I think not being able to go out to restaurants is one of the hardest parts of quarantine. I know there are a million other considerations far more important than whether I get to enjoy a nice meal out, but I can’t help but miss the experience of discovery that comes with eating out in a new restaurant. This is doubly true of eating out while travelling. There’s arguably no better way to experience a new culture than through its food.
But all of that is on pause right now. In the meantime, how do we fill the void left by not being able to go to new places and discover new foods? It’s a good question. It’s impossible to approximate the experience from home, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try out new flavours in our own kitchens, using available ingredients to delve into the culinary heritages of places around the world.
I’m a person that lives largely in my memories. So I’ve also been taking this time to reflect on some of my favourite food experiences while travelling in the past. Luckily, I happened to have written some articles about some of these food experiences, so I have actual content to return to as well in order to spur my memories.
In the interest of helping us all get to experience a bit of the joys of eating out while travelling, I’ve compiled a few foodie reflections about my travels in France and Japan. I’ve also linked to some past pieces I’ve written about food in these countries and shared a few recipes, whether my own or others I often call upon when cooking. If we can’t currently head on the road to try new dishes, we can hopefully live vicariously through past stories of culinary experiences. Think of this piece as a means of going around the world in your kitchen. Hopefully it whets a bit of your appetite and keeps you hungry for foodie travel adventures for when this is all over.
French Favourites in Paris
It’s really hard to top Paris when it comes to food. No matter how much I read about the latest emerging food city or about the fact that Tokyo has unseated it as the place with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, I still think Paris is about the best place imaginable to eat out. Sure, there can be snobby waiters and boorish tourists in the restaurants, and you’ll find some tourist traps along the way, but if you know where to look or simply follow the locals, you’ll have some of the best food experiences of your life. I still fondly recall strolling down the quiet Rue Mesnil south of Place Victor Hugo and discovering the 100-year-old Le Petit Rétro, where my wife and I dined on braised cod on black rice against a backdrop of antique wall tiles and a local man drinking absinthe at the bar. Paris is full of these kinds of culinary experiences if you know where to look.
As a whole, France is a country that reveres food. I wrote about a hypothetical trip through different regions in the country to experience what the distinct regions have to offer, from crisp apples and fresh butter in Normandy to the sunny flavours and vegetables of Provence. You can read about that experience here and enjoy a bit of travel daydreaming.
If you want to try some French dishes at home, you can either see if any favourite local French restaurant is still doing delivery, or, more likely, try your hand at making some French dishes yourself. Steak frites is an easy-to-do favourite. Cut some russet potatoes into 1/4-inch matchsticks, toss with some oil and salt and pepper and roast on a lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes or so at 450°F, turning a few times to make sure they don’t burn.
For the steak, the quality of the meat is the most important element. The actual cooking is a cinch. You can grill the meat for a few minutes each side on your barbecue, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or use a heavy cast-iron pan. Heat the pan over medium-high heat, add some oil to coat the pan and then some butter to glide atop the oil, and cook the meat for a couple minutes on each side. If you have a thicker piece, pop the pan into an oven at 350°F for a couple minutes, or simply remove the meat to plate if it’s already at your desired stage of cooking (please don’t say that’s well done).
The key after cooking is resting the steak for a few minutes under a foil tent, to make sure that the juices settle and you don’t lose the flavour. If you want to get more creative with your French home cooking, try out the bright flavours of ratatouille, a vegetarian favourite from Southern France. Chef Michael Smith has a dependable recipe over at his website; just make sure to cook the onions long enough, or they’ll be too crisp. (You can never rush cooking an onion, no matter what some cookbooks tell you.)
Savouring Ramen and Sushi in Japan
Most people may say the sushi is the most memorable part of eating out in Japan, but I wager that there’s a good reason the locals eat ramen more than any other meal: it’s wonderfully addictive. I still fantasize about the spicy miso ramen at Kikanbo, a world-renowned joint in the Kanda District of Tokyo not too far south of Akihabara Electric Town. There were shiso flakes floating around the pork broth that would give you little sensations of spice whenever your lips came into contact with them; the pork shoulder was so tender, it would literally fall apart at the touch of your chopsticks; and the egg was perfectly soft-boiled. It was a wonderful meal, but I also realize that if I ate like that everyday, it wouldn’t take long for me to pack on the pounds.
It’s not hard to find good food in Japan, whether ramen or other dishes, especially in the larger cities like Tokyo, where trendy hole-in-the-walls and Michelin-starred restaurants are around seemingly every corner. The sushi is great. When I visited, the Tsukiji Fish Market was still in operation (before it moved to Toyosu), so you needed only to head to the sushi restaurants around there and perhaps brave a half-hour lineup to enjoy a magnificent omakase (chef’s choice) meal of sushi. You can enjoy some travel inspiration about eating your way through Japan with this piece, or prep yourself on what to eat when you can travel to Tokyo when this is all over.
I also encourage you to be adventurous and try cooking some Japanese dishes at home. Sushi is not hard at all to make. All you truly need is fish, rice, nori (dried seaweed sheet), and a bamboo rolling mat. Here’s a quick recipe from the top of my head:
- 1 lb sushi-grade fish, preferably salmon or tuna for starters
- 1 cup sticky rice
- several nori sheets
- 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 Tbsp mirin
- half a cucumber, sliced thinly in matchsticks on a mandolin
- avocado, sliced into thin strips
- hot sauce, such as sriracha
- Cook the sticky rice, either in a saucepan following 2:1 water to rice, or following rice cooker directions.
- Slice fish into 1/4-inch slices.
- Heat rice vinegar and mirin in a small saucepan. Bring to simmer, but do not boil. Remove from heat.
- When rice is finished, spread it out in a wooden bowl, preferably bamboo. Let cool. When cooled, pour vinegar and mirin over the rice, mixing it with a wooden spoon.
- Place a sheet of nori on the bamboo rolling mat. Spread rice evenly onto the mat.
- Align strips of fish and vegetables along one end of the rice, parallel to the bamboo slats of the rolling mat. Spread some hot sauce alongside the vegetables, if desired.
- Start to roll the bamboo mat overtop of the fish so that the rice meets and holds the fish and vegetables tightly together. Keep rolling, letting the mat unfurl from the nori sheet, until the entire sheet has been rolled into a single roll.
- Remove the newly-formed maki roll and slice it into bite-size pieces with a sharp, wet knife.
Voila! You’ve made sushi. When I make it, I usually forgo the maki rolling altogether and simply make nigiri sushi: small logs of sticky rice with a nice piece of fish on top. That way, the sushi is all about the fish.
It is also easy to whip up tonkatsu, which is fried breaded pork cutlet, as all it takes is some thin slices of pork, some panko breadcrumbs, some egg, and some frying oil to whip up. The tonkatsu sauce is a bit more intensive, but you can find it at your local Asian grocer, if they’re still open. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, you can make your own chicken ramen with this classic recipe from the Lucky Peach: 101 Easy Asian Recipes. It puts a rotisserie chicken to good use.
We’re all trying to find new ways to stay in touch with travel and other cultures while stuck at home. We may not be able to make French and Japanese dishes quite as magnificent as the ones you’d find in Paris or Tokyo, but there still are many ways to keep your love of travel alive and enjoy some delicious food while doing so. For the next while, bon appetit may have to replace bon voyage. So, bon appetit!