Slurping freshly shucked oysters on a mist-enveloped shore. Tucking into creamy yet stinky Epoisses de Bourgogne cheese above vineyards in France. Touring a small seaside village in Hokkaido and discovering the unexpectedly sweet umami of bacon cured in pig's blood. Experiences with food create some of our most vivid memories of trips abroad. Avid traveller Wilson Wang, 28, likes to buy uniquely flavoured salts, artisan salami, speciality potato chips and unusual condiments on trips abroad.
"They are practical souvenirs because you will eat them and they won't take up permanent space in your home. And as you enjoy the things you've bought, it's an opportunity to remember the trips you've taken," says the creative director at a design and digital agency.
As in Marcel Proust's novel, In Search Of Lost Time, where the narrator's bite of a tea-soaked madeleine invokes memories of his childhood, food souvenirs allow travellers to keep the experience of their trip alive. Spice mixes from Istanbul's Grand Bazaar are Australian Justin Hammond's favourite travel souvenir. The 36-year-old head chef at Neon Pigeon in Keong Saik Road says: "Each vendor in the bazaar has a unique blend of spices, his own take on za'atar (a blend of herbs and spices such as oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, dried sumac and often salt) or baharat (a blend of spices such as allspice, cardamom, clove, cassia bark and cumin), which you can't get in Singapore. The spices tweak your food, add something different."
Other foodies opt for the familiar. Head chef Kathleen Wong, 40, of 28 Hongkong Street, brings a cooler with ice bricks on trips to the United States and Australia, where she sources a good butcher and stocks up on quality meat. "The cost differential is so high, you can save a lot of money if you plan ahead," she says, adding that in Australia, 1kg of sirloin steak costs A$30 (S$31.30). The same cut here easily costs $70.
The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), which dictates what can and cannot be brought into Singapore for personal consumption, has relatively open laws compared with countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which have unique biodiversity and agriculture to protect. Singaporeans can bring back raw and cooked meat, cheese, vegetables and even live oysters, provided they come from approved sources. But there is a limit as to how much can be brought in. Travellers can bring home only 5kg of meat and seafood products, 30 eggs, a carry-on sized package of fruit and 5kg or $100 worth of packaged food products, for example. Travellers who try to bring in food from unapproved sources, or who exceed the maximum limit allowed, face a fine of up to $50,000, two years in jail, or both. Repeat offenders may be fined up to $100,000, jailed up to three years, or both.
The list of allowable foods is updated regularly. For example, if avian influenza is detected in a certain region, AVA is likely to ban the import of poultry from that region. Travellers can download the free SG TravelKaki app from GooglePlay or the App Store to stay up to date with the government agency's restrictions as well as get information on approved sources. With so many delectable food souvenir possibilities, The Sunday Times rounds up seven must-buys from around the world.
In 2012, Czech couple Simona Kapoun and George Blazenec were invited to a dinner party and they brought along a homemade medovnik, a traditional Czech cake made of thick, honey-flavoured biscuits layered with caramel cream and chopped walnuts, topped with honey-flavoured crumbs. The centuries-old recipe, tweaked to suit ingredients available locally - including raw honey from the Margaret River region - resulted in a softer, moister, richer and uniquely Australian version of the traditional cake. It was a hit and The Honeycake (www.thehoneycake.com.au) was born.
It now has two stores - in the basement of the State Buildings in Perth's business district and at the Fremantle Markets - where travellers can snap up boxes to take home. The small box (A$20 or S$20.90) serves five, the large box (A$29) serves eight, and larger cakes and slabs, which cost up to A$115 for 40 servings, are available for order a few days in advance. The cakes are made in small batches from natural, preservative-free ingredients, each layer rolled and assembled by hand. It is an ideal treat to take home as the cake improves with age - the biscuit layers soften and the flavours of honey and caramel blend and deepen. The cake will keep for about 10 days at room temperature and longer in the fridge. It is best transported and stored in an airtight container.
The soft flesh of a ripe carabao mango from the Philippines - known as manggang kalabaw locally and sometimes called the Manila super mango - is second to none. Most of the Philippines's mangoes come from Pangasinan province in Luzon, but for the sweetest mangoes, head to the islands of Cebu and Guimaras in the Visayas. The Guimaras mangoes are especially sweet and locals use them in everything from smoothies to unique items such as mango ketchup and mango pizza.
The fruit is in season all year round and is sold everywhere, from roadside stalls to supermarkets, where 1kg of four or five mangoes will cost 70 to 80 pesos (S$2 to S$2.25). Ripe mangoes do not keep very long, however, so if one does not have a mango-loving group of friends or family, consider buying dried mangoes instead. There are many different brands of dried mangoes available, but Cebu Dried Mango Chips (about 60 pesos a bag), Freshco Dried Mango (about 65 pesos a bag) and the award-winning 7D brand (about 80 pesos a bag) are said to be the best. For mass purchases and lower prices, head to the 7D warehouse store (Sacris Road, A.S. Fortuna Street) in Mandaue City, on the outskirts of Cebu City. The store sells dried mango by the box as well as mango puree, mango nectar and mango jelly in easy-to-carry boxes.
Vietnam's Fish Sauce
When in Vietnam, a top-notch fish sauce is a must-buy. Prized for the salty, umami flavour it lends to dips, soups and stir-fries, fish sauce is a staple of South-east Asian cuisine and every country in the region has a version of its own. But for chefs and foodies the world over, Vietnamese nuoc mam - which has a lighter, smoother flavour than its well-known, saltier and more pungent Thai cousin, nam pla - is considered the best. Varieties from Phu Quoc island in the south are particularly sought after. The island boasts ideal weather and temperatures for sauce production and its clear waters are home to ca com, a long-jawed variety of anchovy used to make the sauce. The liquid is fermented for about a year in tropical wood barrels, resulting in a delicately flavoured, well-balanced sauce.
Red Boat is the most famous brand of fish sauce from Phu Quoc, but many sauces made by smaller, family-owned labels are just as good. Travellers can buy them for $1 to $3 a bottle in supermarkets around Vietnam. To identify a good-quality fish sauce, look at the ingredients. Nuoc mam is made from the fermentation of salt and a single type of small fish, typically anchovy, but sometimes mackerel, nothing else. There should be no preservatives or additives such as sugar. The liquid should be clear, dark amber in colour and smell of fish, but not be overly pungent. It should taste of fish, with a salty, savoury top note, a sweet finish and no bitterness. Check the label for the sauce's nitrogen content, shown by degrees N, which indicates the amount of protein in the sauce. The higher the N content, the better the quality. A sauce with 40 degrees or more is ideal. Some labels will indicate that the sauce is nuoc mam nhi, which means it is the first extraction of liquid from the fermented fish. Like extra virgin olive oil, this first press is the best. Fish sauce keeps for up to three years and will become lighter, sweeter and less salty the longer it sits.
Japan's Fresh Produce
Japan is a food lovers' paradise and those in the know head to the nearest market to pick up the season's freshest produce. From alabaster rose hatsukoi no kaori (scent of first love) strawberries in early summer to a dozen varieties of pears in the fall, Japanese markets are filled with a cornucopia of the world's best fruit and vegetables at a fraction of prices in Singapore. If you are travelling to Japan in the spring, from late January to early June, be sure to grab a box of deep-red, perfectly round amela tomatoes, said to be the sweetest in the world. Because of their high sugar content, they are typically eaten raw.
Though often packaged individually, travellers who head to larger markets, such as Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, can buy amela tomatoes by the box. On a recent trip to Tokyo, Singapore-based food-and-beverage consultant Vivian Pei, 47, brought an extra suitcase to accommodate food purchases, among them a box of amela tomatoes. While in season, Ms Pei says the speciality tomatoes, which she calls "the Rolls-Royce of tomatoes", are sold in Meidi-Ya Supermarket here at $24 for three. The box of 15 amela tomatoes she bought at Tsukiji Market cost just 1,200 yen (S$15).
Olive Oil From Europe
When travelling to olive oil-producing countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain, head to the local store selling artisan cheese or meats and ask for the good stuff: extra virgin olive oil made from the first press of olives. Mr Andrea Scarpa, 29, of the Da Paolo Group of restaurants, says the owners of speciality stores - such as Pizzicheria de Miccoli in Sienna, Italy, and Cedro 33 in Rome - source the best produce. They can also tell you which olive groves produce the best oils each year.
"A family-owned salumeria, which makes its own salami and sells it in its own shop, is very selective about the products on its shelves. Speak to the shop owner, ask when the harvest was and how good the season was. Olive oil is characteristic of the environment in which the olives are grown. Weather plays a big part in its quality," he says.
Ranging in colour from golden to bright yellow-green, the flavour profile of extra virgin olive oil varies greatly - from fresh and fruity to spicy and peppery - with whiffs of herbs and the taste of minerals. It is not oil you use in a pan. This premium oil is best used as a dressing in soups and salads or as a dip for bread, which allows one to taste its unique flavour. When looking for the best, head to Spain or Italy. Venta del Baron from Andalucia, Spain, for instance, has won more than 60 awards, including World's Best Olive Oil by the International Olive Council. For something more indulgent, look for extra virgin olive oil perfumed with sliced white truffles, such as L'Oro In Cucina made in Umbria, Italy, by TartufLanghe, which costs €18.70 (S$28.50) for a 100ml bottle. It is a treat in risottos or atop meat carpaccio and scrambled eggs. Award-winning olive oils can cost upwards of $30 to $40 a bottle overseas, but are €10 to €20 at the source. Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age, so store it in a dark glass container away from direct sunlight.
France's Fleur De Sel
There are many types of salt, from smoked to kosher and pink Himalayan, but fleur de sel remains the favourite of chefs around the world, and it is often the most expensive. Fleur de sel, which means "flower of salt" in French, is the lace-thin layer of salt that forms on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. It is so fine it must be harvested by hand using a special wooden rake. Due to its delicate flavour and texture, fleur de sel is used as a finishing salt, sprinkled atop anything from salad greens to meat to French fries, right before the dish is served. It is especially tasty on desserts such as creme caramel for a hint of saltiness. ,The salt has a different taste and texture depending on the brine and mineral content of the seawater, which varies by origin and season. These days, fleur de sel is produced around the world, including in Canada, Italy and Portugal, but traditional fleur de sel from the Atlantic coast of France - where it has been harvested by hand since at least the ninth century - is still considered the best.
The towns of Guerande, Noirmoutier and Ile de Re are thought to produce saltwith the finest flavour - a sweet, delicate brine without a trace of bitterness. In France, these can be bought in supermarkets and outdoor markets for about €5 (S$7.60) for a 250g bag, or three bags of herb-flavoured salt for around €12 - less than half the price of the same salt in stores overseas. By comparison, a 90g jar of fleur de sel costs $11 here.
Spain's Jamon Iberico De Bellota
A traveller to Spain could return with any number of delicacies - from fresh seafood to first-pressed olive oil - but no foodie haul would be complete without jamon Iberico de bellota. Similar to Italian prosciutto, but with a deeper flavour, jamon Iberico de bellota is from the Iberian pig, a descendant of the wild boar primarily found in the central and south-western regions of the Iberian Peninsula. The pigs, distinctive for their black skin and hoofs, spend their lives grazing in pastures. As they near the age for slaughter, they are herded into oak groves to gorge on bellota (acorns) for six months. It is this unique diet which gives the meat its distinctive taste and the fat its creamy, melt-in-the-mouth texture. Once salted and cured for 24 to 48 months, the ruby red ham is sliced translucently thin and often served with melon or hard cheese.
The quality of jamon Iberico de bellota varies depending on whether the pig's acorn diet was mixed with commercial feed. For the best quality jamon Iberico de bellota, which can cost €26 (S$39.50) for 80g and €520 for a 6kg leg, look for hams with a black label, indicating purebred Iberian pigsfed on 100 per cent acorns in the last months of their lives. A red label means the ham is from pigs that were 100 per cent acorn-fed, but not purebred. The best jamon Iberico de bellota can be found at Moniberic (www.moniberic.com). Family-run for more than 40 years, the chain specialises in sourcing the best Iberico ham in the market - from renowned producers such as Cinco Jotas and Tomas Lopes - and has stores across Spain, including in Barcelona, Ibiza, Mallorca and Madrid.
This article was first published at The Straits Times, 30 April 2017.
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