Eating local is one of the best ways to understand a town, a city or a culture. In Elgin, we have lots of great local options, from In the Neighborhood Deli, where each sandwich is named for a local institution (schools, churches, etc) to the Walnut Speakeasy in my own neighborhood, which has become almost Cheers-like in its familiarity.
Lately, we’ve been reminded about how important it is to eat locally. Local restaurants don’t have the advertising dollars of their national chain competitors. Nick’s Pizza & Pub, which just announced their financial troubles stemming from a shaky economy and construction, competes against national chains who can run TV commercials or far-reaching campaigns. While social media helps build local community, it also provides an unrivaled platform for national brands to share their message nationwide. Whether your Facebook friends live in Dubuque, Albuquerque or Seattle, they know the same national brands you do.
While traveling in Asia, we talked a lot about food and its role in culture. I was bound and determined to eat as much fantastic local food as possible. And since you have to eat multiple times a day, it’s a natural way to easily experience local flavors and culture.
In Seoul, it was Korean BBQ. I went twice. The first time, my roommate, Inggrid, and I went to a place packed with locals on a Monday night,which we figured was a good sign. It was. The menu was entirely in Korean, with no pictures. Inggrid was able to use her smidgeon of Mandarin to order us a terrific meal. They bring raw beef, which you cook on the grill built into the table, using the heatlamp. Then you wrap it in lettuce leaves with a sauce, garlic, and veggies. Divine. And a lot of fun. The next night, we went to another place where the garlic- and spiced meat was even better.
Of course, Korea was also my first “surprise” meal of the trip. One day, between meetings with marketing executives, we were given an hour to find lunch nearby. Inggrid and I took off down one of the small alleys off the main street, finding a row of restaurants with alluring aromas. We went inside and ordered by pointing and smiling. When it was served – she got chicken ginseng soup and I ordered bim bam bop – everything smelled so good. But as I stirred my lunch, I discovered tentacles and suckers! I had somehow assumed I was getting pork or chicken in my bim bam bop – not octopus. But after the initial shock, and surrounded by office workers who inhaled their lunches, I tried it. And it was actually pretty good, though a bit rubbery. I wouldn’t order octopus, but it wasn’t terrible.
In Shanghai, we saw an incredible array of food that seemed impossibly far removed from the Americanized Chinese food most of us are familiar with. We saw lots of jellied seafoods and chicken feet, and in the markets, buckets of live turtles or fish made you wonder if they were selling pets or dinner. We ate very well, though sometimes I didn’t want to know what I was eating. And it was in China that we discovered the lazy susan style of eating: absolutely everything is served family style and spun around the table to share. While this is a great way to try a lot of things, by the eighth consecutive day, you just want to order your own thing. While all the stir-fried veggies were great, and I fell in love with xiao long bao dumplings, I was really craving a big salad by the time we left.
I had no preconceived notions of what Taiwanese food would be. Every guidebook promised it would be delicious, heavy on fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. And it was. Again, many of our meals were banquet-style, with 8-10 people at a table and a giant lazy susan spinning 10 or more courses. The shrimp and fish were so good, and so fresh, especially to a Midwest girl. The mangoes were the juiciest I’ve ever had, and we tried a “milk pineapple,” a variety only available in Taiwan with incredibly sweet white flesh. Everywhere we went, there were stands selling fresh juice – mango, watermelon, pineapple, everything, squeezed to order.
On our free evenings in Taiwan, we usually went to the night markets for dinner. Such street food merits its very own blog post.
However, despite all the eating local, familiar American options abounded. KFC is extraordinarily popular in China, where they’re open 24-7 and have adapted to the local palette, serving things like congee with pork. (The day we visited Yum Brands’ headquarters, we had lunch at KFC. I felt worse that night than any other on the trip.) McDonald’s exists, but is less popular than KFC. There were a meal at Macaroni Grill our first night in Taiwan, when hunger, tiredness and frustration had us craving something familiar.
I tried to eat local, but I did often hit Starbucks in the morning, as finding a decent cup of coffee could be difficult. In fact, finding what we consider “breakfast” foods was often tough, as many Asian cultures don’t have a distinct difference between breakfast and lunch or dinner foods. So, Inggrid and I often went out for dumplings or soup. On time-pressed mornings when we had meetings with companies, I often did a quick trip to whatever coffee shop was closest to get some type of breakfast sandwich.
Overall, though, I loved my culinary adventures through Asia, suckers and all. And now that I’m home, I’m happy to get back to Domani and its fantastic coffee. Because eating local is the most familiar and comforting of all, regardless of where “local” is.
Read more about the Street Eats.