Skip the ridiculous t-shirts and colorful shot glasses. The best souvenir you can acquire abroad isn’t an item, it’s a cooking class. After traveling for two decades, I’m a bit disappointed that I’m just discovering this, but thankful the next two decades of travel will have a more refined focus.
I have a recent trip to Antigua, Guatemala to credit for the epiphany. I love cooking at home, but have never been guided through a recipe from start to finish by a chef. And make no mistake about it … Elsa is a chef. An expert in all things, “Pepián,” the Guatemalan matriarch has been making the dish for 33 years. Her first attempt came at 12, the same age I remember struggling through grilling my own Kraft cheese sandwiches. The contrast of complexity between the dishes is laughable.
But there I was enthusiastically standing in her kitchen along with a translator. From prep to fire, we partook in all aspects of creating the ancient Mayan dish of Pepián (de Pollo). Fresh julienne cuts of onions, carrots and haricot verts were dumped into rice boiled in water leftover from our protein. We roasted chilaca and guaque chiles, cilantro, garlic, hulled pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and tomatillos over a wood fire. And we sliced and boiled chayotes (squash), potatoes and larger chunks of carrots in a separate pan of chicken broth. And then birthed by the gift of masa, we created fresh, homemade tortillas.
The completed dish was amazing. But what I found even more rewarding was the experience. So many tours horde us all down the same crowded paths, seeing only a carefully curated and “safe” portion of a country’s culture. This was a chance to enter the home of a family, to learn about their dynamics, their experiences, culinary history all while getting an intimate glimpse of life behind the curtains.
Food and travel are synonymous. In fact, the main reason many of us travel is because of food. But we also travel, at least I hope, for more meaningful experiences. For opportunities to connect, to share laughs, or anecdotes, and in doing so, refining our understanding of not only others, but ourselves. And so perhaps the best souvenir you can acquire abroad is this kind of experience. And when you return home, a chance to share a piece of a country’s culture with your friends and family with a wonderful meal and tale of your own.