Re-creating memorable dishes from one’s travels brings the experience homeOne of the pleasures of travel is exploring the local foods. Another is replicating those foods once you get home. You’ll be surprised how well your taste buds will remember the original dish when you get it right.
If you’re eating street food, it’s usually easy to see the ingredients as you watch the food be prepared in front of you. Pay close attention because this really isn’t the time to engage in an extended conversation about what they’re cooking because the hungry people behind you won’t appreciate your making their wait even longer. (A long line, though, is a good sign, meaning people are willing to wait for the food.)
A restaurant menu gives an indication of ingredients and cooking method, too. Ask the waiter what herbs or spices were used or how the dish was prepared, if the menu isn’t clear. Carry a note pad and pen to write these down. Of course, you’ll probably take a photo of the dish, which will help when you get back home. (Do this discreetly. Taking photos of your food seems to be primarily a very American thing to do.)
Before the Internet, I would try to think of a dish similar in ingredients and cooking method to the one I was enjoying, then go to cookbooks of that cuisine.
Reproducing a favorite meal is much easier now. Google the dish and you can find more recipes than you’ll want to sift through.
Some of my family’s favorite foods have entered our home by way of travel. Shepherd’s pie that was first eaten at the home of friends in the north of England. Scones and sticky toffee pudding. A roll stuffed with grilled hot Italian sausage and peppers from outside a Home Depot in Philadelphia.
On a long meandering walk in Paris, my husband and I found ourselves in the 2nd arrondissement (or district) at the Place de la Bourse. The market Marché Bourse filled the pavement in front of the steps of the Palais Brongniart, home of the French stock exchange. Booths sold jewelry and clothing but what drew us in was the aroma of spices and grilling chicken.
At one end of a very long booth were prepared Moroccan dishes and pastries. At the other was a large grill and a panini press. One at a time, sandwiches were cooked to order. A bag of marinated chicken with thin crescents of onion and strips of red and green bell peppers was dumped on the grill.
As the chicken sizzled, the cook chopped up the larger pieces with a bench knife, turning the mixture so it would cook evenly.
The cooked chicken was spooned into a pocket cut in a large round yellow bun. He placed the sandwich into a panini press, then wrapped the finished sandwich in paper.
We shared that sandwich and made plans to come back for another one.
When you’re traveling to a place with countless numbers of places to eat, it says a lot about the quality of the food when you want to go back again and very soon.
On the second trip, I asked the man at the booth what kind of spices and herbs he used. He said, “Moroccan spices.” I could taste cumin, chilies, and maybe cloves, but the blend was a mystery.
When I got home, a search for “Moroccan spices” and the chance finding of a tin of The Silk Road’s “Moroccan Harissa” spice blend gave me the taste I was looking for.
If you’re trying to replicate a spice mix, start with a grocery store that carries spices and herbs in bulk. They can be very expensive and if you only need a fraction of a teaspoon of something you haven’t tried before (and might not like), bulk is the way to go.
I found Moroccan bread recipes online, too. It’s yellow color comes from using a larger portion of semolina flour than unbleached all-purpose flour. I began with my roll recipe, omitting eggs and using olive oil for the fat.
We’re very happy with our version of the Moroccan grilled chicken sandwiches though I think further research at Marché Bourse is needed, just to be sure.
Still on my list of dishes to master are an herby green sauce from a restaurant in Paris that only serves one particular cut of steak plus sides. Eggplant Parmesan with meat sauce from Auburn, Ala. A coconut pie from New Jersey by way of Seattle. Gumbo from a seafood market/restaurant in Pensacola, Fla.
As you travel, you’ll likely collect your own list of favorites. When you get it right when you’re back home, you’ll be transported back to where you first tasted it. Bon appétit!
Golden Semolina Bread
- 1 package dry yeast
- 2¼ cups semolina flour
- ¾+ cup all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons sugar or honey
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup milk, slightly warmed
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
Put 1/3 cup warm water, a pinch of sugar and yeast in a small bowl. Stir and let sit about 10 minutes, or until it’s foamy.
Put flours, sugar and salt into the bowl of a mixer that has a dough hook. Add milk, olive oil and yeast mixture. Attach the dough hook and mix on low until you can see the strands of stretchy gluten form in the dough, adding up to 1/3 cup more flour as the dough is worked. (You might not need that much flour.) It might start to clear the sides of the bowl but will stick to the bottom. You want this to be a fairly soft dough. (You can mix this by hand with a wooden spoon until it’s too stiff to stir.)
Scrape the dough out onto a floured board and knead it for about a minute. It will be soft and want to stick to the hands of your palms after a few kneads. Add a dusting of flour as needed.
Pour about a tablespoon of oil into the mixing bowl and swirl it around. Plop the dough into the bowl then turn it oiled-side up. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1½ hours, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Sprinkle parchment-lined baking sheet with semolina. Turn the dough under on itself to make a ball. Flatten the ball between your fingers and thumbs to make a 4-inch disc and place on the baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.
While the dough is rising, preheat oven to 400. Bake about 15-20 minutes or until done and beginning to turn golden.
Let cool before slicing open to make 4 generous sandwiches.
- Make 6 to 8 smaller buns for slider sandwiches.
- Make one large bun and cut it into wedges to serve.
- Make dinner rolls.
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ teaspoon ground chilies
- ½ teaspoon ground caraway seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Combine all ingredients and store airtight.
- 8 boneless and skinless chicken thighs (about 1¾ to 2 pounds)
- 2 tablespoons Moroccan Spice mix (recipe above)
- ½ red bell pepper, cut into thin strips (about ½ cup)
- ½ green bell pepper, cut into thin strips (about ½ cup)
- ½ medium yellow onion, cut in half then into thin crescents (about ½ cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Coarsely chop the chicken, cutting each thigh into about 6 pieces. Put in a sealable plastic bag. Sprinkle in the spices and move the chicken around in the bag to evenly distribute the spices. Seal and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
When ready to cook, heat a large skillet on almost high. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Let heat a few seconds. Add marinated chicken plus any juices in the bag, peppers, onions and garlic. Cook, moving meat and vegetables around often with tongs, until the chicken is cooked through.
Taste and add salt, as needed.
- Replace chicken with cubed Yukon Gold potatoes or a mixture of root vegetables,
- Replace chicken with shrimp. Cook the peppers, onions and garlic first until tender, then add shrimp to the pan.
- Add a thinly sliced jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed, if you like things spicy hot. Or sprinkle on some red pepper flakes as the chicken cooks.
- Add a handful of arugula when stuffing the sandwich.