Welcome to Fantasy Travel Week, when traveling the world for food and adventure is squarely on our minds.
“I think that everybody who really cares about food absolutely needs to spend some amount of time there,” says Matt Goulding on the phone from his apartment in Barcelona, just hours before a trip to Zanzibar (with a quick stopover in Dubai). But the food and travel journalist, who serves as chief editor and publisher of award-winning online magazine Roads & Kingdoms, isn’t talking about the archipelago off the coast of Tanzania (the upcoming trip there will be his first). It’s Japan he’s blown away by, a country he describes visiting as a “paradigm-shifting experience,” with a culture he covers extensively in an upcoming book.
But when speaking late into the night with Goulding, it's clear he’s been cheating on his beloved Japan with other geographical mistresses. He rhapsodizes the bánh bèo sellers in Saigon and the smoke pits in Durham, North Carolina. There’s a memorable trip to Michelin-star land in northern Spain — to El Bulli and El Celler De Can Roca. And as we find out, when you travel for a living, taking a real vacation can be the most difficult part of the job.
It’s been in the back of my mind for a little while. I wanted to go down there and do some eating. Kick back a little bit, finish working on a book, so that was the plan.
OK, backing up. Have there been any recent trips around the world where you were really impressed with the cuisine, is my first question. Next question: What surprised you?
Probably for me, right now, it’s Japan for both. I’ve been working on a book on Japanese cuisine for the last few years and so that’s what I’ve been living and breathing and eating every day. And that country just blows me away. Like, any time you go to a restaurant there, where there’s just one old man behind the bar doing his thing, there’s almost always this sort of relentless pursuit of perfection. It’s so distinct and so far from what we’re used to here in the Western world.
Do you think these restaurants in Japan, the people who are running them and doing the same thing over and over, does that make them happy?
That’s a really tough question. I think as an outsider you look in on it and you say, well the impetus to this type of hyper-concentration and the relentless behavior may not always come from the best place, and the truth is it may not always yield the happiest people on earth. I don’t know. There’s the dark side to Japanese culture that is somehow related to that type of concentration and that sort of pressure to perform at a certain level.
How are you finding your restaurants when you’re traveling to Japan, or another location? Do you have people on the ground? What is the best way to research?
As a journalist, especially if you’re working on something specific, the first layer is an email blast to people that you know who either have lived over there or have good contacts. That tends to open up a few doors. And then in the best of places, those few doors open up a few more, then it all snowballs. And that is, luckily, what happened in Japan for me, and it happens quite a bit wherever I go. Because if you go online and you try to do research on Japanese restaurants in Fukuoka and Kyushu…
Well, first you have to be able to type in Japanese.
Yeah, you do, or you’re just totally lost or relying on the Michelin guide telling you where to eat, and that’s just never a good idea anywhere, especially in a place like Japan, where, you know, the Michelin guide is not going to tell you which alley to turn down to find that little yakitori stand.
Where else should we be traveling?
I mean, I’m a deep, deep sucker for Southern Asian food, Vietnamese in particular. Southern Vietnamese food in particular. Anything in and around Saigon to me is just some of the very best food on the planet in terms of big, bright, bold flavors. Excellence everywhere you turn. Just the quality of food on every street corner is totally astounding. So, I mean, it’s not exactly shocking to people who have traveled through Asia, but…you just start with a bowl of noodle soup, then you move on to a banh xeo, a kind of crepe, then you move on to something off the grill, and it’s just a sort of relentless culinary moment that you can find on the street like that. You’ll find it in markets for sure, but when you find them on a commercial avenue that’s busy with all these other life occurrences, you understand this happens to be something really, really special. You get that little tingling in your body, like "This is where I need to be right now."
So where do you go in Saigon?
Vo Van Tran, a street in District 3 brimming with the kind of stuff that makes Vietnam such an amazing place to eat: Pho Le, which serves a huge, intensely meaty bowl of pho, a killer bo la lot place a few doors down, then right around the corner there's Bahn Cuon Hai Nam for excellent bahn cuon and bhán bèo. Pretty much a dream for any itinerant eater.
And then we arrive in Zanzibar.
I got Zanzibar on the mind. I wanted to relax a little bit, but also you can’t ever really travel anywhere that doesn’t have food as a major component of the destination. So you have this super-interesting mash-up of Portuguese, Indian, even Chinese influences converging on this island where you have this incredible spice culture, so when you can find a place like that where you’ve got this incredible scenery and this beautiful product coming from the ocean meeting up with this wonderful convergence of culinary traditions, you’re bound to find good stuff there.
How did you prepare for the trip?
I’m trying to keep this from becoming a full-on professional mission, because I really do need to take a couple of days off and disconnect. But as you very well know, it’s a fine line. When you do what you care about, when you do what you love, how do you get away from that?
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