I love absolutely everything about travel. I love getting lost, sleeping in strange places, maneuvering language barriers, meeting and learning from locals, and finding yourself in situations that you never, ever could have predicted. But most of all, I love to eat.
In the full year that I travelled after graduation, across the world through 20 countries, there are eight dishes I will never forget.
1. Tuna Sashimi in Micronesia
The island of Pohnpei in Micronesia doesn’t have a lot of things, but what it does have is 30,000 people, mangroves, rain, more rain, and a whole lot of fresh tuna. Most of the food on the island is imported and unappetising, but the local sashimi is one of the most incredible dishes. Fresh out of the ocean, served in a heap ten times the size of anything at your local sushi place, and accompanied by the island’s own sweet kalamansi limes and soy sauce, this simple dish is hard to beat.
2. Chamorro Food in Guam
As good as the sashimi was in Micronesia, the rest of their food mainly consists of spam, instant ramen, and Kool-Aid. So when i arrived in Guam and my couchsurfing host brought me to a local barbecue joint with traditional Chamorro food, I nearly cried from joy. The spices, the flavors, the un-shipped, un-canned, never-frozen ingredients! Be still my heart! The spiced dirty rice, pork ribs, fried chicken, unidentifiable and ridiculously tasty side dishes, and potato salad did not last long, but they are forever revered and immortalized in my memory, in my heart, and in my facebook photos.
3. Dak Galbi in Seoul
Korean food is not for everyone. Everything is spicy, sour, pickled, fermented, fishy, or just generally strongly flavored, and accompanied by kimchi, the divisive Korean staple. Kimchi is spicy cabbage that has been fermented for weeks or months, and it’s one of my favorite things on earth. Almost everything I ate in Korea was a revelation (with the possible exception of live octopus) but one dish in particular stood out. Dak galbi, like many Korean dishes, is cooked on the table in front of you, with ramen noodles, spicy chili paste, veggies, chicken, and, wait for it…mozzarella cheese. Sound weird? It is weird, but it’s also so freakin’ good I went back to the same restaurant for it three times in one week.
4. Spicy Dan Dan Noodles in Hong Kong
To the western palate, Cantonese dishes can be…challenging. But walking into a Hong Kong restaurant with a sign that simply read “Traditional Chinese Noodle,” I was immediately hit with the eye-watering impact of spicy pork broth, and I knew I had come to the right place. After this experience I could not get enough dan-dan noodles. Many shops offer these super-spicy noodle soups, with ground pork and fiery red broth, and every single one of them made my heart sing.
5. Pho Somewhere Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
During a month-long road trip from Hanoi to Saigon, I ate at many, many nameless street carts along the way. Unreasonably cheap, healthy, and flavorful, Vietnamese dishes are the ultimate broke backpacker fare. As I found myself eating pho (noodle soup) three meals a day, I also found that I never, ever grew tired of it. Waking up to a steaming bowl of noodle soup aromatic with fresh basil and a good dose of chili sauce is the only way to wake up, as far as I’m concerned.
6. Lamb Brain Masala in Jaipur
I met an Israeli backpacker in India who had met a tuk tuk driver who knew a guy who claimed to make the world’s best lamb brain masala. This was not an invitation I could turn down. The tuk tuk driver and his friend picked us up and drove us deep into the muslim quarter of Jaipur, stopping to pick up some chapati (flatbread) and drinks before pulling up at a garage with an old man and a giant vat of food on the street in front of it. We sat on newspaper around a carpet in the garage as the man served us. The brains had been steamed in their skulls, and we were given rocks to crack the craniums and bowls of masala to dip into. Adventurous eater or not, the smell of the masala alone was undeniably next-level incredible. And as we scooped out our meat, dipped, and licked our fingers, the perfect level of spice, the smoothness of the flavor, and the richness of the meat rendered us speechless until not a speck of food was left.
7. Sabich and Everything Else in Tel Aviv
I met a lot of Israelis on the road before I ever got to the middle east (especially in India, which in some towns is more like little Tel Aviv from the sheer number of Israeli tourists) and they all told me about how life-changing Israeli dishes are. Israelis are very proud of everything Israeli, however, so I took it with a grain of salt. But holy פָּרָה were they right! I’ve highlighted sabich here, because this roasted eggplant, egg, and pickle in a pita truly did open my mind to a new veggie dimension, but honestly almost everything in Israel tastes straight out of the holy land. Fresh warm hummus, eaten in meal-size portions and scooped with pita and whole onions, shakshuka breakfasts with eggs and feta baked in magical tomato sauce, and a truly otherworldly experience with a menu item called “deep satisfaction into your face” at a bizarre and beautiful restaurant called Miznon…everything is delicious, everything is healthy, and nothing will ever be the same.
8. Thanksgiving Dinner in Colorado
In my yearlong adventure I had eaten so many things, good, bad, and ugly, and I had challenged and delighted my tastebuds in more than 20 countries. But there’s no place like home. Back in unglamorous and suburban Aurora, Colorado my grandfather’s bloody maries, my mother’s rutabaga, my aunt’s cranberry sauce, and my father’s salt-brined turkey were the best homecoming and greatest meal a travel foodie could ever ask for.