Sometimes when travelling you eat a meal that is so deeply memorable you think about it for months or even years afterwards.
I can still taste the exact buttery flavour of fresh-fried fish sandwiched in a half loaf of crusty white bread, eaten on the banks of the Bosphorous in Istanbul on a frozen, blustery winter’s day. I can still hear the sizzle of oil as the fish hit the makeshift griddle on the back of an old wooden boat tied to the dock, and see the wind whipping the flames and sparks sidewards. That was twenty years ago now.
What makes such a meal so memorable? How does the experience of food in foreign places enhance the richness of our recollections of travel?
Surprisingly, when you break it down, it’s not just the food that forms a lasting memory, although the food should be superb. The food should reflect the place and the people, and be something you can’t reproduce elsewhere (although goodness knows you will try, and try and try).
It’s not just the place, although it helps to be outdoors where you can see and hear and smell the essence of everything around you that’s foreign and different.
It’s not just the people, although it helps if the guy on the back of the boat touts for business loudly and cheerfully as he cooks, or if your traveling companion turns out to be your future husband.
It’s the wonderful alchemy of all of these together – the atmosphere, the flavour, the company – that stays in your mind.
A year ago I visited Turpan, on the Silk Road, and mid-afternoon happened to walk past a rundown outdoor restaurant just as two men were lowering an entire saffron and yoghurt covered sheep into an outdoor charcoal oven. They threw in two saucepans of water after it for steam and moisture and then tightly sealed the heavy iron lid with cloths and blankets.
That lamb was going to be so tender and taste so good when it was cooked. I asked them what time it would be ready and came back two hours later, family in tow, with big appetites.
It’s not a place that might immediately catch your eye – an outdoor shanty wedged in the furthest corner of the Bazaar against the back wall of the mosque. In the front of the restaurant sit two large tandoors side by side, fuelled by a constantly glowing wood fire, enveloping the whole restaurant in a faint cloud of smoke. There are several raised platforms covered with patterned carpets, in Uyghur style, and several ordinary tables covered with coloured linoleum.
The ‘mother’ of the restaurant, in a long floral dress and headscarf, sits us down and pours tea from a tin pot into chipped cups. She is perhaps my age, with a young daughter nearby and two older sons helping, but she moves with the body of an old woman, slowly and tiredly.
The tea, from such a humble pot, is fragrant with rosepetals and lavender, cinnamon and saffron.
She brings the only meal the restaurant serves – a tin platter of round, soft fresh nan bread, left whole or cut into triangles with a giant pair of scissors, piled high with chunks of tender, juicy lamb.
Just meat, and bread, and tea.
Sitting in the early evening light, the smell of charcoal and roast meat in the air, watching men coming through a doorway from the next door mosque at the end of evening prayers and eating that delicious lamb alongside many of them remains one of my favourite food travel memories.
This week I had the chance to visit again.
Mother was preparing small cuts of lamb this time, marinated first then hung on metal hooks before being dipped in vivid yellow saffron yoghurt then hung in the outdoor oven to cook.
Her daughter was at school, but her sons were there, busy as ever filling orders and skylarking with each other. The meat was succulent with a crisp outer and juicy layer of fat, and the nan bread soaked up any extra flavor. It was smoky, and salty, and sweet.
It’s not often as we roam across this big world that we get the chance to relive our best food memories more than once, but do you know – that bread, lamb and tea was just as good as it had been a year ago. I hope I can still recall the taste in twenty years’ time.
What are your best food memories from your travels? I’d love to know…