This next Globavore Interview is with Georgia Freedman, author of the forthcoming book The Chocolate Room and former Managing Editor at Saveur. I learned a lot about food and food writing from reading her responses to my questions. She’s also got great advice about eating in China, Vietnam, and the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @g_freedman and Instagram @GeorgiaFreedman.
1. Who are you and how does food play into your travels? I am a freelance food and travel writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a few years I was the managing editor of the food magazine Saveur, where I got to write and edit stories about foods from all over the world. I still focus on writing stories about food and drinks around the world—tacos in Baja California, dim sum in Hong Kong, and sake in Japan—because when I travel I almost always plan my itinerary around the foods I want to try. These days I write regularly for the Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section and have written for Afar, Roads and Kingdoms, BonAppetit.com, Imbibe, and other food and travel publications. I am also in the midst of a multi-year project of traveling around the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan and trying to collect as many recipes as possible from that amazing and diverse region. I share a lot of my finds on my site, ChinaSouthOfTheClouds.com, and I also hope to turn my finds in to a larger project in the next couple of years.
2. You’re at your favourite eatery with three companions (fictional, living or dead). Where (and when!) are you, and who are you with? These days my favorite place to eat is actually a little bar with a taco truck next to it that’s five minutes from my home, in Albany, California. The bar is a very laid-back neighborhood joint that just happens to have really excellent cocktails, and the tacos and burritos (which you buy at the truck and bring inside to eat) are the best I’ve found in the Bay Area. The chicken tacos are amazing, and even though I usually like to get really classic fillings like carne asada or birria in my tacos, I’ve become completely addicted to these. That said, if I had a magic portal, I would want to take a few people who really love food to Chengdu Shu Jiuxiang Hot Pot (成都蜀九香火鍋), a fantastic hot pot spot in Chengdu. Their hot pot is so full of dried peppers and Sichuan peppercorns that they cover the entire surface of the pot. I would like to take my husband, Josh (who takes the photos for a lot of my stories), my dear friend Karen Shimizu, who is currently the deputy editor of Rodale’s Organic Life, and our friend Beth Kracklauer, who is the food editor for Wall Street Journal‘s Off Duty section, because they’re three of the most enthusiastic eaters I know and we would eat way too much hot pot, drink tons of weak Chinese beer, and end the evening sort of floating through the streets of Chengdu high on Sichuan peppercorns.
Ed.’s note: Can I come too?!
3. What are your favourite foods? I’m somewhat partial to great Asian food—really good sushi, authentic Sichuan or northern-style Chinese food, northern Thai food, anything in Vietnam—but at home we like to make simple, flavorful dishes like really good pastas, salads with homemade lemony dressing and lots of herbs, grilled lamb, etc. I think the best food is inviting and unpretentious and can be really enjoyable without calling too much attention to itself.
4. Is there anything that you’d never eat? What is it and why? This is a really tricky question because there are a lot of foods that I would try really hard to avoid eating, but I can’t say that I would never eat them. I would like to avoid eating anything endangered (certainly whale, blue fin tuna, shark fin, or any exotic animals) or anything that is raised in a particularly harsh manner, like traditional veal. I also try to avoid dog (which shows up in my travels in Asia) and don’t really like most offal unless it’s prepared really well. But if I’m in a situation where it would be unforgivably rude to refuse to try something, I’ll eat just a bite and thank my hosts. A couple years ago I was offered stewed dog and a dried honeycomb full of steamed bee larvae at the home of a Dai family in southern Yunnan. The whole family had stayed home from work to make me a very elaborate meal (they don’t get a lot of foreigners visiting their town), and I couldn’t refuse the food. But they understood that after one bite of each of those dishes I didn’t want any more, and they weren’t offended that I stuck to the other foods on the table. The Chinese are quite understanding if you say that you’re not used to a particular food—they actually have a saying that your stomach “isn’t accustomed to” certain flavors, and people from the south will often say that they’re not accustomed to food from the north and vice versa.
5. What do you crave but can’t get whilst on the road? How do you satisfy the craving I’m pretty devoted to having tea or coffee with milk and sugar in the mornings. I think mornings are often the hardest time for most people to eat foreign foods. Over the years I’ve really come to love foreign breakfasts (a bowl of spicy noodles is an amazing way to start the day!) but I still need a hit of caffeine and milk to feel right after I wake up. When a travel I always pack a ziplock bag of PG Tips tea in my suitcase, and if I’m going to be somewhere where milk might be hard to find I pack a can or two of sweetened condensed milk too—it solves the sugar and milk problem all at once and give the tea a wonderful caramely flavor.
6. What food are you embarrassed to admit you like to eat? I don’t really believe that you should be embarrassed about liking any particular foods. All food can be delicious, and if you don’t indulge too often, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying junk food.
7. What / where do you dream of eating, but haven’t yet had the pleasure? I really love high-end, well-made sushi, and while I’ve had some wonderful sushi in the U.S., I’ve never had the chance to eat really amazing sushi in Japan. Like everyone else who watched the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I now dream of Jiro’s sushi. If I won the lottery, I’d buy a ticket to Tokyo and eat at the best sushi spots all over the city.
8. Strangest meal? I think the strangest things I eat are food that are supposed to be American or Western but are made in Asia. There’s a trend in small Chinese restaurants of offering things like pizza topped by pasta or tuna fish or other Western ingredients that should just never be put onto a pizza. Even cafes run by expats can have really strange versions of dishes like steak au poivre. They’re not always bad, but it’s a very strange experience to see what people in other countries think our foods taste like.
9. Ever had food poisoning while traveling? Any advice to share? Unfortunately I’ve had food poisoning quite a few times while traveling because I always want to try street food. Usually I get sick if I eat something that isn’t hot enough (soups that haven’t really boiled long enough are often a problem) or fruit that I didn’t peel myself (because the seller’s knife had something on it). When I travel I pack Imodium, Tums, and an antibiotic. The last time I was in Yunnan, I had terrible food poisoning, which was particularly problematic because I had my 6-month-old daughter with me. I didn’t want to take the antibiotic while breastfeeding, but the symptoms came back a couple of times over the course of the trip, and eventually I gave in and took the meds because I just couldn’t be sick again (and because we were camped out at an old Catholic church where the only bathroom was a leaf-filled outhouse fifty yard away from our rooms).
10. Have you fallen so much in love with a foreign dish that you learned to make it at home? What’s the story? This is the story of my life. The best thing about writing about food is that I have an excuse to go into everyone’s kitchens to learn to make the food. But some dishes definitely stand out more than others. When I was in Shaxi, a small, beautiful town in Yunnan, I found myself having lunch at a tiny little Muslim restaurant. The food was very simple—just beef stir-fried with pickles and garlic chives, and lotus root stir-fried with pickles—but it was so good that I went back the next day and the next. Fortunately the cook was very happy to let me watch her make the dish, and I was able to write about it on my blog. Now I make the beef dish all the time. (If anyone else wants to try it, here’s the recipe for stir-dried beef with pickled greens and garlic chives.)
11. What’s the first thing you eat after returning home from a long trip? Because I travel in China a lot, I can go weeks without having a good salad. When I get home, the first thing I want to make is a big, garlicky Caesar salad and pasta with lots of vegetables in it. (Though, realistically, that’s usually what I make the second night that I’m home. The first night we’re usually too tired to cook and we get burritos instead.)
12. Favourite foreign ingredient you wish your home supermarket carried? Because I live in the Bay Area (and was in NYC previously) I’m pretty lucky with most ingredients. The one thing that we really can’t get here is proper er kuai, a firm, chewy rice cake that is often served stir-fried or shredded into noodle-like strips and put into soup. We sometimes substitute Korean rice cakes in our er kuai recipes, but it’s just not the same. Fortunately we found a little er kuai-making factory on a recent trip, so maybe we’ll be able to reverse-engineer them from the photos we took.
13. Country / city where you’ve found the best food? Details please so we can check it out too! I am always thrilled whenever I get to eat in Hong Kong.
Sometimes I even plan layovers that are just long enough for me to leave the airport, take the train into the city, have dinner and get back for my next flight. Over the years I’ve also managed to make eating in Hong Kong pay, and I’ve written articles about where to find the best dim sum, where to find the best tea, cocktails, and beer, and round-ups of my favorite places. The one other city that really surprised me with its amazing foods was Hue in Vietnam. Hue was the country’s imperial capital, and the local foods reflect the intricate, nuanced dishes that the imperial cooks perfected at that time. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Hue, but while I was there my husband, Josh, and I took an afternoon to roam the city and eat as many things as possible (and, of course, to document all of it: An eating tour of Hue.
14. Country / city where you’ve found the worst? What made it so awful? Unfortunately I find that when I’m driving around the U.S. I sometimes end up settling for awful, or at least mediocre, food. I think in the U.S. we have a lot of places where the food is really great, but we also have big swaths of the country that have been taken over by chains and fast food restaurants. Of course this isn’t true everywhere, and every county has a gem of a restaurant or diner if you know where to look, but if you’re sticking to highways or you don’t have an extra hour or two to hunt down the right place, you can get stuck with some pretty terrible options.
15. What are your favourite markets for a) eating b) finding unusual things and c) for photography? Markets in Vietnam are really good for all three of these things. Whenever I’m anywhere in Vietnam I try to pop into the local markets to buy fruit, have some noodles, and take pictures of ingredients I don’t find in other parts of the world. I particularly like getting the tapioca-filled drink che in Ben Thanh market in Saigon, cao lao noodles in the central market in Hoi An, and mep bo hue (grilled beef wrapped in sheets of rice noodle) at Ben Ngu market in Hue.
16. If money were no object, where (and what) would you eat? If I had already eaten my way through Tokyo (see my previous answer about dream eating adventures), I would love to take a few weeks (or months!) to eat my way through Italy. I don’t ever get to work in Italy because Italian food has already been written about over and over for every possible publication, and also because there are plenty of other food writers who have more expertise in the area. But when I was 12, my family spent a month living in a house in Tuscany, and the foods I ate there changed my appreciation of what the world could taste like. If I could go back and find those foods again—and all of the foods like them around the country—that would be amazing.
17. Do you have any food regrets? I regret a small bag of jackfruit that I ate in Yunnan in 2013. (See my thoughts on food poisoning, above.)
18. If you could invent any ice cream flavour, what would it be? (yes, I am looking for ideas to add to my ice cream repertoire!) I actually make ice cream a lot, but because I live in the capital of strange ice cream, where I can get flavors like basil (from Bi-Rite), “Secret Breakfast” (corn flakes and bourbon, from Humphry Slocombe), and black walnut (Mitchell’s), I haven’t had to invent many of my own flavors. But I would love to see more ice cream flavors inspired by cocktails. A Manhattan ice cream might be incredible. Or a Mint Julep ice cream. Or something as simple as an ice cream inspired by the Ramos Gin Fizz with juniper (to replicate the gin), lemon, and orange blossom water. I might have to try that myself this summer.
Ed.’s note: Damn, my ice cream maker isn’t in the freezer! Can I possible wait 24 hours for it to chill to try one of these?
19. What do you love and hate about food writing (yours and/or in general)? I think that it’s important that food writing tells a story. Unless you’re a brilliant and funny restaurant critic like Pete Wells (of the New York Times), I don’t want to read a list of the dishes you had at a particular restaurant and what they tasted like. Instead, I want to know what those foods tell you about the place, the people behind them, the community the restaurant is in, etc. To me, food is a window into a place or a community, and the best food writing reflects that.
20. You’re having surgery tomorrow and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll lose your ability to taste (oh the horrors!). What would you choose as, essentially, your last meal? I think I would probably go to La Super Rica, a wonderful (and fairly famous) glorified taco stand in my hometown, Santa Barbara. The food is delicious, and it’s something I’ve loved since I was a kid.
Georgia Freedman is an editor and freelance food and travel writer who lives in the Bay Area and travels regularly in China. She is a contributor at Zester Daily and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Afar, Saveur and other publications, and she was previously the Managing Editor at Saveur. Georgia also writes and produces the website ChinaSouthoftheClouds.com where she chronicles her adventures traveling and cooking in Yunnan, and is the co-author of the forthcoming book The Chocolate Room (Rizzoli 2016). Find more of her writing at GeorgiaFreedman.com.