Zara Quiroga is a Portuguese travel and food writer. In 2011, she quit her advertising job in Dubai. Since that time, she’s been exploring the world. She and her husband Ashray founded the travel website Backpack ME, where Zara regularly publishes articles about food and exploring new places through their culinary traditions. She is also the author of the travel food book Lisbon in 100 Bites – The Ultimate Lisbon Food Guide, focusing on the best eats in and around the Portuguese capital.\
1. Who are you and how does food play into your travels?
My name is Zara and I am a Portuguese traveler. Together with my husband Ashray, who’s from India, I run the travel blog Backpack ME. I started writing about travel back in 2011 when we launched our blog. Even though I’ve always been into food, it was while traveling to various parts of the world that my passion for local cuisines really started developing. Now, I like learning more about places while exploring their food culture. Food has indeed become a major part of my travels!
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’d simply be at a random street-side eatery in the island of Penang, Malaysia, sharing some char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles). It’s evening and not too hot, and the scent of food being cooked all around fills the air. I’d be munching while chit-chatting about life, along with Alanis Morissette, Anthony Bourdain and the person who cooked the meal for us. Once we’d be done eating, we’d keep talking over fresh young coconuts. I’m sure this would be a pretty interesting evening for all of us!
3. What are your favourite foods?
Masala dosa from South India for breakfast, Portuguese bacalhau bom natas for lunch and Japanese sushi for dinner. These preferences do vary depending on the day. But if I had one last day on earth and I knew my time was coming, chances are I’d like to go after having enjoyed these foods!
4. Is there anything that you’d never eat? What is it and why?
I can never say never. But balut, fertilized duck egg beloved by many across South East Asia, certainly figures up high in the list of foods I am not at all attracted to! The idea of eating a boiled baby, which would otherwise still be incubating, is not appetizing to me. Particularly considering the duck would already have some feathers and cartilage
developing… (Ed.’s note: I’m with you … you’d have to pay me a lot of money to get me to eat balut!)
5. What do you crave but can’t get whilst on the road? How do you satisfy the craving?
More than a dish per se, I often crave home food while on the road. Independently of the
cuisine, food that is cooked at a business can’t compare to preparations made at home,
with love. At home, things are usually lighter, simpler, yet fulfilling. When you travel a lot, you often grow a little tired of eating out every day. But then you get home and it doesn’t take you much more than a couple of days until you say “hey, let’s go out for a bite, shall we?!” — it’s a vicious circle!
6. What food are you embarrassed to admit you like to eat?
If something gives you pleasure, it shouldn’t be embarrassing! Still, if I had to pick a food related guilty pleasure it would be Bollycao. This is a mass-produced cacao filled roll, quite common among kids here in Portugal. I’m sure there are a million other sweets out there, fresher, healthier and even tastier. But, sometimes, I just need myself some Bollycao!
7. What / where do you dream of eating, but haven’t yet had the pleasure?
All sorts of sushi around Japan! I am convinced my knowledge of sushi is limited, because I’ve been eating sushi for years, but always outside of Japan. In Japan, I am expecting a much wider variety of fish, different flavours and textures I haven’t had the chance to try yet. I would like to order off menus in Japanese, or simply point at the plates of other folks around me. Just letting myself go along with the experience, without knowing beforehand what the pieces are going to be all about!
8. Strangest meal?
I don’t even need to go far for this one! In Portugal itself, where I come from, ear’s salad is a common treat! Basically, it consists of a cold salad of chopped pig’s ear, in a vinegary marinade. And it’s not half as bad as you may be imagining…. Even though I’m not always the biggest fan of “funny parts” of animals, I do appreciate this kind of eating. Every part of the animal is used, doing justice to the life that was lost for the sake of food.
9. Ever had food poisoning while traveling? Any advice to share?
So many times! If something smells or tastes funny, simply don’t eat it! Most of the times I got sick, it could have easily been avoided. But, in small eateries, often in the middle of nowhere, you almost feel bad to reject a meal that someone prepared for you. But instead of focusing on being polite, it pays off to focus on the middle term and try to avoid feeling sick. As a rule of thumb, whenever you are not sure if the food is fresh or not, try to choose a vegetarian option.
10. Have you fallen so much in love with a foreign dish that you learned to make it at home? What’s the story?
On a recent trip to Mexico, I decided that if I wanted to keep enjoying those amazing
flavours the country is well known for, I would have to learn how to make them at home! You can’t simply rely on most so-called Mexican restaurants abroad because, more often than not, they are Tex-Mex.
So this desire to learn led my husband and me to spend an afternoon at a small eatery outside Mexico City learning how to cook the basics with a local lady named Lety. We learnt how to make quesadillas, spicy salsas, nopal salad and a wide variety of fillings for tacos. Afterwards, we traveled to Portugal with a bag full of ingredients we’d need to recreate our favourites at home. Green tomatillos, different types of chili peppers, seasonings, nixtamalized corn and the works! And si, the extra kilos paid off!
11. What’s the first thing you eat after returning home from a long trip?
For me, home could be in Portugal or India. So, depending on which home I happen to be in, I’d eat different things. In Portugal, it would be some sort of salted codfish dish. In India, it would be masala dosa.
12. Favourite foreign ingredient you wish your home supermarket carried?
I’m currently in Lisbon and the availability of different chili peppers is rather sad. When available, they seem to lack some kick too! Good thing I still have some fiery peppers from Mexico in the freezer!
13. Country / city where you’ve found the best food? Details please so we can
check it out too!
Any big, international, cosmopolitan city tends to be great for food! In New York, for
example, you seem to be able to find an incredible variety of world cuisines represented.
Sometimes, you’ll even find super specific seasonal things. If anyone still wants to argue
about the downsides of immigration, simply keep this delicious fact in mind!
14. Country / city where you’ve found the worst? What made it so awful?
I spent several months in Santiago de Chile, and I am afraid to say that I didn’t really find the local food scene too exciting. Local food seemed to lack seasoning, variety was not their strongest point either, and the prices were generally high for what you’d get. This felt rather strange to me, because local markets carry the most amazing selection of fresh produce, meats and seafood. The raw materials are all there, and their quality is great! And yet the cooked results weren’t so special.
Thankfully, the Peruvian food scene in Santiago de Chile is alive and kicking! And, no matter if you go to a fancy Peruvian restaurant or a small working class eatery, the food tends to range between good and mind-blowing! (Ed.’s note: I love Peruvian food too, especially ceviche. I’ve heard there are great debates about Chilean versus Peruvian ceviche, but haven’t been to Chile yet to test for myself…).
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?
I love visiting markets when I go to a new city or town. One of the most fascinating ones I have had the pleasure of strolling around was Klong Toey in Bangkok. Even though
Bangkok is super touristic, you virtually see no foreigners around Klong Toey.
This is where local individuals and businesses, such as street food vendors, come to stock up. You can find EVERYTHING in there! Fresh fruits and vegetables, all sorts of fish and meats (dead or alive!), prepared foods and, what makes it even better, a lot of unique random items. For example, I remember seeing a stall entirely dedicated to boiled peeled eggs. So, when you get a noodle soup with half a boiled egg on top, anywhere around Bangkok, chances are it came from here!
16. If money were no object, where (and what) would you eat?
I have to be honest: I am not very concerned with spending money when it comes to eating. Both in my home country, Portugal, and during my travels, I have had the most satisfying meals in the simplest of places. It could be a roadside taqueria in Mexico, sitting on a low plastic table and bench in Thailand or Vietnam… even at the so-called tascas (tavern-like establishments) of Portugal!
The only type of food I do like eating and normally comes accompanied by a fatter bill is sushi. I do admit that to enjoy good sushi you have to pay big bucks. So, if money were no object, I’d travel to Japan and try ALL sorts of sushi. Maybe I’d start at the acclaimed Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, and ask Jiro himself for other recommendations across the country!
17. Do you have any food regrets?
On a trip to Romania last year, I was going through a vegetarian phase. I know I missed out on the local cuisine, because Romanian food is mostly meat based. So I do want to go back sometime, so that I can at least finally try sarmale, their typical meat-stuffed cabbage rolls.
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 would turn this cacao drink I recently had in Mexico into an ice-cream, and I am pretty sure it’d be a hit! The drink is called chiltepin and it is served by a chain establishment called Tierra Garat, which is like a local version of Starbucks, but way nicer and focusing on chocolate drinks. Chiltepin is a chocolate drink spiked with black pepper and chiltepín chili pepper. You can also mix in a shot of coffee. The result is delicious, featuring an intense aroma both of the cacao and the coffee, and the kick induced by the pepper and chili. I am positive this would work like magic on an ice-cream version! (ed.’s note: ooooh that does sound delicious!)
19. What do you love and hate about food writing (yours and/or in general)?
I think food writing tends to be pompous and, generally speaking, not for the masses. I try to make sure my writing doesn’t come across as pretentious. In fact, my food book, Lisbon in 100 Bites, is quite the opposite of this. It’s about real Portuguese food, in a down-to-earth environment.
I think most people around the world enjoy food, so I see no reason why they wouldn’t enjoy food-related articles. But if you’re the kind of guy who normally eats at family-run places, hole in the wall restaurants, or simply gets a kick out of sampling different types of street food, you won’t relate to pieces focusing on Michelin-starred restaurants and the likes.
I think there’s room for several types of food writing out there, just like there are different approaches to travel content too. As for me, I’ll keep on focusing on the more no-nonsense side of all foodie things!
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?
Oh, boy… the pressure!! I’d have to make sure my last meal is as eclectic as they come, in order to feature as many of my favorite foods as possible.
For starters, I’d nibble on Spanish potato tortilla and some paneer stuffed tandoori mushrooms, from India. I may include some sushi in there, but probably before the fiery mushrooms. Otherwise, chances are my taste buds would be confused!
Still on the fishy side of things, I’ll enjoy a small portion of Peruvian ceviche. Moving on to the main dish(es), I’ll get myself a simple quesadilla (with a proper corn tortilla, not a wheat one!), stuffed with zucchini flowers. I’ll follow with some oven-baked codfish and potatoes covered in cream and, as odd as it may sound, some tagliatelle al ragu, just like they make it in Bologna. On the side of it all, I would have bread from the Alentejo region of Portugal, spread with the finest of French salted butters.
For dessert, I’d keep it simple and I’d end up in Portuguese style, with a dark chocolate mousse and an espresso. Needless to say, I’d sleep like a happy baby after this meal!