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9 Ways Slow Food and Slow Travel Enhance Experiences Abroad

Slow Food: Cutting up Jackfruit
I pick a 30+ pound jackfruit, scaling about 20 feet up a tree on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. The tree held tons, each just as big, with the fruit secreting an impossibly sticky substance upon being cut. Great fun.

Slow. It’s a word that can, by its sheer utterance, cause one to breathe, to stop for a moment and soak in everything about you: the white noise becomes crisper, the cool breeze across skin more soothing, the stars appear more in focus. It’s no wonder that so many of us, especially those accustomed to fast-paced lives of drive-thru smoothies and weekend getaways, feel a longing to slow down. The desire to experience all things slowly is part of the very important and growing "Slow Movement" worldwide.

Vacation (wherever that may be, however long it may last) seems the perfect time and place to imbibe the slowness. Whether at a café along the streets of Paris, with pedestrians scuffling by and Citroëns zipping past, or in the serenity of a tropical island, waves lapping up the shoreline, going slow brings so much more to light (to life even). Travel, in my experience, is not the time for rushing, stressfully packing in all the sights described in guidebooks full of must-see lists. It’s a time for slowing down.

Similarly, food is an entirely different experience when savored slowly, when meals are labored over and loved. Enjoying a meal is more than mere sustenance, not just about flavors or to be consumed as fuel, but involving atmosphere, communion, connection, tradition and ritual, with notes of subtlety that enrich the very fiber (quite literally) of our being. Food is life. We can’t do without it. Life can be experienced as a package of chips scoffed on a subway ride, with greasy fingertips the only evidence of the experience. Or, the ritual of eating traditional food prepared with love can be a whole lot slower and more memorable.

Coincidentally, if ever there were a time to stop and savor, it would be while traveling, and if ever there were deeper means by which to understand a culture, even one a 20-mile drive away, it would be through the food locals eat, the way it is prepared, the ingredients they use and value.

Slow volunteering with extended family in Ecuador
Volunteering with Las Tolas, an NGO based in rural Ecuador, my wife Emma and I stayed with this family, sharing cooking duties. One our favorite shared moments was when the daughter was upset that there was no popcorn to put in her broccoli soup.

Let's delve deeper into why slow food and slow travel make for such fine companions.

1. Traditional Foods

Most everywhere in the world there exist traditional foods, those ceremonious staples that have been passed down through generations. It’s not an uncommon experience as a tourist to sample local specialties when visiting someplace new, but often these dishes merely scratch the surface, kind of like only having a kebab in Istanbul in order to fully enjoy complex Turkish cuisine. No doubt, trying known local specialties is an important part of visiting any new destination. But, doing so hardly does justice to the rich, varied, and rounded culinary traditions that are peppered throughout the country.

Here is where slow travel comes in: It provides time for more than what we recognize from our televisions, other media, or stereotypes we may have ingrained in our minds. There is opportunity to explore, and to discover, for example, that during Ramadan, all of the corner markets suddenly start carrying a special type of bread (it’s the only time the bread is sold), or that the region around Cappadocia is famous for a flatbread dish called gözleme. Location and timing often change everything. Visiting different streets or blocks in a borough in New York might mean a completely different dining experience. Foods served on holidays are almost always specific and special.

  • Tip: Before heading to a destination, investigate any local holidays that might be happening, or which region is famous for its good food. Such events or locations connected with (traditional) good food are great reasons to adjust your travel itinerary.

2. Seasonal Produce

The time of year also makes a great difference regarding the kinds of foods available, and for every region, climate, and season, there seems to be a different fruit or vegetable or produce to enjoy. Just as apples or strawberries have familiar peak seasons, so do the crops of other countries. Panama may be a place we associate with tropical fruits, but unless it’s early rainy season—May to July—nary a mango will likely be found. In season, however, they are literally falling from trees along the side of road.

The slower the travel, the more seasonal changes will color a place like a painting. There isn’t just mango season in Panama. There is such a vast and varied array of fruiting trees, each with its own identity, value, and associated recipes within the culture. Nance was another great Panamanian experience. For a month every year, the tiny fruit is used to make a special drink (chicha de nance), and a peculiar soup. In season, market stalls are fully stocked with bottles of nance.

  • Tip: Keep an eye out for small vendors on street corners, or for what seems to be of unusual abundance in the markets. Odds are that this means that the fruit or vegetable is in season and at its best.

Slow food at a farmer’s market in Panama
Panama is a tale of two climates. Areas like Boquete, in the north, grow more cool weather items such as lettuces, cabbages, and the like, while the areas in the south around Panama City are incredibly hot and abundant with tropical fruit.

3. Farmer’s Markets

While on the subject, unlike much of suburbia in the U.S. (granted, this is changing in a big way recently with the local food/farm to table movements), most other countries have a vibrant small farmer’s market scene, with not just the fruit and vegetables of the day, but also a plethora of local specialties. Russia is well known for caviar, rye, and beets (as in borscht), but a market in Moscow wouldn’t be found without pickles stalls, providing assorted choices of fermented krauts, peppers, beans, and tomatoes.

Meandering through farmer’s markets, not souvenir warehouses and storefronts for tourists, is more pleasurable for those who enjoy slow travel. By so doing, you will be happy to become lost amongst locals in order to find a nibble, or even to receive invitations into hospitable local households as a result of conversations that may ensue. Pickle stalls wouldn’t be around in Russia if their foods weren’t eaten regularly. Much the same, many Russia farmer’s markets feature large trucks selling fresh milk, small breweries selling a local favorite rye drink called kvass, as well as big plastic bottles of beer.

  • Tip: Slow travel allows time for repeat buying from the same market stall. Without fail, after three or four times of seeing the same foreign customers, local vendors will recognize and provide special attention, free samples, and suggestions for things to try.

4. Street Stalls and Dining "Dives"

Street stalls are hardly what people think of when it comes to slow food, but like stands at a market, food stalls are typically owned by small business people with intense pride in their product. Some stalls open in the wee hours to start preparing incomparably delectable dishes. In Nablus, in the Palestinian West Bank, falafel stands lurk around many a corner, but it takes a lot of sampling, perhaps a new local friend, to find the best vendors.

Slow travel means there is time to explore the different stalls (and make local friends) as well as small "dives" that inevitably define the real food—the stuff people eat daily—in a locale. That means finding the incredible bakery buried in the souk, the hole-in-the-wall kunafeh (Nablus’s famous dessert) place just out of the city center. Or, perhaps, a new friend revealing (since you’ll likely never find it yourself) where to taste the fresh flatbread from the family joint that’s been baked using the same wood-burning oven for more than a century.

  • Tip: Always check out the food stalls, especially in neighborhoods that aren’t entirely geared towards tourism. Look for a stall with the longest line, since it takes time and food worth a return visit in order to grow a regular following.

5. Foods to Remember 

At every destination there lies the potential for a love affair with its foods, and over time the desire inevitably becomes overwhelming. In my case, just the mere mention of tofu or mushrooms may provide a rush of memories from Korea. The intimate connection with the food is only truly fostered by a relationship with local cuisine, having it for lunch again and again, being unable to resist it on restaurant menus, knowing the subtleties and tasting the difference, for example, between a good soft tofu and one that is not.

While great love affairs can be passionate and happen quickly, foods to remember are not mere crushes, but come only when significant time is spent together. Tofu and mushrooms, rice cakes, and pickled radishes are not exclusively Korean dishes. But if you live on these foods in Korea for several months, the association and the ambiance of the country become inextricably tied.

  • Tip: Don’t be afraid to have favorites. When drinks or dishes hit the right spot, it’s fine to get to know them. Slow travel means there will be plenty of time to try everything, including favorites, time and time again.

6. Festivals for All

Festivals may be completely about food, centered on a harvest or tradition, or food may simply be one aspect of a festival's rituals. Whichever is the case, when crowds of people get together, they are generally going to become hungry. Festivals are fantastic for discovering interesting customs. For example, in rural Andalusia, where grape vines seem to adorn every arbor, nearly everyone makes their own rudimentary wine called musto. And it’s not uncommon for each village to have their own musto festival.

Having time to explore small towns, to become acquainted with homemade versus vineyard bottled wine, is something difficult to experience on a typical tour. And, undoubtedly, at that musto festival, there will be favorite regional treats, such as migas, a beloved work of culinary art, with hours of labor involved in making it the right way. Without some intimate tie to the places you are visiting it’s easy to be unaware of these unique aspects of local life.

  • Festivals aren’t all necessarily small, either. Always be sure to check out thoroughly what’s happening at destinations while planning your trip so that you are well-prepared. In addition to good food, you may enjoy sinking your teeth into some interesting related culture and history.

7. From the Earth

One great option for slow travel is volunteering on farms, working the land in exchange for free room and board. The arrangement delivers more than just a sampling of local cuisine, and participants are connected to a particular piece of land and what it produces. Suddenly, the mountains outside of Bogota come alive with beautiful calendula, fresh salad greens, massive heads of cabbage, mint that covers the ground like grass, exotic fruits, and more. Imagine the honor of harvesting lunch daily.

The opportunity to volunteer at a farm is something to celebrate rather than see as a form of work while on vacation. Is there a better way to learn the heart and soul of a place on earth than to put the soil into your fingers, to become familiar with its plants and fruits and animals? In addition, working on a farm can provide some serious and lasting cross-cultural exchanges that will no doubt remain with the visitor, possibly even changing the way they live at home.

  • Search HelpX, WorkAway, and WWOOF for opportunities that are of real interest: perhaps harvesting olives, building a cob house, staying on a vineyard, or learning more about permaculture. (For more information, see the section on such farm volunteering abroad, which includes several of my own articles.)
Find Salad Greens in Colombia
One of the many sunken, permaculture beds on a beautiful farm in Colombia. I was there for about two months, picking from this and the other beds daily. It was a magical place with a steady stream of friends and family visiting the owner, Felipe.

8. Home-Cooking Away from Home

It’s all well and good to sample traditional foods and typical local fare, but no version resonates as much as having a meal cooked by someone from the location, preparing dishes as they would at home. Guatemala’s famous local stew, pepian, suddenly becomes so much more when the indigenous Mayan woman cooking it is a friend, and she can reveal how many ingredients and specific steps go into making the dish correctly, as her mother taught her. Sure, it can be ordered in a restaurant, but that’s not quite the same.

Such an experience often seems unreachable to many travelers, but that’s the beauty of really slow, long trips. When living somewhere, getting out into the community on a daily basis, it’s hard to predict just who will become a friend. There are chances to work with NGOs and develop real relationships with people who might never interact with tourists in any other situation. It makes for something indescribably different than a postcard or souvenir.

  • When planning a trip, search for NGO projects that are looking for volunteers in the country (or countries) on your itinerary. Helping a community or area in need is not a bad way to spend a holiday.

9. Souvenir Cooking Skills

Finally, there is the gift that keeps on giving, and that is knowledge about how to bring a piece of the local culture back home. Quality souvenirs are fantastic reminders of adventures, but they hardly compare to the know-how you can gain from locals. Learning how to make your own tamales for a Costa Rica Christmas celebration means that not only is your Central American trip enriched with a great experience, but also that you can recreate the dish wherever you happen to be.  

Long exposure to a place allows travelers, for example, to spend Christmas with a local family, to not only learn about the food they eat, but how it’s prepared. For younger travelers especially, but anyone actually, looking into homestays is a fine way to seek out this sort of exposure. Such memorable experiences with local families are also possible through volunteering with NGOs or on farms.

  • Cooking classes are also very popular in tourist destinations, and while perhaps less authentic than having someone’s grandmother teach you to make tamales, they are a simple, slow activity to get the lowdown on local food and life.
Jasbir’s Indian food
Staying with a grandmother on a farm in Spain, my wife and I were treated to many an Indian delight, including lesson on how to make dhal and chapattis. This was the meal she made for us on our last night, with “things you won’t find in a restaurant.”

Wow! What a moment! It’s seems the perfect time to book a ticket anywhere, a fine time to revisit a favorite type of cuisine and get a little closer to it, maybe learn a recipe or try a different dish. Slow food, slow travel—is there any better way to live?

Editor's note: As mentioned by Jonathon, the connection between slow food and slow travel is part of the slow movement, whose impetus was originally strongly influenced by Carlo Petrini and the famous 1989 SLow Food Manifesto, and who Transitions Abroad interviewed in Slow Food in Italy.

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Jonathon Engels Jonathon Engels, Living Abroad Contributing Editor for Transitions Abroad, has been an expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected a life teaching freshman composition. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way through nearly 40 countries between them. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.
 
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