Make yourself a regular
King Daddy and I adopted a travel plan when we first went overseas. Go to one locale and make yourself a regular.
When we went to Austria we stayed in Vienna the entire time. We established ourselves as regulars at a local cafe. We did laundry in a laundromat (that was an adventure) and the check-out lady at the neighborhood grocery recognized me after a couple of visits (important pro tip: a lot of things didn’t have preservatives so buying large quantities turned out to be a poor choice).
Christopher Kimball wrote about the same thing in an issue of his magazine, Milk Street.
“The best experience in a strange land is commonplace: picking up laundry, buying a beer, riding a bus. One is neither tourist nor local; just someone going about the daily exercise of living. That exercise, when practiced in a foreign land, will tell you more about yourself than you ever imagined.”
I’d love to travel nonstop to foreign countries but who can afford that? But it occurred to me that you can have those same experiences in a more modest form by just opening up your mind to a different culture right at home. It happened to me twice last week and I didn’t even realize it at the time.
We’ve traveled throughout India in our heads because we’re regulars at Bawarchi Biryani. We have a native tour guide who works the cash register. We’re kind of stuck on a dish called Chicken 555, deeply spiced fried chicken bits in a creamy, dreamy sauce. But for a second choice we turn to our guide. “Get the tawa fried fish,” she suggested with a gleam in her eye. Done. We didn’t even ask what was in it.
How did I live without tawa fried fish all my life? Literally, all my life. The fish was marinated in spices and then fried. I looked it up on the internet later and the tawa is the type of pan. The dish is a popular street food in India. I left Bawarchi feeling like I’d just walked away from a street vendor in Mumbai.
And we went to China, too. For $14. Not bad, eh? We have made ourselves regulars at Peking Palace for years, not to eat the Chinese-American food, which I’m sure is just fine, but to order off the white board. The white board is on a wall at the very back of the restaurant. On it are written cultural treasures from China, Vietnam and Thailand, dishes that I’d never heard of for the most part.
On this visit, we noticed a new offering: Chinese sausage fried rice. Okay, fried rice not exotic although I looked it up and it did originate in China. But it was the Chinese sausage that caught our imagination.
We’d never eaten it. That dry spell has ended. It’s luscious, slightly sweet and smoky, and very lean. When the waitress brought it to our table she was smiling from ear to ear as if to silently say, “I’m thrilled you want to experience our culture.”
I’m going to be more aware from now on about traveling to distant lands without ever seeing the inside of an airport. Exotic locations are all around us if we just have adventurous taste buds. I’m still working up the courage to try the chicken feet off the authentic Chinese menu at Asian Corner Bistro. But I’ll get there.