I was thrilled that she was also on my most recent press trip to China, not only because she’s lots of fun and taught me a lot about travel, food and writing, but also because she actually managed to take some photos of me that I’m pleased with!
1. Who are you and how does food play into your travels?
I’m Hilary, a freelance journalist and communications consultant who just moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
For me, food and travel are partners-in-crime, and I write about both on my blog, Hilary Makes. Travel is an excuse for me to try foods and ingredients from other cultures and climates, and food is an excuse for me to explore parts of a city I may not otherwise see.
When I was in Rome a few years ago, my friend and I wandered the west bank of the Tiber River in search of Dar Poeta. A Twitter friend said that was where I would find the world’s best pizza (it was pretty damn good). In hunting for this restaurant we got to discover new sights and streets, ones that may have otherwise gone unexplored (Ed.’s note: My favourite way of exploring! Have a destination in mind, so you know which way to wander, but discover so many amazing things along the way.)
I believe food helps you gain a better sense of a city’s culture, and that understanding is incredibly important to me as a journalist, foodie, and generally curious human being. I wrote about this phenomena in a recent story for TraveLife Magazine where I argue in favour of eating street food when you travel.
2. You’re at your favourite eatery with three companions (fictional, living or dead). Where (and when!) are you, and who are you with?
I would invite Margaret Atwood, Sarah Koenig, and Gregory Warner, NPR’s East Africa correspondent. Margaret Atwood because she’s my favourite Canadian author and I would love to talk about dark dystopian futures with her; Sarah Koenig because don’t we all want to know if she thought Adnan Syed was guilty or innocent on Serial; and Gregory Warner because he is my favourite foreign correspondent and I totally have a crush on him. I want to know what he thinks about Tanzania’s election outcome!
We would have a potluck at my house to allow for more time to talk and because I’m curious to see what they would make. You can tell a lot about someone from the food they bring to a potluck. (Ed.’s note: Hmmmm. I always bring dessert. What does that say about me?)
3. What are your favourite foods?
Hmm, this is a tough one. I love ratatouille and other roasted vegetables, and also enjoy halloumi cheese. This isn’t just one food, but my favourite recipe to make at home is this mushroom and kale risotto. Risotto is so easy to make, but it looks really impressive. I made the aforementioned risotto at least six times last autumn. I definitely have a sweet tooth, and my favourite desserts/snacks include kettle corn and dried mango slices, both of which I’ll refer to later.
4. Is there anything that you’d never eat? What is it and why?
I know this is something a five-year-old would say, but I really hate Brussels sprouts. When I was a kid I realized Brussels sprouts were the one thing my dad wouldn’t eat, which immediately terrified me. I’ve tried them again as an adult but it doesn’t matter how caramelized, seasoned, or braised in butter they are – I can’t warm to the taste. (Ed.’s note: You know, I thought the same thing, but then my friend Pablo (who wrote this insider’s advice on Spain) made me his … and his version is in my top 10 fave veg now! Too bad you don’t live in Ottawa any more to try them ….)
5. What do you crave but can’t get whilst on the road? How do you satisfy the craving?
It depends on where I am, but usually I crave a bowl of fresh greens or a salad. In many places I’ve travelled to you either have to wash your vegetables in bottled water, or they’re just not available. I find myself craving a spinach salad, and it’s always one of my first meals when I return from my travels. In China I can at least partially satisfy my craving with a plate of bok choy! I also crave peanut butter, and have started carrying a jar with me when I travel. It’s perfect for that quick protein and sugar fix when you’re on the road! Spread it on granola bars, sugary bread, or eat it by the spoon!
6. What food are you embarrassed to admit you like to eat?
I love guilty pleasure fast food. I used to visit Costco to get a huge tray of their chicken strips and fries. I would sit in the corner and blissfully stuff my face. I do the same with the potato wedges at the Independent Grocer. They’re so salty, but I crave them every few months. I can also eat a ridiculous amount of kettle corn in a single sitting, which provokes equal amounts embarrassment and pride.
7. What / where do you dream of eating, but haven’t yet had the pleasure?
I would love to eat my way across India. I think I romanticize this a lot, mostly because of that lovely movie The Lunchbox that features Mumbai’s dabbawala lunch delivery system. I want to have my mind-blown by the flavours, spices, and colours. I also really want to experience an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which I will hopefully get to do during my time in East Africa. (Ed.’s note: I have no idea what this is, and hope you’ll write about it!)
8. Strangest meal?
Johanna knows all about this one! One day during a press trip in China we were brought into the entrance of a massive cave where the local tourism authority had set up rows of tables for all the journalists, travel agents, and other press trippers. This was where we were to have our lunch. It was such opulence and luxury in what would normally be a place of natural beauty. We were served so many dishes featuring southern Sichuan province specialties. There was also a high-production-value song and dance performance on a stage on the other side of the cave. It was just bizarre! (Ed.’s note: yes, that one was pretty bizarre! Did we have the pig-face shaped dumplings at that one too?)
9. Ever had food poisoning while traveling? Any advice to share?
Luckily no, though I suspect my days are numbered! I did get pretty sick once from eating too many Oreo cookies when on the road in Nepal. Healthy snack food was hard to find, so my friend and I compensated by snacking on rolls and rolls of cookies. Advice: eat fewer cookies.
10. Have you fallen so much in love with a foreign dish that you learned to make it at home? What’s the story?
Yes! I fell in love with dal bhat when I was in Nepal – perhaps because I was eating it nearly every single day. Dal bhat is the informal national dish of Nepal. It’s composed of a bowl of dal (lentils), bhat (boiled rice), tarkari (vegetable curry), and achar (a spicy sauce). It will sometimes be accompanied by buff or yak meat, depending on where in the country you are and whether there’s a special occasion underway. Since everyone in the country eats dal bhat, I got to experience regional differences in ingredients (different coloured lentils, varied vegetables used for the tarkari, etc.) and in preparation. It was always special to sit down with a group of travellers or locals and eat a plate of dal bhat. I got to take a dal bhat cooking class while in Kathmandu, so picked up the basics there!
I’ve had several dal bhat parties with friends since returning to Canada, which has been a fun way to give them a small glimpse into Nepali culture. Most recently I helped organize a pop-up restaurant fundraiser for Nepal earthquake relief, and myself and a dozen friends sold more than 300 plates of dal bhat with all the fixings to hungry Ottawans.
11. What’s the first thing you eat after returning home from a long trip?
Whole wheat bread!! I find it so difficult to find healthy, un-sugary bread when I travel, and miss it like crazy. Oh, and good quality pastries. Chocolate croissants are my Kryptonite.
12. Favourite foreign ingredient you wish your home supermarket carried?
There’s a spice combination I brought back from Nepal – it’s the seasoning for momos, which are fried or steamed Nepali dumplings. It’s a combination of coriander, cumin, and other perfectly balanced spices that I can’t find in Canada. Alternatively, I wish there was a place in Ottawa that sold momos so I could go every single day.
13. Country / city where you’ve found the best food? Details please so we can check it out too!
I loved the food in New Orleans. One of the best places I went was recommended by a local. It’s called Coop’s Place and it’s on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. We sat at the bar and ate steaming bowls of jambalaya while listening to Great Big Sea on the jukebox. Their red beans and rice with sausage was also incredible.
The last meal I had in New Orleans was mouth-watering fried chicken from Willie Mae’s Scotch House. It’s been a family business since 1957, and is in a neighbourhood that was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There was a line down the sidewalk, but the chicken was worth the wait in the Deep South heat. New Orleans remains one of my favourite cities of all time – both for the food and the music! My boyfriend and I split up during our time there, and I still loved it. So you know it must be a city worth seeing.
14. Country / city where you’ve found the worst? What made it so awful?
This isn’t a statement against Beijing as a whole, but I had the most disappointing experience with Peking duck. My friend and I spent hours looking up recommendations on the Internet and asking our hostel staff for their suggestions. We finally settled on a place, but the dining room closed before we got there. The staff redirected us to their other location down the street, where we were served a disappointingly lukewarm plate of duck, pancakes, and soup. I had so many expectations, and was let down by the lack of flavour and pizzaz. I don’t mind paying a lot for a delicious meal, but this experience left me feeling ripped off. Not only that, but when I was back in Ottawa later that month I tried a “Peking duck-style” taco and it was way better than the actual thing.
15. Do you have favourite markets for a) buying stuff to eat b) finding unusual things (which you may or may not want to actually eat!) and c) just for taking photos?
It’s obviously impossible for me to be a regular there, but I really like Borough Market in London, England. I went there quite a few times when I was visiting friends in London, and we bought baskets full of inexpensive cheese, beautiful vegetables, and raclette sandwiches. It was also a great place to take photos because of the natural light that filters in through the glass ceiling panels. I also LOVED Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter. It was home to some of the best (and most diverse) street food I have ever had the pleasure of sampling. A favourite was the “Chinese burgers” which involved juicy pulled beef on flatbread.
16. If money were no object, where (and what) would you eat?
I would take more time to sample some of the fantastic restaurants Ottawa has to offer. I’m a huge believer in the local food scene, but am restricted due to budgeting. Supply and Demand and The Albion Rooms would be two of my first stops. I would also return to Town, Union Local 613, Navarra, El Camino, and Fauna on a monthly basis. (Ed.’s note: I checked out Union Local 613’s opening party way back when; loved it! But several of your restos I haven’t tried yet… clearly I need to get back to Ottawa some time soon).
I also have a weakness for the 7D brand of dried mango slices. It’s $4 for a small bag, so I can’t eat them as often as I would like (everyday, multiple times a day).
17. Do you have any food regrets?
I didn’t get dim sum when I was in Hong Kong… I know that seems like a big mistake, but I was in the city by myself and it was Chinese New Year, so many of the places that had been recommended to me were closed. I have made it my mission to return to Hong Kong and enjoy a dim sum feast with a group of friends.
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’m cheating on this answer, since my favourite ice cream flavour has already been created. My friend Liz runs this incredible business in Ottawa called Moo Shu Ice Cream. She handcrafts ice cream truffles made with Asian-inspired flavours. One of them is Hong Kong Milk Tea, which she describes as “a secret blend of black and red teas, over-steeped, and blended with evaporated milk for a hint of caramel.” It’s seriously delicious. She also makes a Spicy Caramel Fuyu truffle with a salted caramel base and spice from fermented tofu.
19. What do you love and hate about food writing (yours and/or in general)?
I love food writing that tells a story about the significance of a dish or the location in which it’s eaten. Of course I can’t think of any examples right now – let me get back to you on that! I tried to tell a story through food in my entry for World Nomad’s Passport to Plate food writing competition last year. I submitted a story about my Nana’s Christmas fruitcake, and was honoured to have been selected as one of the Top 30 applicants for the scholarship.
I don’t do much food blogging anymore, but something I disliked was that my meal would always be cold by the time I finished taking photos of it! It’s not all glamour, folks ;) Food blogging also meant I was constantly trying new recipes and dishes – something that was great for discovering different foods and techniques, but tiring when you just want to be lazy and cook a routine dish. I wrote restaurant reviews for a few months, but realized it made me feel shitty to be writing about the flavour balance of a fancy meal when there were many people around me who couldn’t even afford a sandwich. That’s obviously not the fault of restaurants or people who dine in them, but it was something I felt self-conscious about.
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?
Well, it would start off healthy ;) I would have some kind of beet and arugula salad with goat cheese and balsamic glaze (yuuuum). Things would get unhealthy from there. This is another one Johanna knows – I would have a bag full of crispy fried chicken from this hole-in-the-wall (literally) place in Pingyao, China. It’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had…even better than Willie Mae’s in New Orleans. I would drink an extra-strong dark and stormy from Union Local 613, and finish the meal off with a sundae from Holland’s Cake and Shake (with marshmallow sauce). (Ed.’s note: that was THE best fried chicken ever! I think it is my regret that we only had one small bag!)
Hilary Duff is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer. She has written and eaten her way across Asia, Europe, and North America, and is setting her appetite on east Africa next. That’s where she just moved to work with a local and international team to set up youth entrepreneurship and employment centres in Tanzania. She is grateful everyday to have the opportunity and privilege to travel and work on neat projects around the world.