The theme for this month's Travel Link-Up, hosted by Polly, Emma, Rebecca, and Kelly, is right up my alley: guilty pleasures. If you follow me on Instagram - heck, if you're a regular reader of this blog - then you'll know that delicious, good food is my weakness.
I don't believe in diets. And when I'm travelling, I skip the granola, muesli and fat-free yoghurt for whatever the locals are eating for breakfast: whether it's buffalo milk curd with treacle or Sri Lankan egg "hoppers", topped with chilli sambol and fish curry.
My favorite travel memories are tightly interlaced with memories of the delicious cuisine I tried along the way: from steaming hot bowls of soup noodles served from an unnamed curb-side stall in Hanoi to satisfying a craving for steak frites at a Parisian bistro in the 2nd arrondissement, food is an integral, important part of my travels.
With that in mind, I'd love to share with you the top ten meals that I've enjoyed abroad:
1. Spaghetti alle vongele, Syracuse, Sicily
I remember being famished by the time we reached Musciara Siracusa Resort in Sicily. After a dusty and bumpy drive from the airport (and sharing a flattened croissant between us that I'd saved from the plane), we arrived to white tablecloths dancing in the breeze and a view of the ocean lapping gently at the sand. And all I wanted - more than anything in the world - right that second, was a big, f*ck-off plate of spaghetti alle vongele. And I got it. Tossed in the magical trifecta of shallots, white wine, and garlic, the sweet clams were showcased in a bed of spaghetti that had been cooked to al dente perfection, served with nothing more than finely chopped basil and the juiciest tomatoes I've ever tried. A meal that was hard to forget.
2. Pistachio and dark chocolate gelato in brioche, Ortigia, Sicily
I'd heard about this rumored (yet popular) snack enjoyed on a hot day in Sicily via Twitter - but didn't believe it to be true. While resting our feet in the Piazza Duomo, I ordered a pistachio and dark chocolate gelato sandwiched between two, slightly warm, fluffy halves of brioche. The taste was a revelation: better than the ice-cream sandwiches I've had in the past, but literally an ice-cream sandwich. I finished about three-quarters of it before I started to feel sick, and John had to take over. Gladly.
3. Jamon Iberico, Madrid, Spain
We'd almost missed our flight: traffic to Heathrow was crawling when we left work on a Friday evening, hoping to catch a 7 p.m. flight to Madrid. I remember running to the gate, breathless and certain that we wouldn't make it. But a few hours later, we pulled up to the curb of the gorgeous former 20th-century palatial home-turned-luxury AC Palacio Del Retiro hotel, and I was smitten by Madrid already. Too tired to venture to any other restaurant, we decided to order a sumptuous platter of the priciest jamon Iberico (since we were on holiday, even though it was technically just a long weekend) and a carafe of red wine ... which we enjoyed until well past midnight. As we climbed the grand stairs to our room, I dreamed of those slivers of ham: salty and aged, the fat melting into my mouth and meeting the glass of Rioja I'd ordered in a sublime union.
4. Steak frites, Bistrot Vivienne, Paris
The other time I left work a few hours early and met John during the end of his business trip in Paris, I developed a definite, assured craving as the Eurostar hurtled through the channel tunnel. I was sure of it: I wanted steak frites. I wanted it as soon as I stepped off the train and I wanted it washed down with a glass carafe - not a bottle, a carafe - of red wine. Not fancy wine, just house red. This is what I wanted. I was certain. So we made our way to Bistrot Vivienne in cold December, which was full of twinkling lights and just a stone's throw from the Tuileries, where I had the most delicious steak frites I'd ever enjoyed. For my birthday, my dad had tucked two £50 notes into the card he drew me (he draws me a card every year!), which I'd hastily changed into Euros before we left and which I used to pay for our meal. "JAIME," my dad wrote, in his trademark architect's scrawl. "GO BUY YOURSELF A NICE DINNER. DAD. P.S. YOU CAN INVITE JOHN TOO, IF YOU'D LIKE. :)" I sent the photo above to my dad and wrote, "Dad. Thanks for the best steak frites I've ever had in my life. Love, Jaime". One day, I'm taking my Francophile father back to Bistrot Vivienne for those same steak frites he bought me from afar.
5. Seafood, De Noordzee, Brussels
Stamping our feet to keep warm, and eating with one glove on, the other glove off, Udita and I giggled our way through a delicious hot seafood soup and platefuls of scampi and calamari at De Noordzee during our whistlestop visit to Brussels. Recommended to me by both bloggers Jess-on-Thames and S Marks the Spot, I desperately wanted to try the seafood at Noordzee, despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions and the fact that we'd have to eat it standing up, outside. I stole sips from Udita's wine glass and nothing in the world felt better to me at that moment than travelling with my best friend. I remember feeling so excited while we ate this meal outside ... we laughed because we'd given my name to the cashier to call when the food would be ready, and he shouted, "JIMI!!!!!!" across the square. Jimi, like Hendrix. Fish, from the sea.
6. White Rose Dumplings, Noodles, Miss Ly's, Hoi An, Vietnam
John and I travelled to Vietnam for our unofficial honeymoon, after we eloped, and had some of the best food we've ever tried. The markets would open early and we'd walk past the heaping piles of fresh vegetables, abundant with greens, herbs, and every single kind of fruit imaginable. While in the small fishing port of Hoi An, we loved Miss Ly's so much, we returned for lunch the next day, and dinner (we weren't the only ones). Her husband, a lovely, laid-back American, who manages the restaurant and offers terrific suggestions of new dishes to try, introduced us to his popular chef wife, who was all smiles when we told her we worshipped the noodles she made (I think I actually said that to her). I'm still on the hunt for White Rose dumplings in London. If you find some, call me.
7. Bun Rieu Cua: crab noodle soup, unnamed street vendor, Hanoi, Vietnam
We read about this mysterious curbside delight, which only specialized in Vietnamese crab noodle soup, in some publication - I can't remember which. With only an approximate location to guide us, we headed out early one morning in search of the vendor for breakfast, the mosquito bite on my calf throbbing as we navigated the scooters that seemed to zoom past dangerously close to our ankles. At first, we walked past the woman twice, checking the address carefully. Speaking no English (and unfortunately, with no Vietnamese in our vocabulary except for "thank you"), she smiled and gestured to us to take a seat. Office workers and policemen starting their day soon filled the seats. A hot, fragrant broth was ladled into our bowls and a separate bowl of greens placed before us. Bewildered, we watched what others did, before tucking into the tastiest, flavorful soup noodles we'd tried during our visit. It also cost us about 80p.
8. Lobster noodles, Sun Sui Wah, Richmond, Vancouver B.C.
When my grandfather was alive and we'd eat out with him in some of the finest restaurants in Hong Kong, he would order the lobster noodles for me, because he knew it was my favorite (that or my dad put in a good word). Though he's sadly no longer around and though my visit to Hong Kong is long, long overdue, my parents still continue this tradition when I dine with them during our yearly food pilgrimmages to Vancouver B.C. This time, John came along, and I introduced him to one of my favorite Cantonese dishes. The succulent lobster is mixed in with a gravy/sauce that acts as a base for the lo mein noodles as well. It's a luxury, for sure, but one that - for me, at least - transcends the act of fine dining into one more akin to family traditions and childhood memories. A very special dish.
9. String hoppers with dhal, fish curry, and coconut sambol, The River House, Sri Lanka
I didn't expect to enjoy eating the spiciest of curries for breakfast (I have a relatively sensitive stomach), but by the second day of our stay at the beautiful River House in Sri Lanka (where the food is A++), I was eating string hoppers and washing it down with a hot cup of Ceylon tea like nobody's business ... as I sneezed and sweated my way through the spice. Glamorous, I know. Hoppers are a kind of thin-crusted pancake, almost, curving up at the top and made of rice flour and coconut milk. String hoppers are their noodle-like cousin, made from rice meal or wheat flour and pressed into these noodle shapes using a mould and steamed. Technicalities aside, they're delicious when served with dhal and curry - my eyes are watering at the thought of the spice. But in an addictive, good way. Picture eating this outdoors, with sounds of the jungle surrounding you, in humid, 30 degree Celsius heat. Kind of amazing. Extremely memorable.
10. Singapore crab curry, Thalpe, Sri Lanka
On the final night of our stay at the dreamy Apa Villa in Thalpe beach, we decided to splurge (though the three-course meal came to under £15 per person ... I mean, what?!) for the Singapore crab curry, which was served with fragrant lemongrass rice and the most divine sauce we'll probably ever have. (Sidenote: I know I'm over using phrases like "delicious" and "most amazing" and "tastiest" and "sublime" and "best ever", but, really. These meals were all of this and more.) The flavors were very similar to those used in tom yum soup and we had no issues getting our hands messy while picking out the succulent pieces of crab meat, which I'd been taught how to do at an early age (my dad still yells at me when he looks at my plate at home, like, "JESUS, JAIME! YOU MISSED SO MUCH MEAT OVER HERE! GIVE THAT TO ME. WASTEFUL." This time, it was John's turn to chastise me with, "YOU MISSED THE JACKPOT WITH THIS PIECE. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?"). But what made this meal magical was the setting: fireflies blinked a few yards ahead of us, like planes finding their way in the night sky, crickets chirped incessantly, and the sound of waves crashing onto the beach reminded us of just where we were - and how lucky we were.
What are your guilty pleasures when travelling? Are there any standout meals from your travels that you can remember - whether it was the company, the atmosphere, or the food itself? I'd love to know.
Thanks for reading, as always. xo