Besides being the fuel that sustains us, food also functions as a means of cultural exploration – and is therefore a huge part of the travel experience. Years later, certain dishes or ingredients can evoke strong memories of journeys gone by, transporting you back to that first bite.
We asked our editors to recall their first encounter with an unforgettable dish. If their tales get your tummy rumbling, taste the world with our From the Source cookbook series and be inspired to start a food-filled adventure of your own.
Tom kha kai (Thai coconut soup) in Thailand
On my first trip to Thailand this year I made many lifelong edible friends, but it was tom kha kai that stole my heart. My first taste came after a long day’s trekking; the jungle lodge chef presented our sweaty and hungry gang with a bowl of bizarre-looking white soup. It promised nothing – pale chunks of onion and chicken bobbed blandly on the surface. The first punch came as spoon met lips – a tangy hit that turned spicy, savoury, sour and back again in a bombardment of fragrant deliciousness. Lesson learned: don’t judge a soup by its colour.
DIY or buy? I’ve definitely learned that building depth of flavour requires time and often a lot of different ingredients. I’m also getting quite good at grating ginger. I’ve never attempted a tom kha kai at home though. Maybe soon, if we can eat at midnight.
Dora Ball – Commissioning Editor. Follow her tweets @DoraWhit
Tortilla (Spanish omelette) in Gijón, Spain
I moved to Spain in 1991 and quickly started a love affair that was to continue for the five years I lived there. The object of my affection consisted of nothing more than potatoes and eggs (and sometimes onion) – a Spanish omelette or tortilla. While it sounds deceptively simple, I soon discovered that each cafe served its own version and that a pincho de tortilla (a slice of tortilla with bread) was both tricky to get just right and more quintessentially Spanish than bulls, flamenco and sherry combined. Frying the potatoes, adding the eggs at the right time and cooking it just long enough to produce the perfect complement to a morning coffee or evening vino was something I soon learnt to appreciate but never managed to master myself.
DIY or buy? Keeping the ingredients simple but cooking them to perfection was the obvious but inspiring lesson I took away from five years of tortilla sampling. My own attempts since have ranged from edible to disastrous – but that's a good excuse to visit Spain for the real deal!
Clifton Wilkinson – Destination Editor for Southeast Asia. Follow his tweets @Cliff_Wilkinson
Mango and passion fruit éclairs in Paris, France
In 2013, when Paris had a long run of sticky summer days that stretched out like chewing gum, I spent many mornings aimlessly wandering its streets. As minds roam when the legs do, it was hunger that led me to the gold-gilded, handwritten sign of Stohrer, a fairy-tale patisserie that evidently thought itself the Versailles of Cakes. Under mirrored arches and a frescoed ceiling, I ran my finger along the glass counter to the mango and passion fruit éclairs. I still remember the golden, tiger-striped glaze shimmering beneath the shop’s chandelier and the devilish ooze of its decadent passion fruit curd. Through the eyes of my dentist, it was my first forbidden love.
DIY or buy? Wild-eyed and caked in flour, my attempts at recreating a mango and passion fruit éclair – or any of its siblings – add up to little more than an egg massacre and lumbering sobs on the kitchen floor. I even took an éclair cookery class with an ex-director of Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu, but the finesse needed is clearly an inherited voodoo that only skilled culinary wizards will ever conjure up.
Dan Fahey – Destination Editor for Western Europe. Follow his tweets @FaheyDaniel
Baja fish tacos in Loreto, Mexico
A hurricane ravaged the Baja peninsula just days after I arrived in Mexico. I abandoned my tent on the beach for a humid hotel room to wait out the storm and emerged two days later, starving for some element of the adventure I had imagined. Wandering through streets piled with ocean debris, I discovered what felt like the only opened bar in town. Without asking, the bartender plonked down a sweating cerveza, a green lime perched in the mouth of the bottle. Moments later he followed with tacos – gleaming beer-battered cod fillets nested in fresh corn tortillas and topped with cabbage and crema (similar to sour cream) and a side of those ever-present limes. One bite and the hot fried fish melted into the cold, crisp cabbage. The hint of lime livened the edges of my tongue and the salty tortilla held it all in place. That bite convinced me that the Mexico I was looking for hadn’t washed away with the storm.
DIY or buy? I learned that some flavours are only perfect when they are created and enjoyed in their natural habitat. Many establishments and friends serve versions of these simple tacos and they're never quite right. I think they require ocean air, dusty roads and a little grit to make them truly delicious.
Sarah Stocking – Destination Editor for California and Mexico. Follow her tweets @Stockingsgo
Okonomiyaki in Osaka, Japan
My okonomiyaki education began when I was a student in Osaka and I was invited to dinner at my neighbour’s house. I was given a beer and a sharp knife, and with my neighbour offering encouraging noises, I helped shred cabbage, chop spring onions, slice pork and whip up batter. We poured thick plate-sized gloops of the mix onto a table-top griddle and let it sizzle, adding layers of toppings once the cakes were golden brown: sprinklings of dried seaweed, delicate bonito flakes, and generous stripy squeezings of brown sauce and mayonnaise. After a chorus of ‘itadakimasu’ (‘let’s eat’/’bon appétit’), we ate the okonomiyaki piping hot, a little soft in the middle, straight off the griddle. Despite all the refined cuisine I’ve tried in Japan, it’s still these simple everyday dishes that I crave the most.
DIY or buy? I’ve cooked passable okonomiyaki a handful of times at home. You can’t go too far wrong with a dish whose name means ‘grill what you like’, but I always lack two key ingredients: a table-top teppanyaki griddle, and the encouraging voice of my old neighbour.
Laura Crawford – Destination Editor for Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. Follow her tweets @crawfplanet
Panettone in Sondrio, Italy
After quitting my first job to see the world, I spent a month travelling around Italy with a friend, staying with her Italian relatives. We spent Christmas at Silvio and Rena's house in a tiny village at the base of the Italian Alps, where a giant dome of yellow, fruit-studded cake would make a ritualistic appearance at the end of most meals, just plonked (like bread in France) directly on the white tablecloth. I found any excuse to carve myself a slice, marvelling at the fluffy, more-ish, loaf-like texture (lo and behold: panetto means 'small loaf cake'), but would also sneak stray bits of candied fruit as Italians wildly gesticulated about why the weather in the Alps was not going to be satisfactory to the aunt from Sicily and whose turn it was to get more wine from the cellar. It remains one of my favourite Christmas treats.
DIY or buy? I would never dream of attempting to recreate panettone – the Italians do it too well! Ever since my Italy trip I buy a panettone each Christmas, but it can only be a quality Italian one! Last year's was from Loison, a bakery operating in Costabissara since 1938. I'm a bit obsessed.
Karyn Noble – Senior Editor. Follow her tweets @MsKarynNoble