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Tips to Recreate Travel-Inspired Recipes and Food Experiences (and generally improve your cooking)

Updated: May 31, 2023


A pot of Japanese custard

Our experience of food is influenced by so many factors—from the food itself to the environment in which we enjoy it. We experience our food with all five senses, so it’s not surprising that recreating an eating experience you had while living or traveling abroad can be so difficult. Being mindful of the main factors that influence our food experience can make a HUGE difference in your ultimate success (or failure) in this attempt.


Read on, because recreating that coveted smooth, mouthwatering hazelnut crepe you enjoyed during your study abroad trip to Paris 10 years ago is about to become a reality, my friend.


Tips to Recreate Travel-Inspired Recipes and Food Experiences


Food Factor 1: Ingredients. Ingredients are probably the most obvious and most commonly cited reason when our food experience falls short of the culinary expectations we built up while vacationing and living abroad. Anyone with half a taste bud can understand that freshness, growing conditions, seasonality, variety/strain, and source (e.g., imported vs. local) all impact the flavors and our experience of them. (And anyone with an annoying Italian friend can tell you that apparently the water used in making pasta in Italy is far superior to the water here in the states.)


A woman selling Mangos on a boat.

Mangoes- I love you, I hate you. Trying to recreate your memory of enjoying a delectable, sweet mango straight off of the mango cart in the Philippines seems incredibly straight forward, right? However, bring home a Mexican-imported Haden mango from your stateside grocery store, instead of the freshly plucked Carabao (Philippine) mango, and you’ll be in for a disappointing surprise.

I’m speaking from sad, sad experience here. I almost incited a riot at my house when my kids, expecting a sweet treat, bit into the sour, bitter, slightly unripe Haden mango.


A bowl of Okinawa sea grapes a top fresh fish.
Umibudo (Okinawa's sea grapes) are a great way to add saltiness and texture to a meal.

Food Factor 2: Seasoning. Huge shocker, but salt and black pepper shakers aren’t the main sources of seasoning for every dish around the world. The subtle ways that flavor is layered into food can make a more impactful impression than the foods themselves. Seasonings can add saltiness, spiciness, umami, floral notes, sweetness, and depth. And the sources we use to accent food are often what gives regional dishes their unique flavor. Sometimes it can be difficult to recreate regionally-inspired cuisines because sources of seasoning aren’t always evident, and they aren’t always listed on the menu. For example, try to recreate the tuna mayonnaise onigiri from your visit to Japan without mixing in a few dashes of dashi, and it will lack the umami, richness that you desire. (Recipe here.)


*Travel Tip- Be a Seasoning Sleuth (aka detective). When your restaurant server comes to clear your plate, break out your pocket translator to compliment the chef and ask about the seasonings in a dish that you enjoyed.


Many internet recipes for international and regionally-inspired foods will link to recommended special ingredients, but many are hard to find locally. Luckily with the global market place, many of these ingredients can be shipped around the world, but you have to know what you are looking for, as the variability and importance of source, variety, and quality of ingredients also applies to seasoning.

Dirty plates at a sushi go-round in Japan.
Empty plates at a sushi restuarant are a sign of a well-enjoyed meal! Bring on the fatty tuna.

* Travel Tip: Eat like a local. Breaking out from the well advertised tourist spots, local restaurants and markets allowed me to experience many culinary delights that I might have otherwise missed. Living in Japan for two years, I learned that eating and shopping like a local is the best way to learn about regional food. While shopping for groceries on the military base made it easy to find family-favorite American brands and familiar foods, venturing beyond the gate to the local markets and Japanese

grocery stores rounded out our weekly menu with

local, fresh, authentically-Japanese foods.


Sumimasen, Okinawan sweet potato pie. When we first moved to Japan (after being released from COVID jail… I mean post-travel quarantine), the Japanese grocery stores seemed intimidating. My otherness was palpable. My big-boned, wavy-haired, freckle-faced self amidst a sea of fairly homogenous appearing Japanese shoppers and their mostly well-mannered brood. I didn’t want to further ostracize myself by whipping out my cell phone to translate all the unfamiliar characters that labeled the aisles of foods whose packaging gave otherwise uninspiring clues as to what was inside. (As if my use of my translator would be the thing that gave away my status as the imposter.)


So, me being the competent, self-assured person that I am...I bought random things and started experimenting, (when I should have just asked for assistance.) Some choices were easy (impressive, aisle-long display of daily prepared sushi- yes, please!), but not always (unintentionally eating probable horse meat sushi-oops...)


While trial and error learning probably wasn’t the most effective, it was fun and led to (sometimes comical) lessons-learned. Like don’t make sweet potato pie for your work Christmas party using Okinawan purple sweet potatoes. Appearing a vibrant purple in their raw form, these potatoes turn a really unappetizing green when substituted in a pie recipe. (They also contain more starch than your standard American sweet potato.) While my pie didn’t make it to the Christmas party, my kids and I gobbled it up at home and I reflected on my errors. With my new found knowledge, the next time I cooked with Okinawan sweet potato it was delicious… and purple.


An arrangement of fresh Japanese fish, produce, and goods.
Bounty from the Japanese produce and fish market tour

Finally figuring it out. Almost a year after being in Japan, I went on a grocery store tour with a local who provided all kinds of insights into local produce, interpreting labels (sometimes internet translation is not 100% accurate and can result in some pretty funny interpretations), and navigating the Japanese grocery store.


A container of fish at a Okinawaan fish market.
A local guide can provide great insight when there are many good options and when you want assistance communicating how you want your fish prepared once you buy it. (I kept mine whole and with scales for grilling.)

A fish market in Naha
The Makishi Public Market in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan is a hot spot for discovering fresh, local fish.

Learning from locals. I had the great opportunity of touring some a local fish markets, an experience led by an older Okinawan woman who not only shared her insights into fish buying, but also, had some pretty interesting theories about Japan’s political history.


Despite continued struggles with communicating in Japanese I started using my translator in the grocery store and I started asking questions using my limited Japanese and a whole lot of gestures. In fact, “sumimasen” (I’m sorry/excuse me), “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning), “hai” (yes), and “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you) can get you pretty darn far in a Japanese grocery store, especially when served up with respect and patience.




Exterior of a Japanese market building.
Don't let the humble exterior fool you, the Itoman City Market is full of the freshest (and affordable) local produce.

* Travel Tip- Get out there! While you may not have the opportunity to live in another country for an extended period of time, you should definitely check out the local markets and grocery stores anytime you travel. If you are able to live abroad, step outside your comfort zone. Sometimes it’s hard not to be aware of your “otherness,” especially when it’s physically evident, but don’t let that hold you back.


In fact, in addition to improving your culinary skills, having and reflecting on the experience of being the “other” (particularly for those of us who are often members of the privileged majority) can help build bridges between different groups of people—and IMO makes you an all-around cooler person.

A fish stuffed with herbs on an open grill.
Putting all of those ingredients together to share with family as part of a delicious home-cooked meal is a rewarding end to an eventful day of experiencing local food markets.


A buggy tour of a coffee farm in Okinawa, Japan.
Food experiences can come in the most unexpected places, like this ATV "buggy" tour of the Matayoshi coffee farm in Higashi village, Okinawa.

* Travel Tip- Seek out local food tours and experiences and include those on your travel itinerary. Sometimes hotels or travel agencies can help guide you to these opportunities. Web-based platforms, such as AirBnB experiences, can also be a great source for connecting with locally-guided tours and experiences. (Check back for a review of our favorites.)




Food Factor 3: Preparation. How food is prepared and cooked varies almost as much as the ingredients themselves. From the hardware (cooking ware, utensils, heat element, plating) to the software (methods of cutting, stirring, mixing, timing, temperature), there are a million different ways to prepare the same ingredient—some more successful than others.



A market in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Misty mountain memories. In 2009, I traveled to a mountain village in Tigfst, Morocco as part of a university service trip. We stayed with the local villagers, sleeping on mats and weaved blankets in a large common area of a home that had been built into the face of the mountainside and enjoyed meals family-style, cooked around an open fire pit in the cold, misty mountain air. It was a life-changing experience for many reasons. But while many of the specific memories have faded, my mouth still waters when I think about the freshly churned butter and tangy, pressed apricot jam smeared atop home-made pita and enjoyed dipped in a saucer of dark, gritty, hot coffee. And as I recall nightly dinners that were cooked over an open fire in a tagine pot, a clay cooking vessel that bathes meat and vegetables in their own juices with its distinctly formed pyramid lid, creating the most mouth-watering communal meal.


Prior to our long flight home, we boarded a dilapidated (somewhat scary) bus, expeditiously weaved through the winding mountain roads and made our way to Marrakesh for some shopping. As an avid food-lover, unsurprisingly, I purchased a tagine pot in the market in hopes that my family could also enjoy the mouthwatering meat, vegetable, and couscous meals.

Moroccan tagine meal
A tagine pot, an earthenware cooking vessel/ portable clay oven, bathes meat and vegetables in their own juices, creating the most tender and mouth-watering communal meal.

I had the most obvious of tools needed to recreate my fond food memories of sticky couscous, warm, savory beef and root vegetables. So why didn’t it taste the same? Well, probably many reasons, but namely I didn’t invest the same time and energy in preparing the food that my newly-found Moroccan friends did. For better or worse, I had access to modern conveniences that they did not.


Conveniences inherent in our everyday living, such as refrigeration, city water systems, and stable access to electricity, also impact the way that our food tastes. Not to mention the impact of larger societal resources, such as grocery stores, genetic food-engineering, industrialized farming, modern butchering and meat packaging plants, and easy access to mass produced, ready-made ingredients, like butters and jams.


Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful to live in such a well-equipped society. But, getting closer to replicating the tastes that I experienced in that Moroccan mountain village would take more than just an internet recipe, a tagine pot, and standard American food preparation techniques… it would take my memories and insights gained from the community in which the food was first experienced.


A view of cooking outdoors.

Food Factor 4: Environment. The people that we share meals with, the time of day, our mood, and the overall ambiance of where and when we sit down for a meal can make all the difference in the feelings and memories that we associate with our food experiences.




Dirt-tinged hands. One of the reasons that my recreation attempt of Moroccan tagine was not up-to-par with the rich memory I had built was due to environmental elements that just could not be recreated. I’m sure the brisk mountain air, daily treks down the mountain to run around with rambunctious Moroccan children awaiting their medical care, and the experience of breaking bread and forming bonds with the villagers and my fellow volunteers played a role in the satisfaction and (soul)-filling nature of each fireside meal—food that was passed around the table with shared gratitude and grabbed with bare, dirt-tinged hands—food that filled our bellies and our souls. (Though dirt-tinged hands are something I try to avoid at most restaurants these days.)


A bamboo bike shop in Manila, Philippines.
Trying out this locally-run bamboo bike tour was a fun, educational, and economical way to get an insider's view of Manila, Philippines.

* Travel Tip- Engage in the experience. While mindful eating is generally a good way to engage more fully with your eating experience, it is especially important to approach each meal as an experience to be savored when traveling. As you delve into those delicious Taiwanese dumplings, tune into each of your 5 senses. Notice your food, as well as the environment around you. What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical textures/touches are part of the moment? Take a mental note, an actual note, or a photo to help you recall these important aspects of your experience. When you return home, use these memories to share the full experience of travel-inspired cuisine with your friends and loved ones.

A cup of avocado gelati.
The tour ended on a sweet note, with free avocado gelato, a welcomed reprieve from the Manila heat.

Recreating the experience. It is true that even if you were to return to the same place and order the same food, the experience is likely to be slightly difference… time has changed, you have changed, the people and places around you have changed. Does that mean that our food experiences can never be recreated? Is it impossible to share our food experiences with family and friends who didn’t have the opportunity to experience them first hand? A resounding no and no! While you can’t every have the same exact experience twice, there is a way to get pretty darn close!


Bottom line. Through mindful selection of ingredients, preparation techniques, and using all 5 senses to enliven the experience, you can get pretty darn close to authentic international food experiences… even from your apartment in south Philly.


"It sounds simple, but how do I actually do all of that?" you ask. Well, you are in the right place, my friend. Stay tuned for recipes, insights into international travel, restaurant recommendations, and more...with Traveling Cupcakery.



In the meantime, bookmark this summary of Tips to Recreate Travel-Inspired Recipes and Food Experiences:

 

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Traveling Cupcakery's

Five Essential Tips for your Next Food Adventure

Matcha tea custard from a sushi restaurant in Japan.

  1. Indulge in the right ingredients. When selecting ingredients to recreate your favorite recipe, think about the freshness, growing conditions, seasonality, variety/strain, and source.

  2. Be a seasoning sleuth. While traveling, pay attention to and ask about regional seasonings when experiencing foods. Sometimes seasonings aren’t listed on menus, so do your own sleuthing… it will pay off!

  3. Prepare for preparation. While it’s impossible to fully recreate everything that goes into the preparation of a food experienced in a different country, be thoughtful and intentional about the heat source, cooking tools and techniques that you use when trying to recreate that internationally-inspired dish.

  4. Learn from the locals. Explore local grocery stores and markets while traveling and living abroad. Go on a grocery store tour, if available. Include local food experiences and tours on your travel itinerary.

  5. Engage in the experience. Approach each meal as an experience to be savored. As you delve into those delicious Taiwanese dumplings, tune into each of your 5 senses. Notice your food, as well as the environment around you. What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical textures/touches are part of the moment? Take a mental note, an actual note, or a photo to help you recall these important aspects of your experience. When you return home, use these memories to share the full experience of travel-inspired cuisine with your friends and loved ones.


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented herein are those of Traveling Cupcakery. They do not represent the views of the United States, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy. Any mention of specific businesses or establishments is purely for descriptive purposes and does not suggest government or federal endorsement of these establishments or activities.

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