The World Is a Table

Our favorite stories about food

By / January 2017

Writers, like everyone else, have to eat. For travel writers, meals are more than pitstops along the journey. From a bowl of fisherman’s soup in Budapest to a wedding feast in Dire Dawa to chicken cooked over a dunghill fire in Varanasi, meals have a way of transcending the table, of becoming dish by dish and encounter by encounter a portal into history, religion, art, commerce, labor, conflict, human ingenuity, and love. Over the years, EthnoTraveler writers have published essays on food from China, Turkey, Peru, Tunisia, France, Israel, Djibouti, and even North Korea. Here is a selection of some of our favorites. — DB


Photograph by Ruth Ingram
Once placed in a tower in the middle of a table, broken and distributed, Nan has the power to command the conscience of a room. It is a sin to tell a lie in such a setting. Pacts are made and vows sealed over Nan. It must never be criticised, thrown, turned upside down or stepped on. If dropped, it must be picked up immediately, kissed and placed on a shelf out of harm’s way.
— Ruth Ingram, from In Xinjiang, a Battle Over Bread


Photograph by Andrea Calabretta
The spice seller recommended adding equal parts tea and sugar to boiling water and steeping it at a simmer for ten minutes. I had already learned that Tunisians drink their mint tea very strong and full of tannin and also very sweet, sometimes sipping it through a sugar cube they hold in their teeth.
— Andrea Calabretta, from The Spice Seller


The seemingly endless stretch of miles we conquered daily, and the ache of tired muscles, offered us the just reward of truffles shaved over fresh, hand-rolled pasta, plates piled high with layers of silky prosciutto, tangy balsamic drizzled over tomatoes and the pure white slabs of mozzarella, warm cherries out of brown paper bags bought on the side of a hushed country road, and, above all, a sense of community with both family and land.
— Samantha Fields Alviani, from Biking the Italian Breadbasket


Photograph by Philip Andrews
At a karaoke restaurant, he asked me a question I never thought I’d hear. “Would you,” Mr. Lee said, “try our famous dog stew?” Seconds later a hot bowl was placed before me. I stared at the morsels of dark meat floating in the tawny broth. Mr. Lee watched encouragingly. There were chili peppers in the concoction. I picked up the spoon.
— Philip Andrews, from Laughing Out of Place


Organic means nothing, really. It speaks only of the raw materials, not of what you will eat. What you eat comes after the human transformation. With the organic movement, you take care of the origin and environment, but you often forget the humanity. You cannot forget the humanity, the face of the people transforming the products.
— Martha Miller, from Firsts + Lasts: Eric Kayser


There aren’t many muufo ovens in Djibouti, there may only be Fathia’s, she isn’t sure. Later I find out there are more in the Balbala slum area but they are only operational in the mornings. I have also seen a single-family sized one in the village of Randa in the northern mountains, which means there are a few more than Fathia thought. But she isn’t worried about competition.
— Rachel Pieh Jones, from Where the Bread Is Hot as Hell


Photograph by Ines Manacho
Squid, only moments from the ocean, was where it all started for Chef Gastòn Acurio. He mostly remembers the “squid’s sweetness,” he told me in a recent phone interview. How the squid tasted nothing like the rice and chicken he’d grown to know at home; how it tasted, he said, “of nature.”
— Martha Miller, from Firsts + Lasts: Gaston Acurio


Photograph by Josh Hinton
Husrev remembers a busload of tourists on their way to the Mediterranean who stopped in for authentic Turkish cuisine. Upon learning what kokoreç was made from, one female European tourist refused to eat it. Her husband, seizing the opportunity, conspired with their translator to convince her she was ordering a kebab sandwich instead. She ate two of them before they told her the truth.
— Andy Owens, from In Denizli, A Dish Worth Fighting Over


Lunch normally included a starter of sweet-pickled cucumbers sliced ribbon-thin, with sour cream and paprika garnish. Then I would choose from a variety of savory soups: bean, sausage, cauliflower. Add heaps of hearty bread and a warm bottle of Coke with lemon. I could usually fill my stomach for a couple of bucks.
— Brian McKanna, from Searching for Soup in Budapest


Not thirty minutes from our house by bike is a wild place where camels roam and nomadic Kazakhs squirt mares’ milk into plastic buckets. The thorn-strewn foothills of the mighty Tianshan Mountain range play havoc with our bicycle tyres, but the barren desolation of the Urumqi reservoir cannot be beaten for a day away from the city.
— Ruth Graham, from Watch Another World Go By


Photograph by derekskey on Flickr Creative Commons
I used to stake out the same brown wicker seat every time. Even in winter, when Paris grows wet and cold soot peels against your sneakers, the café’s customers leaned toward the heat lamps that kept the place’s lights on, expensive as it was to be there. The patrons kept at their smoking, their drinking.
— Will Fleeson, from Jealous Whispers in Paris


Photograph by Rob Smythe
The dirt floors were beaten down from years of foot traffic. There were no chairs, no decorations on the walls, no furniture, no tables–-only two small stools, a pit for making a fire, and a dung pile ready ready to cook chicken over.
— Rob Symthe, from Better Than Varanasi


Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.