning back.

On my third try I steeled myself, pincered the desired slice and brought it to my tongue. I closed my eyes, intensely aware that every other eye in the room – including the fish’s – was on me. Suddenly ocean-fresh flavour leapt inside my mouth. My eyes shot open and a rapturous smile lit my face. The entire restaurant burst into cheers and applause.

Travel and food are inseparably intertwined, and sometimes, as in that Japanese restaurant, the lessons their intertwinings confer are complex. But one truth is clear: wherever we go, we need to eat. As a result, when we travel, food inevitably becomes one of our prime fascinations – and pathways into a place. On the road, food nourishes us not only physically, but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually too. I’ve learned this countless times all around the globe.

In fact, many of my finest travel memories revolve around food. The biftek-frites I would always order at the six-table sawdust restaurant around the corner when I lived in Paris the summer after I graduated from college, where the proprietor came to know me so well that he would bring my carafe of vin ordinaire before I could say a word. An endless ouzo-fuelled night of shattered plates and arm-in-arm dancing at a taverna in Athens, and the Easter feast my family was invited to share with a Greek family in the rocky hills of the Peloponnesus, where the host offered me the singular honour of eating the lamb’s eyeballs. The Sachertorte an American couple I met on the train kindly treated me to when we arrived in Vienna. My first fleshy-seedy taste of figs at a market in Istanbul.

I remember a time-stopping afternoon on the sun-dappled terrace at La Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence, feasting stomach and soul on daurade avec haricots verts and artwork by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Miró. I think of a postwedding sake and sushi celebration on the island of Shikoku, an Ecuadorian version of Thanksgiving with my family on a life-changing expedition in the Galápagos, freeze-dried boeuf bourguignon under the stars on a pine-scented Yosemite night, huachinango grilled with garlic at a seaside restaurant in Zihuatanejo, proffered by the laughing parents at the next table as their children led ours sprinting into the sea and my toes sighed into the sand. So many meals, so many memories.

Food can be a gift that enables a traveller to survive, a doorway into the heart of a tribe, or a thread that weaves an indelible tie. It can be a source of frustration or a fount of benediction, the object of a timely quest or the catalyst of a timeless fest. It can be awful or ambrosial – and sometimes both at the same time.

Whatever its particular part, in all these cases food is an agent of transformation, taking travellers to a deeper and more lasting understanding of and connection with a people, a place and a culture.