In January of 2020 I was gallivanting across West Africa and by March, I found myself confined to walls of my childhood home. Indefinitely.
For those of us who love to travel, we know the intoxicating and euphoric feelings that we associate with exploration. For many, it’s that blast of fresh warm air or the shock of cold crisp air that overcomes us as we leave the airport doors and venture into a new foreign place. For others it may be that first taxi ride through a new city when the road vibrates with new sounds, both unfamiliar and enticing, holding the promise of adventure and new experiences.
As a child, the most invigorating aspect of traveling for me was the exploration of new foods. I was the kid who risked a stomach bug for a street kebab . And at home, I had always been the kid that sat down in the kitchen in a highchair next to my grandma as she cooked, just waiting for a taste of whatever she was making .
Food is the unspoken language of a culture. There’s no need for translation in cuisine because it’s understood by all human beings. Food is the greatest introduction into a culture and it’s histories and most importantly, its stories. Stories like how the most famous Peruvian street food, anticuchos, was a dish originating from the Inca empire and later adopted by enslaved Africans who took offal and turned it into one of Peru’s most recognizable street foods.
So, when a global pandemic hit, and borders closed, I couldn’t help but to struggle with the loss of, what I’d consider, one of the greatest joys of my life. Like many others during the early days of the pandemic, I attempted to adapt to my new and unfamiliar situation with some lifestyle changes. I tried the whole “I’m going to pop out post-quarantine with a new fit body” phase, which lasted for a month. I got into puzzles, and ballet dancing. I even tried running and like everyone else struggled to keep my eyes open during ZOOM meeting after ZOOM meeting. But what I realized during this time was how most of my free time was going to cooking. And the overwhelming joy I felt while cooking was so familiar to the joy I feel when I’m traveling abroad.
That’s when an idea came to me.
Since I could not physically travel the world, why not travel through the foods that I create?
Little did I know, this one idea would blossom into a quarantine full of fried foods, baked goods, lots of spilled milk and some of my most precious memories of 2020.
My first step in my self-motivated food travel challenge was research. I began to look at countries that intrigued me, whether ones I had already traveled to, or those still on my list. I recalled some of the meals that I had grown to love when traveling, and ones that I hadn’t even tried. The only issue, where was I going to find authentic recipes?
I hate to be the snob, but as a Jamaican-American my skin crawls every time I see a non-Jamaican recipe for jerk chicken that contains atrocities such as raisins and pineapple. To get that authentic fresh off the plane feel, I knew that I needed to connect with people, not just Pinterest recipes and YouTube videos. I needed an untapped knowledge base of authentic dishes and recipes, so I turned to my Instagram friends and followers.
I issued this call: Challenge me to make a dish from your culture. It could be any type of dish, of any type of difficulty. Minutes later, my direct messages were flooded with recommendations.
After a couple story posts and a ton of DM’s I curated a list of 15 dishes that I could attempt to make. All ranging in levels of difficulty and representing communities across the globe.
And boy, did I get myself into a challenge. Over the next few weeks, I spent my free time grocery shopping and attempting to create authentic dishes from around the world.
I felt like I was packing my suitcase and visiting a new city every time I cooked something new. From a beautiful Thai curry coconut soup that took me to bustling Bangkok, to Kelewele, where spiced fried plantains made me feel like I was back soaking up Ghanaian sun. I took a weekend to dreamy Paris and indulged on the completely dauntless task of perfecting meringue for the perfect blueberry macarons. Slowly, with each dish, the joy of travel that had been depleted from a global pandemic began to build back.
My greatest triumph, an arepa con huevo which transported me back to Columbia. During the week I spent in colorful Cartagena, I enjoyed these treats daily with a café con leche. Salty fried corn cake with a surprise in the middle, a perfectly cooked runny egg. I knew this was one of the dishes I had to recreate. When all was done, and I lifted the fried bread from my fryer and sliced open to reveal the most beautiful runny egg, I was, for a few precious minutes, basking in the allure of tropical Cartagena. All that was missing was an ice-cold coconut.
I relished in the dishes I excelled at like pasteis de natas from Lisbon, Portugal and cheese pupusas from El Salvador. But, what inspired me most were the dishes that I absolutely failed at.
My pandemic cooking enemy #1 became one of West Africa’s most revered dishes; Jollof rice. Jollof is a spiced rice dish cooked in a rich tomato and pepper broth and served with all kinds of stews. It was a staple when I was exploring Ghana earlier this year. So, when several of my followers challenged me to recreate their cultural staple, I was certain I was going to come out on top.
Everything was going right. My tomato and onion mixture bubbled gracefully and filled my kitchen with the most aromatic smells. My rice was washed four times, a foolproof way to get perfect and non-sticky grains of rice. And when that timer went off, and the lid was removed, I was presented with the world's worst Jollof rice.
Jollof won that round.
What I loved most about traveling through cooking was that I was discovering new things. No, it wasn’t the type of discovery I was used to. I wasn’t getting into strangers' cars to go to secret beaches. I wasn’t chancing upon a baby shower in Senegal or running through miles of beach in Puerto Rico- but I was slowly but surely feeding my curiosity, daring to challenge myself and adapting. I was traveling the world, mentally. Gallivanting across cultures through food. Experiencing ingredients and smells and tastes that my travel experiences couldn’t even bring me.
When the world closed, I feared I wouldn’t be happy in a world where I couldn’t roam? But through this experience, I realized how much I misunderstood about what it is about travel that makes me ecstatic; and how much of that happiness and glee I felt was not in the locations I visited, but in the travel experience itself. Perhaps what I enjoyed the most about traveling was the knowledge and love I acquired at every meet. I discovered those warm and fuzzy feelings I had when I was traveling could be emulated simply by doing things that I love; cooking for friends and family, crying in laughter over dishes burned, and turning my kitchen into a floury wonderland.
So, during a pandemic, or any point in life you find yourself longing to be able to explore the world, let me give you some advice. Start researching the places you’ve visited or want to visit, find a good recipe or two, and start cooking. Journey around the world, from the convenience of your kitchen. Laugh, cry and fail miserably even. You may just find you discover not only a new place, but something new about yourself.
Your curiosity will thank me later.
Want to bring a piece of the world into your own kitchen? Check out some of my favourite recipes below