Popular dictionary definitions of ‘bliss’ include words such as happiness, joy and contentment. We know that travellers with specific interests (niches) enjoy a kind of personal bliss when they have an opportunity to engage in their passion, whether it’s bird watching, shopping, climbing a mountain or lazing on a white sand beach.Culinary Bliss has its own special connotation
‘Culinary’ refers to food and drink.The presence in our daily lives of Food TV, cooking shows, celebrity chefs and restaurant reviews has enhanced the awareness of local and international cuisine, so much so that culinary tourism is now one of the largest niche markets.People are travelling specifically for the food experience and/or the drink experience. And in this context the world is an open book for the curious traveller, who is only limited by their own sense of throwing caution to the wind, experimentation, trying something new, and acquiring food ‘bragging rights’ (e.g. I ate ants in Colombia).Of course the other side of this relates to the traveller who wishes to try the local food in order to acquire a better understanding of the people and the culture and the ‘taste’ of the destination.
‘Bliss’ in culinary travel translates as the full utilization of the 5 senses:sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing, as well as 2 other senses.The 6th sense is exactly that:the 6th sense-consisting of that tingling sensation; that little voice in the back of your head that advises you NOT to do something; that nagging doubt that what you are about to do may not be in your best interest (e.g. drinking your 5th cup of Tuak (a home-brewed alcoholic beverage) in the Iban Village in Borneo).
And the 7th sense in attaining culinary ‘bliss’ is the sense of humour. Having fun with your freedom to do what you want, or doing the opposite of what your parents would advise you to do, or just doing something for the sake of doing it.For me, I think of the time that I was alone in a Beijing restaurant, where no one spoke English and I don’t speak Mandarin.In order to order the chicken and rice dish that I wanted, I resorted to imitating a chicken and then imitating the act of eating rice out of a bowl with chopsticks.The server got the message right away and broke into a laugh and a smile—and then so too did the entire restaurant.
Culinary tourism can involve any destination in the entire world, and even if they don’t serve their own unique local specialty, they will certainly have their own version of someone else’s specialty.I think of our night in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where it seems that every restaurant in the city was closed, except for an international pizza chain restaurant near our hotel.We ordered the pizza but figured that we should at least add some local flavour—so we had Tandoori Pizza.It tasted like spicy cardboard but at least it was unique to the location.
Here are a few of my more memorable culinary experiences:
Tibet:Sitting in Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet we ordered Yak Burgers for lunch.The rich taste was similar to a regular hamburger but, as Yaks are the main work animal in Tibet, we felt that this was more meaningful and memorable than a regular western dish.
Mongolia:I arranged to spend the bulk of one of my days with a Mongolian family in their Yurt (Ger). The day before, in Ulan Bator I had been offered, and tasted mare’s milk (horse) which is a popular refreshment.Emboldened by the experience the next day one the sons from the family went into the woods with a rifle.I heard a shot and he walked back a few minutes later with a marmot (a large rodent). This was going to be our lunch.I had read that marmots are tasty, but they are also susceptible to bubonic plague so the thought of eating one can get your 6th sense ringing and buzzing.Nevertheless, the ‘chef’ took the marmot, cooked it using a blow torch, then broke it into small pieces for everyone to taste.And, needless to say, it tasted like chicken—a bit greasy but not too bad.It was a matter of respecting the family that had ‘honoured’ me with a fresh marmot lunch.
Xian: One of the tour participants and I tried some famous Xian dumplings and then decided to go the distance by trying the other city specialty: mutton soup.We climbed the stairs to a restaurant, filled with locals, who paid very little attention to two tourists.We didn’t really have to say anything to the server, as the only dish offered in the restaurant was the soup.The waiter placed a basket of bread on the table along with two bowls and left…and we waited, and waited.After about fifteen minutes we started to eat the bread—which turned out to be a major faux pas.We received some tsks from the nearby patrons and one of them signaled for us to watch as he took a large piece of bread, broke it into tiny pieces, and put them in his bowl.Then the waiter picked up the bowl, poured the mutton broth in and returned the completed dish to the table.So we did the same, and the waiter came by almost immediately and returned with two large (actually huge) bowls of greasy mutton soup.My companion dove into the dish with gusto.I sampled from around the edges and while the soup was really good, I decided that a greasy lunch on an unbelievably hot day, with lots of activities still planned, would probably not be a good idea.I may have been right as my companion spent the rest of the day and night in his room; while I scampered up the pagodas, bought some souvenirs in the flea market and attended an evening cultural performance.
Fugu: Shimonoseki City, Chugoku, Japan.Fugu is the dreaded poisonous puffer fish—at least to North Americans.In Japan, especially in the west, it is a fairly common dish most popularly served deep-fried (you can munch it for lunch), steamed, boiled (as part of a dish called ‘nabe’) or as sashimi, eaten with a sprig of green onion.My friend went to a market to buy a Fugu fish to send home to his family in Tokyo.Then he bought a small paper bag filled with deep-fried fugu and offered me some.It was quite nice.That evening we had fugu sashimi with our dinner, as well as the opportunity to chat with a fugu-certified chef—who actually showed us how to remove the poisonous organs.All in all it was a day of discovery, as well as an opportunity to dispel the myth that eating Fugu is a life-threatening experience. I’ve eaten it many times over the last 9 years.
Mendoza: Argentina.If truth be told, the main reason for choosing to explore Argentina a few years ago was the opportunity to visit Mendoza and Salta—two of the prime regions for the production of Malbec wine—which is my absolute favourite.In Mendoza we toured three different wineries to see three different methods of grape selection, production and storage.And we sampled about 15 different varieties of Malbec, learning new techniques in wine tasting, meeting the owners of the wineries on occasion and getting a better understanding of the vintage, year and significance of the ‘reserve’ label. In every place we travelled in the country afterward, we checked out the local wine markets, found some exceptional bottles of Malbec and returned with 20 for home consumption (and yes we declared them and paid duty on them at customs).
Wineries, distilleries and beer and sake breweries are always included on our travels, not so much for the free samples at the end of the tour (really) but for the learning experience.Whereas ten years ago I knew nothing about Whiskey, now I can talk fairly intelligently about blended whiskey, single-malt Scotches, Irish Whiskey and the answer to that pesky question:‘Why does Guinness taste so fresh in Dublin but not-so-fresh in Toronto?’
Markets: No article on Culinary Tourism would be complete without some mention of the market-culture. This refers to the venues where local chefs purchase fresh food for the day.I have adjusted a travel schedule on more than one occasion to ensure that I am in town for the local market e.g.In Kochi, Kyushi it was the Sunday outdoor market; in Villa de Leyva it was the Saturday market. Food markets allow for great opportunities to sample the local produce as well as for photographs and videos.
Attaining a state of culinary bliss has become, for many travellers an integral part of the travel experience.Travellers today are looking for that ‘what else can we do” when they travel and are catering to their senses (literally) to make the travel experiences more holistic; more involved, more meaningful, and more memorable.