Food has always been an important part of our travels. Whether it’s an impromptu road-side food stand or a well-thought out restaurant destination, we love introducing our kids and to new culinary adventures. Sometimes it turns out well. At other times, one of the kids will declare a food “the most disgusting thing in the world.” Our two older kids took to the full gamut of food effortlessly, whether it was channa masala, pad thai, or burgers. We watched in pain as our youngest ate only chicken fingers for the first nine years of life. Thankfully, he’s caught up and now critiques whose restaurant has the best lobster bisque. The point is, as a family we want our kids to experience food around the world and also to learn the pleasure at being at the table.
So many great food moments have happened in markets and road stands (You can read about some of them here). In Cambodia, we bought deep-fried silk worms from road-side, outdoor, market where we also bought local, roasted chickens. We snacked on the silk worms while visiting a silk factory. It gave us a chance to learn that not only can this worm be used to create an amazing product of silk, it is also a form of protein for those that live in the region.
At a truck stop outside Chiang Mai, my husband devoured a plate of pork instestine laab and introduced our kids to the dish. While attending a Hmong family reunion in the Thai hill country, he was honored with a bite of pork ear. Food doesn’t need to be fancy to be memorable. Sometimes, our family together, a formal table, a warm welcome, and great food create a magic moment. Here are a few of those moments with food around the world.
1. Rafa, Madrid Spain
In 2015, we toured the Iberian peninsula in August. If you done some reading, or have ever been in Spain in August, then you know that it’s not an ideal time. It’s not just the smothering heat, but also the vacuum created by Spaniards taking their extended summer holiday. Not only are places closed for the month of August, trying to find an open restaurant on a Sunday—a day restaurants usually closed—becomes a real challenge.
Our days in Madrid had a pleasant format: wake up for a visit to a museum or site, take a leisurely lunch, back to the hotel for siesta, and then a long walk and time in the Retiro. The Retiro is an immense park with trails, meadows, ponds (with ducks and fish), and playgrounds. After the kids had their fill of feeding ducks, playing tag, and climbing jungle gyms, we would then eat our supper. Dinner would be late by American standards, and early by Spanish ones.
On this Sunday evening, as darkness descended, we agreed the time had come for dinner. We hadn’t made reservations or planned out where we’d eat. The previous nights, we eaten in La Latina or Las Letras. So, we started walking West from the park into the posh, residential neighborhood of Salamanca. As we walked its main streets, every restaurant we found was closed for summer vacation. We looked for promising leads on our phones, and walked to them, only to find that one after another was closed. All of us were getting tired and cranky.
Finally, we found a place. On one hand, it looked promising; it had some outdoor seating. On the other hand, it was way fancier than the casual meal of tapas we had wanted. And the kids were in shorts. At that point, we were desperate and, as slovenly as we all looked, approached the maitre’d. A team of waiters in white tuxedo jackets escorted us to our tableclothed table. Wine bottles emerged from silver buckets, and was poured into crystal glasses. The waiters described all the great, rare delicacies of Spanish seafood that were available, all priced by weight. I gulped, not wanting to know the cost.
We tried the prized red prawns of Garrucha, large shrimp with a deep red color and a rich taste of lobster mixed with vanilla. We ate way too many langoustines. The waiters informed us that goose necked barnacles were available. I had never heard of these crustaceans, nor did I know the dangers associated with harvesting them, but my husband had been looking for them for a while. The waiters brought out a plate and patiently showed us how to eat them—how to squeeze the flesh from the barnacle’s firm shell. Our daughter was undaunted by their appearance and wolfed them down.
The waiter doted over our kids as if they were royalty. It was an Old World style of service we thought had died out long ago. After all the shellfish, finger bowls filled with lemon and water were placed on the table. We showed the kids how to use the finger bowl to cleanse their fingers, and also told them that they might not see this again. And sipping chilled Albarino in that warm August night, we knew that something magic happened.
2. Peixeria da Exquina, Lisbon Portugal
Before our trip to Lisbon, we had read a glowing piece in the New York Times about this place, describing as an example of the new Portuguese cuisine. We all got in a taxi that drove us to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. We had no clue where we were, and nor did the taxi driver, as he actually drove in circles trying to find the place. Eventually, we did find it, a small restaurant located in a residential neighborhood. In all honesty, we could describe it as minimalist or, as it looked as we walked in, a bit bare bones. We noted immediately the open kitchen and preparation area, which is far less common in Portugal that in the US. Even though we were with three small kids, the hostess seated at a high-top, a table with high, stool chairs, at the front of the restaurant. Not thrilled about this seating, the bareness of the restaurant, and taking forever to find it, we were feeling a bit apprehensive about our meal.
As it turned out, this was one of the best meals we had in Lisbon. The specialty is fish and shellfish. The Portuguese have high standards for seafood. We ordered one dish after another of dishes that straddled traditional styles with modern technique. It was incredibly fresh and delicious. The expressive flavors of the preparations was too perfect an accompaniment to the vinho verde. Before we knew it, one bottle was empty and we were midway through another. The kids enjoyed the fish and our daughter devoured most of the shellfish. With full, happy bellies, we were relieved when the restaurant called us a taxi which promptly delivered us back to the hotel.
3. Au Pied du Cochon, Montreal Canada
Don’t get my husband started on Au Pied du Cochon. He first became obsessed with-it watching Anthony Bourdain visit, and its chef, Martin Picard, tell his crew, “Feed him until he dies.” In 2006, he ate there while at a conference and wouldn’t stop talking about pig’s feet stuffed with foie gras, venison ribs, and duck-fat fried poutine with more foie. When we road-tripped up to Quebec in 2014, he insisted that we all dine there together. With kids ranging from five to ten-years of age, I was game but wasn’t sure the reality would align with his vision. We made reservations for the earliest slot, 5:30 pm, and showed up.
My husband immediately went into a trance-like state as he talked up the waiter, perused and chose from the list of Burgundies, and pointed out his favorite Montreal musicians on the restaurant soundtrack, including Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire. Appetizers appeared: duck carpaccio, pounded out pieces of pounded-out rare duck. Kids loved it. Cromequise: deep fried cubes filled with liquified foie gras. Husband loved it; kids did not. Our daughter went to town on a Flintstone’s style bison rib. Both boys were happy. Hubbie went ecstatic when his entrée, Duck in a Can appeared. I’d heard all about it. Duck in a Can is essentially half a duck crammed into a can with loads of duck fat, bacon, and foie gras. The can is sealed, like a can of Campbell’s soup. For service, it’s heated in the can, opened tableside, and poured over steamed cabbage. I took a bite and couldn’t take another—it was ridiculously rich. Hubbie devoured the plate.
The waiter took a liking to the kids, and brought them a maple fondue with cake for dipping. They were pleased. My husband just smiled, glass of Burgundy in hand, and eyes glazed with duck fat. The kids were happy, so I was, too. Looking at my husband, I predicted he would wake up sick. Instead, he had an espresso, then a grappa, and woke up at 6am for a run along the Lichine Canal. He likes to remind me of that as much as he does the meal itself.
4. Charleston, Baltimore Maryland, USA (2020)
Living in Baltimore, our treasure is chef and restauranteur Cindy Wolf. She’s a nine-time nominee for the Mid-Atlantic James Beard award. For a big birthday (I won’t say which, but it’s a milestone), my husband’s one wish was to take the kids out for dinner at her restaurant, Charleston. While I wanted him to have the birthday of his desires, I was a bit worried. Charleston doesn’t provide a la carte dining. It’s all prix fixe tasting menus of four courses or more. With its polished service and pacing, meals can take upwards of three hours. That’s a long time for kids, especially our youngest (who’s ten-years old).
The hostess walked us to our table in the wine room. On the tablecloth were china from Le Bernardaud and crystal from Reidel, and beautiful silverware. The room is elegant and hushed. The kids instantly knew it was something special. As they perused the menu, they decided they wanted to try everything. We reasoned them down to a six-course menu. Our daughter and youngest had a culinary epiphany as they tried the lobster bisque. Both remarked they’d never eaten anything with as much depth and richness as that soup. From there, we watched as they marveled at all the perfect execution, from perfectly seared scallops to fish with crispy skin and moist flesh, and ruby red buffalo tenderloin. As the savory courses ended, they extended the meal further by insisting we include a cheese course. Perfect desserts ended the meal on a singing note.
It’s said that hunger is the best condiment. Based on that night, I will suggest one that is even better: The best condiment is watching your children fall in love with artfully-prepared food.
5. Rhubarb, Asheville North Carolina
A couple of years ago in 2018, we made our way along the Blue Ridge exploring Western North Carolina. For our night in Asheville, we decided to check out the local-focused cuisine of John Fleer at his restaurant, Rhubarb. Fleer had been a finalist for the James Beard award, “Best Chef in the Southeast.” With its dog-friendly outdoor seating, and with our Chocolate Lab in tow, it was a great match.
The restaurant, located on the main street of Ashville, occupied what appeared to have once been a shop. The old, black and white tiled floors at one of the entrances, looked as if it had been placed there in the mid 20th century. The wood tables brought a warmth into the rather stark interior. Rhubarb is a farm-to-table style restaurant, using locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant also makes their own sodas, which delighted our kids. They offer seasonal fruits and vegetables and the menu is always changing based on availability of ingredients. We sat together on a perfect summer evening in the mountains, eating phenomenal food. And since Asheville is one of the epicenters of American craft brewing, we tasted one phenomenal local beer after another.
While we sat outside enjoying our meal, a woman and man stopped in front of the restaurant and started playing traditional Appalachian style tunes. The woman used only spoons to create sound, while her partner played the banjo. They busked throughout our meal. Our meal time entertainment was provided by the famous Spoon Lady.
So What Makes Great Meal?
The greatest meals are more than simply the food. A great meal is created when a magic set of ingredients are combined: the company of those you love, a moment in time primed by happiness, food made with love, warm hospitality, and the ability to stay in that blissful moment. We shared each of these meals together, luxuriating in them together, and grateful for the experience. My husband and I have taught the kids the old Italian proverb, “A tavola non si invecchia.” In English, this means, “One does not age at the table.” We never aged a single moment during these meals, and their memory remains timeless. Go break bread with your family and make your own memories with food around the world.
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