In Madurai, South India, we hired a foodie guide (foodiesdayout.com) to take us on a street food walking tour, stopping at the best stalls. There we sampled wares including a small paper cone filled with lightly spiced noodles; mini curry clay pots; fried chickpeas wrapped in newspaper and puffed rice; bowl-shaped appams (rice cakes) filled with mixed vegetables; these panipuri (fried and filled discs of dough) that explode in your mouth, releasing a flood of slightly sweet spicy sauce; dahl of lentils in a banana leaf; and mini fried donuts called adhirasam, filled with super sweet jaggery.
The Atlas Mountains of Morocco provided another memorable trip. It was a walking holiday and we hiked for hours a day through breathtaking scenery. Our nights were spent in subzero tents, huddled in donkey fur-lined sleeping bags and listening to our Berber guides sing softly as the pack mules farted loudly outside. The highlight of each day was lunch. We rounded the shoulder of a mountain to find that our guides had spread a mat over the sand with a picnic of such visual perfection that we would hesitate to destroy the idyllic scene. We took off our shoes (very important: keeping them on would have been shocking) and the guides brought elaborate jugs to rinse our hands with running water before heading back.
There were salad platters sprinkled with pomegranate and small ceramic bowls decorated with walnuts, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers with mint, yogurt; platters of samosa-shaped patties; rice dishes; savory cakes; flat breads. All followed by a strong, sweet coffee and a rose-scented baklava.
Misadventure in Laos
I did a very different hike in Laos, with my daughter, Li-Da, through the mountains to the Chinese border. Our itinerary promised picnics under the waterfalls, watching the local bird calling and a homestay in a guest house with “WC Western” in a picturesque mountaintop village. . Of course, it wasn’t quite like that when we arrived. Our guide explained that the five day walking tour we had purchased started with a bumpy 10 hour ride in an old combi and the last day would be spent on a ferry across the Mekong to Thailand. The latter consisted of wading in the river with our luggage on our heads.
For the three days in the middle we saw no waterfalls or bird calls and the promised guesthouse had collapsed. Instead, the village chief kindly offered to put us up and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world – although I wouldn’t do it again for the world either. The chief’s house (like all the others, on stilts) was by far the largest, serving as accommodation but also as a village council hall, meeting place and communal kitchen. There were two fires in the middle of the floor, one for meals and one for animal feed, but no chimney: the smoke just had to find its own way (not too well) through the grassy roof.
When we arrived, two of the chief’s many wives were picking what looked like kingfishers and canaries, the iridescent blue and lemon yellow feathers going straight into the fire. The villagers ate sticky rice and anything they could trap: birds, squirrels, rats (although they limited cats, which – thank God – are sacred to the Buddha). Food waste, very few, passed through the cracks in the floor to the chickens and pigs under the houses.
As soon as it was learned that we had brought beer and lots of food, the villagers filled the room and our guides cooked huge quantities of the kind of food they would be lucky enough to see once a year. on a holiday: chicken and vegetable soup; green pork and vegetable curry, flavored with lemongrass and galangal; sticky rice and delicious ripe mango. We were starving after a five hour uphill hike, and it tasted like heaven. The men sat around their hips, eating and drinking and talking loudly. The women squatted in the same way, but in an outer row, each with a toddler on their back and a baby on their stomach. When offered anything, they shook their heads, smiling and shy.
The best BBQ
Less exotic, but equally memorable, was my best barbecue: a traditional asado in Argentina. We were with friends in a finca in the pampas and it became a kind of all day lunch. Preparations began after breakfast with the construction of a bed of stones, on which a fire was lit and logs reduced to embers. This was covered with a huge mesh grill to cook sausages, liver, kidneys and andouilles. The main event was a freshly slaughtered whole lamb, cut open and splayed on a wooden frame. This was wedged in front of a fire slowly to grill first one side then the other. There were salads and salsas, but there was one clear hero: a meat fest never to be forgotten.
My childhood memories of barbecues in my native South Africa are less dramatic but no less fond; no one should visit without experiencing a braai. I remember eating Cape lobster grilled over a fire in an outdoor restaurant on Table Bay beach; buy fresh perlemoen (abalone) grilled over coals in a tin drum on the Cape Town waterfront; in a family braai, torn between toast with cheese and apricot jam (intended for children) and the grown-ups’ yellowtail flounder caught by my uncle and smoking en papillote on the coals.
Eating out is what South Africans do. The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town has a deservedly famous poolside buffet and almost every winery around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch sells wonderful picnics, where trendy Italian antipasti can be followed by melktert South African (a cinnamon cream pie) or koeksisters – fried pastries soaked in syrup). I haven’t been back to South Africa for two years and can’t wait to go back now that we can visit again.
I don’t think I would enjoy traveling so much if I weren’t so foodie and eager to taste the world. Food is part of a country’s culture, so it seems crazy to be reluctant to try new flavors. One of the best ways for a quick introduction is to join a cooking class or street food walking tour: I’ve done this in Vietnam, Thailand, Holland, and Egypt. Exploring the world through your taste buds is much more fun, at any age, than reading a guidebook.
The Great Celebrity Bake Off 2022 for Stand Up To Cancer airs Tuesdays at 8pm on Channel 4