Around this time of year, as the internet explodes with delicious recipes for holiday meals, I like to reflect on some of the best meals that I’ve been lucky to share with others around the world. In fact, people often ask me, “what was the best meal you’ve ever had while traveling?” Sadly, they are almost always disappointed with my answer because rarely do I ever suggest a specific restaurant or meal for them, but rather” an experience” that would be hard to recreate.
Take for instance, my meal in Faro, Portugal. My wife and I found ourselves in the city almost a decade ago. It lacked what a lot of other Mediterranean cities had. It was clearly trying to clean up what had been a city forgotten by tourists. As we learned when we arrived, the hotel I had booked had yet to be built (a story for another time, but the owners did find us a much better accommodation: a house to ourselves) and a turn down the wrong street could lead you to a less than comfortable part of town with abandoned and crumbling buildings.
The beach, which was beautiful, was a small sandbar that required the use of a ferry to get to. But on our last night, going towards the center of town, we found ourselves following our noses to a delicious scent, like my dog to the kitchen when I’m grilling a juicy steak.
Along with everyone else in Faro, my wife and I trooped towards the bright lights and loud music that wafted from the city’s main plaza. What we found was an elaborate seafood festival. With our trays full of squid, razor clams and mussels, we let our sunburns cool off in the evening Mediterranean breeze while pouring cup after plastic cup of sangria. Around us, locals shared meals with their extended families, while a few other tourists perused stand after stand of seafood options in drooling fascination. All the while a band played music from a stage on the other side of the plaza. The moment was perfect, and so was the meal.
While Portugal in summer is an easy spot for dinner perfection, another great meal that sticks out in my mind was in Iceland in February. My friend and I were driving along the icy Ring Road one February. For a little over a week we drove around the entire country and each night we found a different, and rarely comfortable, accommodation. Most of these were couches we found advertised on Couchsurfing.com, an early predecessor of Ainbnb. One night we slept in a college dorm, another night on a school teacher’s living room floor, and another night, when we couldn’t find anyone to host us, we slept in my tent on the side of the road.
At one point, one of our hosts recommended a nice morning hike that we could take while he cooked us his famous fish soup. That hardly sounded appetizing but I am not one to turn down the hospitality of another, so on empty stomachs, we took our hike. When we returned, we sat down, the three of us, in a quiet room and ate. The soup, as it turned out, was absolutely fantastic. Slightly creamy and slightly salty, with a mélange of fish. It hit the spot.
Our host was a man who loved Icelandic folklore (he was the owner of the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery, a must-see if you are in the area) and he shared elaborate tales with us. As fantastic as the morning fish soup turned out to be, the highlight was the opportunity to sit and talk with someone whose experiences were completely different from ours. We found common ground, laughed at his stories, and felt right at home. It was an experience we couldn’t have bought at a restaurant.
In Naxos, Greece, my wife and I ate at a restaurant where the owner wanted us to eat more food than we had paid for. A restaurant giving away food? A rarity, for sure. My wife doesn’t normally drink and so, thinking it would be crass to order a bottle of wine just for myself (at least in public anyway) I decided to order only a glass. When our waiter came back with an entire bottle, he informed me that the owner felt it’s not possible to enjoy a good meal with only one glass — although one glass was all they charged me for. What I ate at that restaurant might be the best single meal I’ve ever had: freshly caught, grilled squid stuffed with feta, tomatoes and peppers. As we were leaving, I walked over to the owner (who had circulated to every table to welcome and help the patrons) to thank him for a great meal. He looked at us in shock and said, “but you didn’t have dessert!” I told him that we were both too full, but I’m not sure he heard me since by then he was already running to the kitchen. He re-emerged a few seconds later, holding two desserts that he handed to us, for free. He apologized that we had to eat it on the sidewalk, said goodbye, and ran off to the next group of lucky customers. What he understood so well was that good food is more than a business, it is an opportunity to reach out to others and make them feel at home, to share an art form or a discovery.
There are meals too, that I have relished that had very little to do with food. My father’s infamous Nutella and honey sandwiches with a cup of fruit comes to mind. This is his hiking staple, usually enjoyed from atop a mountain while we are too tired to talk, almost too tired to look up, the cold thin mountain air turning our sweat to ice. I have also enjoyed several meals sitting in a mud-filled path, our food emerging from a banana leaf wrapping. These meals—that consist mostly of rice—are always prepared hours earlier and are eaten with our hands.
And then there are the meals that I order by pointing at a menu and just hope for the best, unsure of what I’m getting. At one restaurant (whether it really was a restaurant and not just someone’s backyard that I happened to wander into is still unclear) I asked for a menu and the woman brought me food. It was, as I came to understand, the only thing that was being served.
Finally, there are the meals that people watch me eat. Their entertainment comes from my confusion about how to eat it. Some laugh when I use my hands, or when I burn up because it is too super-spicy for me.
I find that the best meals are the ones that make us stop: stop rushing, stop worrying, stop trying to find the best experience because the best meals just happen spontaneously. They connect us not simply to ingredients, but to culture, to people, and to our surroundings. A charming meal eaten outside in Rome is charming because that meal comes with a show, and that show is life, it is the architecture, the language, and the people around you. The best meals take our faces out of our phones, guidebooks, and maps, and our earbuds from our ears. The best meals, in my experience, have not been the ones that have come decorated with stars, they are the ones that come with great authenticity, an authenticity that is both on and off the menu. Asking someone for the best meal they’ve had sets one up for failure. It assumes that someone else’s experience with be the same as one’s own but unique experiences are never duplicated. What I have come to learn is that the best meals are usually enjoyed with an open mind.