Last night, as I was grinding up Szechuan peppercorns and opening jars of doubanjiang to make dinner, it occurred to me that when I travel, I collect foodstuffs—entire cuisines, even—like other people collect, I don’t know, spoons or thimbles or shot glasses.
That’s not to say I don’t buy actual souvenirs or trinkets when I go away. I’ve got t-shirts from Australia and Alaska, posters from Paris, jewelry from pretty much everywhere I’ve ever been, and I carted chopsticks, ceramics, fake sushi phone decorations and several mameshiba toys back from Japan. I like to trawl local markets just as much as the next traveler hoping to capture something of the essence of a place and bring it back home to put on the mantlepiece.
But as a food obsessive, it’s often the gastronomic riches I discover abroad that have the most lasting impact on my life back home. I’m firmly convinced that most places on earth have something interesting to offer in the food department, whether it’s Spätzle or scamorza or scrapple, and I’ve found culinary inspiration in a variety of places—not all of them “exotic” locales.
Having said that, the cuisines I’ve had the least exposure to are frequently the ones holding the greatest revelations for me. The revelation in Japan was miso; I’d long been a fan of miso soup, but it was a wooden bowl of white miso paste served as a dip for crunchy white cabbage that made me realize I had to get some of that stuff for my own kitchen. Thailand was just revelatory all around, because I’d never really had Thai food until I sat down on a plastic stool on a sidewalk at midnight and ate som tam, the salad that immediately shot up my list of Awesomest Foods of All Time—and since that point, fish sauce and bird’s eye chilies have been a permanent fixture in my kitchen cabinet.
Now, two weeks after getting back from Shanghai, I find that little bits of China have crept into my psyche—and into my kitchen. China took me by surprise in a way that it really shouldn’t have: I knew China was a huge and varied country, and it stood to reason that its food would be as varied as the country itself. And yet I was continually taken aback by spare ribs rubbed with cumin, and fava beans with ham, and cucumber salads with fresh chilies, and flat breads crunchy with sugar crystals, and lamb kebabs, and crepes.
One of my favorite dishes turned out to be nothing all that unusual: soft eggplant with minced pork in a rich, spicy sauce, which is apparently very common in Szechuan restaurants around the world. I couldn’t get enough of it, and I knew straight away it was something I would have to try cooking at home. So after trawling the internets for recipes, I paid a visit to Yum Yum Oriental Market and gathered up a basket full of chili-bean paste, chili-garlic paste, fermented black beans and Szechuan peppercorns and made my way home to try my hand at spicy Szechuan eggplant.
It wasn’t an exact recreation, but it was delicious, and it didn’t taste like any Chinese food I’d ever made before—it tasted like China to me. And though I ate my homemade Szechuan eggplant sitting alone in front of the television last night, I was surrounded in spirit by jovial Shanghainese web geeks drinking Tsingtao and feasting on everything from sticky pork belly to chili-smothered fish to that awesome spicy eggplant.
I didn’t actually buy any trinkets in Shanghai, but the eggplant is my souvenir of China. Like the som tam, like the miso, it’s something that wasn’t a part of my life before, but now it is and will continue to be—because every time I sit and eat it at home, a part of me is sitting in Shanghai too.