While traveling or living abroad, I always try to do things the way local people do. Sometimes it involves discovering local transports like matatus in Kenya, other times it can mean learning the basics of a new language.
However, considering myself a foodie, there is nothing I love more than trying typical food or drinks! So I decided to list here some of my best or more surprising discoveries of the past few years.
1. France: Brittany
Think of the most buttery thing you can imagine. Multiply the amount of butter by a hundred and you’ll get the Kouign-Amann. I never found anything so buttery anywhere in the world but that pastry is so amazingly delicious that who would care about counting calories?!
To be honest, if you speak Breton the name by itself is saying it all: Kouign meaning cake and Amann meaning butter. Rumor has it than this pastry was invented by Yves-René Scordia in the 1860s. At the time flour was scarce but butter abundant and so that would explains the unusual proportions used to make the delicious pastry.
My best memory of Kouign-Amann is linked to the beautiful city of Saint-Malo. After having spent the day exploring the Mont St-Michel in a freezing cold, my parents decided to head in Saint-Malo to have a break. Passing in front of many bakeries, I finally managed to convince them to stop for some cake and hot chocolate and that’s how I discovered the Kouign-Amann for the very first time!
Brittany is famous around the world for its savoury buckwheat flour pancakes, known in the region as galettes. Be aware if you ever go to Brittany that you should never refer to the galettes as crepes in front of the locals. I did many times and my Britons friends always quickly corrected me, putting an emphasis on how drastically different the two things are.
But there is something even more symbolic than the simple galette for people inhabiting the Ille et Vilaine department and that is the galette-saucisse! Even though I found it pretty boring, the fact that it has a song dedicated to it makes it relevant to this list.
So if you ever go around Rennes and see people eating a sausage inside a galette in the street as they would eat a hot dog, don’t be surprise and give it a try!
2. Great Britain: England
Winner: Full English Breakfast
Somehow I got very attached to the full English breakfast after spending six months as an Erasmus student in Manchester. Honestly, there is no better comfort food and hangover cure than this. After an agitated night out, you just head to the pub on the next day with your friends to watch a football game while having a nice and heavy breakfast.
Usually around £4 or £5, the most typical ones includes hashbrowns (my favourite part), sausages, bacon, beans and tomato sauce, eggs, and black pudding which at my complete astonishment appeared not to be a pudding at all but a blood sausage!
You can also find versions with mushrooms, toasts, and even in some places, personalise it as much as you want. In all Britishness, I always accompany this heavy breakfast with a cup of milky tea.
Runner-up: Yorkshire Pudding
I associate Yorkshire puddings with Christmas and happy times so I just love them. One of my flatmate in Manchester was from Yorkshire and I had the priviledge of eating home-made ones as my very first ones.
These puddings are also often served on roast days with meat and vegetables. Their fluffiness and squichiness make them amazing but add a bit of gravy on top and you’ll be heading for pure deliciousness!
Winner: Popcorn Soup
Soup is a very important part of Ecuadorian meals. I was initially quite surprised to see that soup was almost always part of the menu. Even on the Galapagos Islands where temperatures were close to 40°C, restaurants were all serving soups as a starter.
But that was nothing in comparison with my amazement when I discovered the popcorn soup! I already had soup with bread, croutons or cheese in the past but with popcorn?! Of course my curiosity was instantly titillated and I had to try it.
I looked at the bowl of soup in front of me and took a handful of popcorn in my hands. Slowly dropping them in my soup, I could hear them drown and drift making an effervescent sound which reminded me of the sound of snow.
I could see the popcorn slowly softening and decided it was soft enough for me to give it a try. I have to say that even though what I love the most about popcorn is its crunchiness, this squishy version was just delicious and it definitely added something to the soup. So if you ever see Ecuadorian people adding popcorn in their soup, follow their leads and give a try!
In term of taste, plantain would actually be my winner but the popcorn soup was so surprising that I thought it deserved the spotlight.
Plantain is a banana type that needs to be cooked before eating. My favourite ways of eating it was either fried or as crips. It is commonly served as a side for main dish and is easily found in any restaurants.
I always had a sweet tooth so living in Portugal was pretty much heaven for me! Pastéis refers most often to sweet pastries that you can find in every bakery. If you ever go to Brazil, you might be surprised to discover that there, pastéis are most often salty snacks.
The great thing about Portuguese pastéis is that it seemed to me that almost each city had its traditional one so that was the perfect excuse to eat pastries every time I was traveling somewhere!
The most famous are probably the pastel de nata, and the pastel de Belem, which you should absolutely try at the Antigua Confeitaria in Lisbon. However, my personal favourite is the traveissero (which is the one at the bottom of the photo).
A great place to taste as many pastéis as you can handle is the Piriquita bakery located in the fairyland-like city of Sintra.
Requeijão is a inbetween of yogurt and cheese in term of texture. Salted, I loved to have it for breakfast on bread coated with honey. Some people compare it to the Italian ricotta but the taste is stronger and more characteristic. Requeijão can also be found in Brazil but there it is more of a spreadable artificial flavored cheese.
5. Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul
There is nothing more typical of Rio Grande do Sul than chimarrão. I was in Porto Alegre for less than a hour that I had already been handed a cuia (name of the wood recipient) to try it. My first impression of it, to be fully honest, was that I was drinking some very bitter boiled grass but it is an acquired taste and I quickly became addicted to it.
Chimarrão, also known as mate, is typical of the Gaucho regions so you can also find people drinking it in Argentina and Uruguay.
However, the cuias found in other countries are much smaller than the Brazilian ones. That is due to the fact that in the South Brazilian culture, the Chimarrão is meant to be shared.
Invited at someone’s place, in class, or at a conference, you will see cuias and thermos of hot water passing from hands to hands. The way you prepare it is that you first put the erva mate in the cuia, then you level it by putting the cuia upside down on your hand and create an empty space of one side (as you can see on the photo), finally you add the boiling water and the straw. Once it’s ready, you just keep topping it up with warm water without adding any mate.
If you ever live in Rio Grande do Sul and want to make friends easily, just buy a cuia and some erva mate and you will be adopted instantaneously!
Another important cultural tradition in the region is the churrasco. This Brazilian barbecue is serious business and if you live in Rio Grande do Sul, you will often be invited to come for a churrasco.
A typical churrasco usually includes big piece of beef slowly cooked on giant sticks, chicken hearts, garlic bread. and a kind of potato salad called maionese.
Usually lasting for entire afternoons, there is nothing more friendly and fun than a good churrasco. Plus, I never ever tasted any better meat than the one I had in Rio Grande do Sul!