The Perfect Pour
A deep dive into the world of Macallan Scotch whisky.
Novelist Rachel Khong reflects on the things we bring home — both literally and figuratively — from foreign travels.
WHEN FRIENDS OF mine were planning a trip to Portugal, they requested my recommendations and I dutifully sent them: the cervejaria in Lisbon with legendary seafood (it’s as good as everyone says); in Porto, get cachorrinhos, the best hot dogs you’ll ever have. Oh, and bring a nice cold bottle of Sagres beer to this particular park to watch the sunset; plus, leave room in your suitcase for all the tinned fish you’ll want to bring home! They expressed surprise at how much my list revolved around food. I was, in turn, surprised by their surprise. Isn’t eating the best part of traveling?
Eating while traveling also means being fed: an utter luxury. I cook voluntarily and enthusiastically most days because I love to eat, and because cooking provides a measure of satisfaction, especially when my fiction writing is going less than well. Still, I understand why people hate cooking. It can become a particularly Sisyphean chore. Ruts inevitably happen: those times when every vegetable seems overwhelmingly boring, and even chicken is exhausting. At that point it’s important, if at all possible, to travel.
While traveling, I seek out what I wouldn’t think to cook at home on my own — what I wouldn’t even know to cook on my own. I’m also a different eater, more decadent: I eat more meat than usual; I’ll have a drink with lunch. I eat more food on the street than I have the opportunity to where I live in San Francisco: a perfectly flaky scallion pancake stuffed with egg and sausage in Taipei; a kumpir, which is a massive baked potato overloaded with toppings (please google it if you’ve never had the pleasure), balanced on a knee while sitting on a stoop in Istanbul. Street meat is a given (usually it’s charred over open flames and unbeatably good). I’ll even courageously partake in street shellfish, one particularly excellent example: Turkish midye dolma, mussels steamed and stuffed with herbed rice. At home, I am rarely tempted by a hot dog. They’re not often very memorable, and the statistic strikes me as all too vivid: The processed meat in a single hot dog takes 36 minutes off one’s life. But abroad? Give me a Danish hot dog. Then give me the aforementioned Portuguese griddled hot dog. I didn’t need that hour, anyway.
Travel also shows me flavors and combinations I haven’t been exposed to; vegetables I haven’t seen before. It’s even better when I don’t know exactly what I’m eating or why it’s so good. Part of the thrill is finding out. It introduces me to new culinary accouterments. The smock aprons worn by cooks in Mexico City (better coverage, very smart); the metal soup spoons ubiquitous in Thailand (the lip is the perfect thinness and there’s no risk of breakage); the elegant cruets that hold piripiri on dining tables in Portugal (ideal for dispensing just the right amount); Thai condiment holders with four spots, for vinegar, chili, fish sauce, and sugar. What I especially love are everyday vessels: the sturdy plastic baggies that hawkers in Southeast Asia put iced drinks into and tie with raffia; tulip-shaped tea glasses in Turkey.
Inevitably travel is also about eating what’s available. One of my favorite memories involves a canceled ferry. Stranded on a Greek island with limited sightseeing and dining options, my husband and I played backgammon every afternoon with cold Alfa beers. How enjoyable it was to play the same game, to drink the available beer, to watch the different people passing through.
Near the end of any trip, I begin to feel sick of the food. “No more meat!” I will complain. “Where are the vegetables?” If I’m not in Asia, I’ll miss Asian food. If I’m eating only pasta, I’ll miss rice or long for a potato. I begin to wish I could be at home, in my kitchen, roasting a cauliflower — doing all the things that I fled. Cooking suddenly seems exciting again thanks to the things I bring home, literally and figuratively: From Portugal, many, many tins of fish, and an appreciation for stewed beans and porto tónicos at sunset; from Thailand: dried butterfly pea flowers to make my own blue drinks, and a 12-pack of those delightful metal soup spoons. A trip to Vietnam forever changed my relationship to herbs. I’d been using them with such restraint, but now I use them with abandon. I’m seeking out pomelos to make the amazing salad — sweet and sour and funky and fishy — from Maadae Slow Fish Kitchen in Chiang Mai. I never thought much of packaged enoki mushrooms, but a home-cooked meal at a farm stay in Chiang Dao changed my mind. I cook the mushrooms the way I had them there: blanched, then steeped in a tingly Sichuan chili sauce.
Of course, there are the meals I can’t recreate, such as the scarlet shrimp at Cervejaria Ramiro, which were enormous, bigger than my hand, juicy and fresher than anything I’d find at my local fish store. I could cook imported shrimp, but it wouldn’t be the same. At my grocery store, I won’t find shallots as pungent as the ones I had in Thailand or the tiny green eggplants (boba-sized) that appeared in curries. I won’t be cooking myself doner, because it doesn’t make much sense for me to layer meat onto a vertical spit and rotate it slowly, slicing off bits throughout the day — though in some fantasy future it will. My favorite food in the world is the spicy-sour Malaysian noodle soup called assam laksa. The best place to eat it is on the street in Penang. I’ve never had a version anywhere else that even comes close.
I’m saying all this as though vacation is paradise, and being at home is prison. Of course, that isn’t true.
Recreating meals can’t be about exact replication. It has to be about transmuting a transcendent experience into its components, incorporating the meal into one’s cooking lexicon. It is, in its own way, a digestion. It’s experiential knowledge that becomes a part of the grammar of how you cook — like my changed perspective on herbs. In Istanbul I often washed down that fatty juicy döner with the savory yogurt drink, ayran. The fact that charred meat pairs well with tart yogurt stays with me; for dinner, I’ll make a quick yogurt sauce for the oven-baked kofta that isn’t as transcendent, but is still pretty solid.
I’m saying all this as though vacation is paradise, and being at home is prison. Of course, that isn’t true. Travel is at least half mundanity. Photographs capture the beauty of travel, but the reality also involves waiting in customs lines, ordering the wrong thing because Google Translate suggested you’d receive something different — discombobulation, frustration, bug bites, heat rashes. When I’m traveling, I experience it all: I want to try every food and read every placard at every museum. My vacations involve a lot of trudging. I remember searching for a restaurant called Irene’s on the island of Folegandros, in Greece. We passed livestock as seemingly confused as we were. Were we going the right way? Was this restaurant even open? But finally, we found it. I’m still dreaming of that rabbit matsata. In this way, traveling is sort of like cooking. Feeding oneself is also labor for a few good minutes. All the prep, and then the dishes. But I’m of the firm belief that good things are even better when effort is involved: the most refreshing Aperol spritz after a long, hot hike on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast; pizza, anywhere (but especially in Naples), after you’ve been waiting forever.
After the relief of coming home, the conquering of jet lag, the enthusiastic cooking with new ingredients and a refreshed perspective, the cycle begins again. It could be weeks or months, but it does. It’s then that I ask myself: Can you shop for groceries in a different part of town? Can you exhume the spice that you bought on that trip? Can you enjoy a drink or snack at an unusual time of day? Can you notice the way the sun is setting, not anywhere else, but exactly where you are?
Rachel Khong is a writer living in California. Her debut novel, “Goodbye, Vitamin,” won the 2017 California Book Award for First Fiction, and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist for First Fiction. From 2011 to 2016, Khong was the managing editor and then executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. With Lucky Peach, she also edited a cookbook about eggs, called “All About Eggs.” In 2018, Khong founded The Ruby, a work and event space for women and nonbinary writers and artists in San Francisco’s Mission District; she retired at the end of 2021. Her second novel, “Real Americans,” will be published by Knopf on April 9, 2024.
Cookie Moon (Sara Laimon) is a Tel Aviv—based artist and illustrator. She is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and has worked with fashion photographer Nick Knight of London's SHOWstudio, the Meteor music festival, and Avira Studios. She is cofounder of Unterman, a music label inspired by her rabbinical heritage. Her works have been shown in numerous group exhibitions and festivals including ZAZ 10 Times Square, The Morgan Library and Museum, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Cinequest Film Festival, Berlin Experimental Film Festival, and more.
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