How To Travel via Food

Wanderer
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“Don’t look outside.”

“Huh?” I replied back, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “Why?”

Then I saw it.

Photo by Chester @ Wikipedia

Overnight, Toronto had its first major snowfall of the winter, dumping upwards of 10 cm of the white stuff onto two financial independent early retirees who were taking it with the grace and calm befitting their years and wisdom.

“God DAMN it!”

“Waaaaaah! I want to go back to Asia!”

“This is BULLSHIT!”

When FIRECracker and I retired in 2015 and started travelling the world, one of our shared life goals was, and I quote, “to never seeing another goddamned snowflake in my entire life ever again.” It was an admirable goal, but alas, here we are. Wings clipped by the pandemic and stuck in the frigid North, winter has officially descended on us.

After I calmed down, it took me a while to remember that I was, in fact, Canadian. I used to deal with winter every year, and I didn’t complain then. So I guess it’s time to put on my big boy (snow) pants and figure out how to get through this winter just like everyone else.

So here’s what we’ve been doing to stay sane this winter.

One of the biggest things we miss about travelling (besides the awesome weather) has been the food. From the street markets of Taipei to the high tea shops of Bristol, food is an attraction in and of itself when we travel. Now that we can’t travel, we’ve had to improvise, and as Mr. Money Mustache would say, why not in-source the skill rather than out-source it?

So we embarked on a mission to recreate some of the foods we love and miss using ingredients we can get locally. It hasn’t always worked out, but some of the results turned out surprisingly well! Things like…

High Tea: Clotted Cream & Scones

The British are…shall we say…not known for their cuisine. But one thing I absolutely love about being in the UK is their high tea. Freshly baked scones covered with clotted cream and strawberry jam is easily my favourite thing about that country, and we make it a point to get some every time we stopover in London.

The problem is, you can’t find clotted cream in stores outside of the UK.

I’m not sure why, but even if I walk into the fanciest grocery store in Toronto and ask for clotted cream, they have no idea what I’m talking about.

But it turns out, you can make you own!

The trick is that you have to find the right cream. It has to be organic, and it has to have milk fat content of at least 30%+. Many recipes online demand that the milk be unpasteurized, but I don’t think it’s even legal to sell unpasteurized milk in North America. Fortunately, I was able to find something that worked in a (of course) Whole Foods.

The recipe itself is simple, but it takes a while. You have to heat it at 200 F for 12 hours, and then cool it in the fridge for another 12. All the milk fat rises to the top and then solidifies (or clots) as it chills. Then you have to carefully pour out the liquid underneath into another container and scrape off the solidified cream, and to our surprise, what came out was actually really good. Like really good! It tasted exactly like what we got in the UK!

That was the hard part. The easy part was whipping up some British style scones, which you can do with ingredients that you can get from any old grocery store, and voila! High tea, British-style!

The Recipes We Used:

Oil-Seared Biang Biang Noodles

Biang biang noodles are a classic street food that you can find all over Asia, and the best style in FIRECracker’s humble opinion are seared using smoking hot chili oil the way they do it in the Xi’an province of China.

The problem with biang biang noodles is that you can’t buy them from a store. Unlike pasta or vermicelli, biang biang noodles are thick and chewy, and have to be hand-pulled right before cooking. If you try to dry or package them, it destroys the texture. So we had to figure out how to make it from scratch.

Making the dough for these is not nearly as simple as baking bread, where you just throw all the ingredients into a bowl and toss it in a mixer. You have to knead it just right for enough of the wheat’s gluten to separate and make the dough’s texture stretchy and elastic. Too little and it doesn’t pull properly, too much and it loses its starchy texture when cooked. And even when you get the dough right, you have to cover it with oil and leave it overnight to rest.

This dish was by far the hardest to get right. We kept screwing up the dough and as a result, the noodles kept snapping when we tried to pull them. After weeks and weeks of trial and error, we figured out the right combination of mixing, kneading, and resting to get the dough’s texture right.

Once we got that part figured out, then comes the fun part: hand-pulling each dough log into long, stretchy noodles while smacking it against the counter. The “biang biang” sound it makes while you do it is where the name comes from.

Then after a quick boil, we garnish it with green onions, a Szechuanese chili bean paste called Lao Ga Ma, and we sear the entire bowl with smoking hot oil to create…authentic Xi’an style oil seared biang biang noodles!

Man, my mouth is watering just looking at that picture.

Recipes We Used:

Campechana & Tortilla Chips

Unlike some of our American readers, up here in Canada we don’t get access to the best Mexican food. When I was growing up, I legitimately thought that those Nachos Supremes you get from Taco Bell where the guy squirts sour cream out of a caulking gun onto it was what actual Mexican people ate.

So imagine my surprise when we visited Mexico in 2018 and found out that holy shit there’s such a thing as Mexican cuisine that does not come out of a caulking gun!

One of our favourite discoveries was campechana. We first discovered it when we were exploring the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (or November 20th market) in Oaxaca. We stumbled on this little family-run stall in the fishmongers aisle, and they made these.

It’s like a shrimp cocktail, but way way fancier, with octopus, clams, onions, cilantro, and avocado, all in this awesome rich tomato-based sauce. Normal, lame-ass shrimp cocktails are usually just an appetizer, but these things were full meals! So of course we had to figure out how to make them.

Fortunately, one of our Chautauqua friends who grew up in Mexico knew exactly what I was talking about and sent us a recipe. Fortunately, the ingredients themselves were easy to find at a normal grocery store.

However, one thing you really need to make on your own are the tortilla chips. Tortilla chips are another thing that after I had them in Mexico I just couldn’t deal with the crap we have back in Canada. Up here, all we get are those Tostido things that come out of a bag, and they taste nothing like what they actually make in Mexico. So when I came back and couldn’t find anyone that was making them properly, I got dejected and resolved myself to never eating proper nachos again.

Turns out, you can totally make them on your own!

First, you need to find tortillas. Not the chips, but the soft round tortillas that come packaged in a stack. And they have to be corn tortillas! Not those crappy flour kinds.

Then, you lay them out on a baking sheet and bake them at 350 F for 5 minutes to dry them out. Then you cut them into slices like a pizza, and then you fry them in peanut oil.

Making tortilla chips is 10% ingredients and 90% technique. You have to watch these things like a hawk, getting them to fry evenly to just the perfect shade of golden brown before flipping them. Then getting them out of the oil at just the right time before they start to burn. I’ve burned many a tortilla figuring this out.

But if you get it right, they come out looking like this…

Not too shabby for a gringo chino, eh?

Recipes we used:

Conclusion

I know, I know. This is supposed to be a finance blog, not a food blog. But a) I really miss travelling and b) life is too short to eat at Taco Bell.

Before 2020, FIRECracker and I were some of the least domestic people in the world. Cooking was only something done as a last resort, because when we were travelling, eating from street markets was so incredibly delicious and cheap there was no point. But 2020 has changed everything, hasn’t it? Now we can actually cook a few things! And they actually taste pretty damned good! *pats self on back*

So what new skills have you picked up while stuck indoors this year? Let’s hear it in the comments below!


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25 thoughts on “How To Travel via Food”

  1. I feel so, so lucky to be in China right now during all this craziness. You may have your own issues with the place, but the food here is honestly the best I’ve ever tasted. I usually last about two weeks in America before I’m dreaming about my beloved hot pot.

    I am thankful for the Mexican recipe. I think Mexican food is even harder to find here than it is in Canada, so I’m a bit desperate!

    Anyway, hang in there and hopefully you’ll be exploring food culture again before you know it!

  2. Ya, cooking-in has been a thing for me since I returned from Down Under in March. Thankfully living on VanIsle, aka food-heaven source wise, has been great. How my local market receives my favourite Hawaiian papayas every week is beyond me. But I am willing to pay the price for a little paradise. And since I am a WFPB dude now, there are a ton of website resources and apps. to hone my skills. My favourite being the FOK recipe app. I have a particular love for preparing plant-based sauces and hummus lately. Julianna Hever’s southwest sauce is really yummy. And she has a very simple hummus recipe that is spicy good. Oh, and I’m collecting kitchen gadgets like a madman. Wonder what I’ll do with them all when return to almost full-time travel begins again. Nice food related post, thanks!

  3. I enjoy throwing stuff together, making sure it’s the right texture and temperature at the right time, and serving it up so it’s tasty. I like to call that “cooking”. But you guys and your noodle techniques and your hand-crafted corn chips are next level!

    On the other hand, we were able to easily order takeout cochinita pibil from our fav taqueria two miles down the road on Saturday. #spoiled

    Can we swap a little of our comida auténtica for some of your national health care?

  4. ” This is supposed to be a finance blog, not a food blog. ”

    Ha. I enjoyed reading it nevertheless. 🙂

    Next thing you know, you two will have 2 babies and have bought a McMansion or two … well, maybe not McMansions, but at least a couple of single family homes (one regular home, and one vacation/summer home), despite your insistence that you don’t want to be homeowners. Reality (i.e., the urge to settle down) will hit you before you know it.

  5. Hi wanderer, oh no not a scone!…..ps are you sure you didn’t make a rock cake? 🙂 Best classic British food…. Sunday lunch (meat, roast parsnips, roast potatoes, veg, gravy, horseradish sauce, crackling) or chips and curry sauce or cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, beans, egg, black pudding, toast, tomato) Thanks for all the marvellous articles it’s good to think about all the lovely foods we will appreciate when the pandemic is over. Hopefully you’ll come back to our shores again someday….. skills I’ve acquired are doing my food shopping in 5 mins and avoiding everyone by shopping at the crack of dawn!

    1. Have to say that did look like a rock cake!:-))
      What about our roast beef,some lovely roast lunches.
      Enjoy reading your posts.

  6. Impressed that you two mastered the pulled noodle. Now go conquer the world!
    It’s so true that all of my restlessness and my traveling passions have been inwardly turned into culinary frenzies this year. Peking duck, red braised pig trotters, pulpo a la gallega, done and done.

  7. You can “purchase” unpasteurized milk at a local farm. The money must be given as a donation since it cannot be “sold”. My family does it every week.

  8. impressive! besides tostadas that u made for the campechana it’s also eaten with saltine crackers!! the most popular mexican brand is Gamesa (they r called saladitas) but any wypipo brand will work 😉
    nice work!!

  9. On my 1 year sabbatical last year, we ate an amazing deep fried chilli tofu dish. It was at this little road side place on Ko lanta, Thailand. We loved it so much the chef/owner offered to teach me in her authentic rustic kitchen, if we came back early the next day. We did! I got to make the whole dish under her supervision. We are now back in Amsterdam and still make it at home (at least until we run out of the chilli paste we brought back).

  10. I loved this post! Sounds like you’re facing your isolation head on, and making the best of it. I too have turned to cooking this year, and I definitely feel like my repertoire of dishes have improved. Middle Eastern food has been grabbing my cooking consciousness, so I’ve been getting books out of the library and making a go of it. With practice, it will only get better!

    1. Buy used with cash. I never had car payments and don’t care if people laugh.

      Look at consumer reports car issue from library.

  11. That’s it…you have to keep trying a recipe over and over till you get it right.
    Same with all this investing stuff. I finally got to workshop #8 and am trying to figure out the passiv platform.

    I have also decided to cook from scratch so I found Mary’s Nest which tells you how to make things cheaply and nutritiously from scratch. Now everything looks over priced in the stores!

    The food is starting to taste better as I learn how to balance the different tastes; sour, sweet, salty, etc.

    Ela

  12. Actually Toronto has very authentic Mexican food. Check out Gus tacos on shanly st. just north of bloor, one street east of dufferin st. Cinqo on roncesvalles and la chingada on Dundas just east of Dovercourt! Great street tacos!

  13. > This is supposed to be a finance blog, not a food blog.

    Yes, well, you and Mr. Tako and Root of Good come to the same conclusion anyway. Hard to create an enjoyable life without creating enjoyable food, it seems.

    And if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade; now that life gives you snow, you make … far more interesting stuff than water. 🙂

  14. You can usually get Devon cream (clotted cream) at pusateri, loblaws, I have seen at metro during holidays in a small glass bottle. Mmmm love scones and Devon cream with strawberry jam, except for the gluten and dairy, which does not love me 😂. I have grown in compassion for difficult people in my life especially family during this pandemic. Happy trails, and happy holidays love Tigermom and miracle baby (mb).

  15. That’s a great way to enjoy some quality time at home while it is cold outside and it looks like it is working great for you as these scones look really yummy and I’m sure they task as well as they look, aren’t they? But the ultimate test is have they been approved by your friends in the UK?

  16. You are so close to some great Mexican food…Mexico Lindo at the corner of Victoria Park and St. Clair…they have a second location on Kingston Road…their food is amazing, like you’re sitting in a small place in Mexico City!

  17. Nice cooking 🙂 My wife likes to make jiaozi, baozi and xian bing etc 🙂 Curiosity question … seeing Singapore and Hong Kong etc … have no capital gains tax … and normally you are traveling around ….thus you would qualify for being non residents for Canada? (no Canadian taxes …) … have you ever considered moving your investments (index funds) to the Hong Kong or Singapore stock markets etc … so you have zero taxes ? I would be interested in your thoughts on that?

  18. Yummmm! Good job on the dishes – the photos and descriptions are making me hungry, and I already had lunch. Congrats on learning how to cook, and thanks for sharing the recipes – I will have to try them 🙂

  19. I absolutely LOVE the Mexican recipe and am also grateful that you are Canadians and don’t exclusively write about finance. Thankfully we have several authentic Mexican cuisine restaurants here in Montreal, and having lived in Mexico, I can get my fix when I want (even take out with a mask during the pandemic, only 1 of 2 restaurants I went in person to pick up from, so yes, it’s great food!)
    Keep inspiring us 🙂

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