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Putting My Foodie Souvenirs to Use

There are a handful of constants I employ in all of my travels–everything else, I leave to chance: I always visit museums, ride the local transportation, learn to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in the official language, and I always explore the markets. According to my husband, who has been dragged to countless farmstands, grocery stores, and open-air stalls around the world, no kitchen-related item is too mundane to peak my curiosity. (To that I say, “Have you seen the scrub brushes they use in Seoul?”)

Sussing out ingredients unique to far-flung corners of the world is my kind of treasure hunt, one which makes good use of my Kiva convertible duffle bag. This is why I check the mail every single day in January, desperately awaiting the arrival of the Saveur 100, a compendium on insider food finds from the editors of Saveur magazine–kindred spirits in all travel-related ingredient quests.

I’m a junkie for these discoveries. For example, on the tiny, sybaritic island of Paxos in Greece, I picked up what my husband and I dubbed the “yacht starter,” a gasoline jug from the yacht supply store that we filled with olive oil straight from barrels at the local press. The olive groves on Paxos were planted by 15th-century Venetians, and the golden oil is so delicious, we sipped it from shot glasses at the local tavernas. Plus, back then, you could carry a five-gallon jug of olive oil on your lap during the flight home.

Last February, while my husband was recovering from the middle-of-the-night Super Bowl coverage in Paris, I was at La Grande Epicerie stocking up on a dozen different mustards, sea salts, huckleberry juice extract for newfangled mimosas, and fleur de sel caramels. Similar shopping in Italy has yielded a shelf’s worth of porcini bouillon cubes.

In Tunis, I scoured the souks for harissa, loose mint tea, and kebab spices in the most mesmerizing labyrinth of a medina I have ever seen (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site).

This past fall, I returned from South America with Chilean sea salt crystals the size of pebbles (65 cents a pound at the mercado). In Buenos Aires, I snagged more olive oil, this time in an easy-to-pack, decorative metal tin. Homemade dulce de leche, gigantic dried wild mushrooms from Patagonia, and a bottle of Tannat wine that we sampled from the beguiling Finca Narbona vineyard during a long weekend in Uruguay also made it into my luggage. Tannat is a European varietal that was thought to be lost, but has recently been re-discovered in Uruguay. FYI, they don’t export the good stuff.

A month in Turkey left me with jars of local honeycomb and jewelry boxes packed with real saffron for $2 each, many of which I’ve given as hostess gifts. During a stint in Hawaii, we stocked up on guava jam, red volcanic salt, and passion fruit BBQ sauce from the farmers market in Waimea. A luau party helped clean out the pantry that time, but I still have a freezer-full of obscure Oaxacan dried chilies (did I really need 10 pounds?).

Occasionally I am disappointed to find that a stop at Whole Foods could have saved me the trouble of lugging pantry items back home; however, 99 percent of the time, I stumble upon condiments that simply can’t be found anywhere except the places where they are made. To me, those $5 purchases are worth more than their weight in gold. Food is an ambassador to culture, and bringing home these ingredients is an inexpensive way for me to recall that cultural experience, using sight, smell, taste, and touch.

As you might have deduced by now, my pantry is chockablock with foodie souvenirs. With a kitchen renovation planned for the next few weeks, I’ll be losing one cabinet, so I’m pressed to put these items to good use. Even so, the hunt continues… Which foodie souvenirs have you brought home recently?


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