After my stay in Madagascar, I moved on to its neighboring island of Mauritius. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit a grocery store. It’s really interesting to see what is locally-stocked, whether it’s a different region in the US or a foreign country. I always try the local cuisine, but I also like to shop and cook a meal or two. Last year in Bali, I bought a variety of fresh produce, spices, and freshly-made tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) at a local market in Ubud and took it with me to the coast where I cooked up a typical Balinese meal. It worked out well because the beach areas are much more resorty-type areas, so the restaurant options were limited and pricey.
In addition to trying out new foods, shopping and cooking is a nice break from eating out. I tend to travel for extended periods of time and get a bit tired of eating in restaurants and whatever portable food I have stashed in my backpack. Another plus is that it’s easier to satisfy my food preferences. I love to cook, so I get to try things that might not be on a menu (especially in countries catering specifically to Western tourists). Even when Michael and I travel in the US, we often stay at places with at least partial kitchens where we can eat at a meal or two after stopping at the local markets. For some, cooking during a vacation might not seem like a vacation, but in my opinion it’s worth the trade-off.
On my recent trip to Mauritius, the two places I stayed both had fully-stocked kitchens. It was a nice option after eating out for 2 1/2 weeks in Madagascar. I got to try two different varieties of vegan faux-meats (Schnitzel patties and sausages). Since fish is so important to island countries, I also found a wide variety of analog seafood and tried the vegan lobster. I chose this because I noticed from the first to the second time I was in the supermarket that the stock had reasonably dwindled, which I took to mean it tasted pretty good, and it actually did.
I was wishing I had some vegan mayo to make a lobster salad, but alas, that was not something I found. I tried girumon squash that I’d never had before, which was much creamier than firm after baking. I also got to try some veggie dumplings that were quite tasty (and which were a carbohydrate indulgence, but I realized I’d gone two days without a real meal).
Something I’ve found to be both interesting and consistent when shopping for produce in developing countries is the size of the vegetables and particularly the fruit. Much of the produce marketed in the US and Western Europe comes from larger, agribusiness production that has worked to maximize the yield per acre. Developing countries don’t have the same level of access to technology and inputs, so that produce tends to look closer to something that comes out of a garden. I’m always taken aback when I walk into not just a local weekly produce market, but even a supermarket in a place like Madagascar or Mauritius and see shelves and displays of what I’d consider single-serving size fruit like apples and oranges versus what seem to be verging-on-softball size equivalents at home.
Of course one of the best parts of traveling to tropical areas is the fresh fruit. Rather than being picked green to ship, await quarantine clearance, then be transported and stocked in the grocery store, eating tree-ripened papaya, guava, or passion fruit is a very different experience in the tropics .
And I’ve had the opportunity every time I’ve traveled to Africa or Asia to try something unique to these places that, due to lack of international demand/recognition and/or is highly perishable, I wouldn’t have the chance to try otherwise. Most recently, I got to try sweet apple (it’s nothing like an apple, actually), fresh Mauritian olives, and something I didn’t even get an English or French name for, since my hosts only knew the Creole name. It was a cross between a sweet pepper and a tart apple.
I also got to have a typical lunch. After a trip to the local weekly market for produce with a former student, I was kindly received into his home for lunch with his family.
Dhal puri is a yellow-lentil pancake filled with a variety of beans, sauces, chilis, and pickles, and folded sort of like a burrito. Even though each filling has a fairly intense flavor, they come together into a very satisfying combination.
My favorite thing I tried was achard fruit de cythère pickle. It’s not of the fermented sort like sauerkraut or, well, what we call pickles, but rather Indian-style with fruit and/or vegetables mixed in a ground spice paste. I saw it in the produce section of the store and it resembled tapenade. I thought I’d like it, but I wanted to know what it was, so I asked a fellow local shopper who explained it was ‘little mangos’ in a spicy mix that would be used as a condiment, but not mixed into a dish. At my last grocery stop, I found it jarred and bought some to bring home, but I was sadly (but not too surprisingly) disappointed that it didn’t taste as good. Since I’ve never seen fruit de cythere in any store (even the amazing international food emporium of Jungle Jim’s), I’ll have to settle for the jarred variety since I can’t make it myself.
Even though I generally stick to my usual dietary choices when I travel, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to try something new, even if it means more calories or carbohydrates than usual, though there are two compromises I don’t make. I only eat vegan food and I only buy ethically-sourced chocolate (or else I suffer and go without it if I exhausted my emergency travel supply. After one time where I experienced a stretch without it, I got much better on subsequent trips of learning to ration). Even with these self-imposed restrictions, I don’t feel like I’ve missed the opportunity to experience local cuisines and a variety of unique food products.