By Tina Albo:
I went on a special trip to London, UK, back in the fall of 2015. A friend of mine from New Brunswick and I spent ten glorious days soaking in the sights and enjoying everything London had to offer us. Long story short, we ended up going to dinner at this fabulous East Indian restaurant just off of North Gower Street, and I ended up ordering dinner for the both of us.
When our food arrived and she tasted morsels from each dish, she looked up at me and marveled, “You have a knack of knowing what tastes delicious. What is your secret?”
Her comment caught me off guard momentarily, as nobody had ever said this to me before. How did I know what she would enjoy and what she wouldn’t?
I recovered and simply shrugged. We focused on enjoying our food and returned to our modest room at the Carlton Hotel with full bellies and satisfied taste buds.
I spent the remainder of our trip in constant thought and paid close attention to my suggestions and our choices, as there had to be a method to my madness. We made a few discoveries in regards to where the best food and atmosphere was, but I also lent a hand in expanding her palate as well through a strategic trip to a small Italian deli called Giacobazzi’s near North Hampstead.
I made a few suggestions for her, and we enjoyed our little sandwiches in a nearby park. As we ate, she mentioned that back home she would never have eaten anything like this and took it upon herself to relish every remaining bite of her mortadella and sun-dried tomato sandwich. To this day, she reflects on that one sandwich and how much she enjoyed it.
Being from a small town in a small Canadian maritime province, my friend has had fewer opportunities than I have to enrich her culinary palate. Bathurst is a beautiful little town, but it does not house the many specialty markets that have popped up in Edmonton in the past few decades.
After I returned home, I made it my mission to understand and further develop this knack of mine. In the past few years since, I have experimented in my own kitchen, gathered opinions from my closest friends, and watched a lot of food documentary series on Netflix.
I have never taken food and dining lightly, as both sets of my grandparents instilled in me that food was more than just fuel for the body. Yet, my work proved to be more fruitful than I thought, as I have made many discoveries along the way.
The Greatest Things Take Time
In this day and age, convenience outweighs the simple pleasures. Many of us are pressed for time and require everything to be made quickly and efficiently. Take your morning coffee for example: Traditional drip coffee makers and the latest Nespresso machines definitely do their best to serve that purpose and produce a deliciously convenient beverage. However, it also leaves something to be desired. On those days where I want to sit and enjoy my morning coffee, I want something that will tantalize my senses and make my start to the day more pleasurable. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that my idea of perfect coffee takes time and patience.
Enter the French Press.
It begins with a fresh, coarse grind of beans and ends with the visceral pleasure of slowly pressing down the plunger. The process is elegant in its simplicity—all your senses are slowly tantalized until the moment you take that first glorious sip.
There’s something in the process that adds a LOT of satisfaction to my favorite blends. Maybe it’s the anticipation or the artistry itself, but I find that coffee made with the French press tastes more complex and doesn’t require any dairy or sweetener. It’s my personal slice of heaven; perhaps it can be yours too!
Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better
Maybe I’m just a naturally fussy kind of person—or adventurous—but I’ve found that the best food is served at the little restaurants that aren’t as well-known as the big chain establishments. Chain restaurants aren’t entirely bad, though. They’re great places to meet friends and family. However, if you really want to maximize your dining experience, then you need to expand your horizons and try that little taqueria next door instead of rushing to the nearest Taco Bell.
In my experience, most of the hidden gems I have visited served a higher quality of food than their big-chain counterparts. Most hole-in-the-wall restaurants have smaller menus, which gives staff the time and creativity to put everything they can into every dish. Nothing is mass-produced, and the food is always fresher.
Another thing I’ve noticed and enjoyed is that there are more personal touches added to every dish. You’re not just tasting fresh ingredients and savory spices, you’re experiencing history, family tradition, and passion. In my opinion, these three elements are vital to making food something to enjoy—you get to know your chef through each and every morsel you put into your questing mouth.
The Best Food Is From the Heart
After watching the Netflix series Street Food, I have come to realize that we take fine dining for granted.
In North America, we are spoiled by all the elegant dining establishments that appeal to all the senses. Big chains such as The Olive Garden have popped up everywhere, spoiling us for choice when we want to celebrate a big occasion or simply want a night off from cooking. However, we are robbing ourselves of the true enjoyment of our food.
If there’s one thing I noticed watching this series, it’s that each person they’ve encountered has a unique story to tell, and it’s reflected in their cooking. They aren’t just simply good at what they do, they love sharing their culinary stories with other people. Whether it’s a noodle stand in the middle of a bustling market in Bangkok or a tiny confectionary shop in Yogyakarta, you learn the legend behind the good food.
The culinary magicians they feature are all humble, hard-working individuals who want to share their love of food with us. They don’t care about being featured in immense establishments or achieving fame; they just want to keep creating their art.
This resounded with me in a big way, because it brought back pleasant memories from my childhood. From an early age, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with both sets of my Italian grandparents. Not only did I learn how to prepare the various dishes that came from their native region of Calabria, but I was also taught that breaking bread with family and friends made everything taste better.
Each and every recipe I was taught came with a story or a piece of advice. In fact, the best lessons I learned from my grandparents came from the kitchen, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything else in the world.
All four grandparents have since passed on, but their legacies live on in my own kitchen. When I entertain friends or share a simple meal with my daughter, I am always full of stories and kitchen wisdom.
I don’t consider myself a Michelin star chef by any means, but my guests always seem to enjoy every dish I put in front of them. They may think I’m simply a good cook, but I believe the love and tradition I have put into my food has transcended into the soul of the person I am entertaining.
Your Only Limit Is Your Imagination
It’s no big secret that I like to experiment in my kitchen. There are so many flavor combinations out there just waiting to be discovered—the weirder the better!
In order to satisfy such culinary curiosity, I have amassed an interesting collection of herbs and spices. In fact, I am constantly interested in adding to my spice racks. Whether it’s a quick stop to Bulk Barn or a long perusal on Epicure’s website, I always find something that sparks my curiosity.
To enjoy flavor, you need to understand every facet. Some spices are sweet and well-balanced, while others are spicy and full of life. It is up to you to learn how to utilize this veritable secret weapon.
Also, don’t be afraid to try different kinds of cooking sauces and curry pastes. They may seem daunting, but they can help you expand your palate. Once you get used to using them in your dishes, you can experiment and make your own sauces to enjoy. I highly recommend reading your labels and doing your research, as it’s easier than you think to make your own blends.
Trial and error is how you will make your discoveries, so don’t worry if a combination doesn’t work out . . . just keep going. You’ll eventually find a combination that will make your taste buds thank you time and time again.
Whether you’re going to an exclusive restaurant or eating al fresco in your backyard, always remember that your next culinary adventure is just around the corner. Don’t shy away from testing your limits and expanding your horizons.
If there’s one thing for certain, a new discovery is always within reach. Pay attention to your surroundings, make note of any flavors that spark your fancy, and enjoy yourself!