Have Passport, Will Eat: Meet the Foodie International
Beef hearts on a stick on the streets of Lima. Crispy skinned guinea pig in an Ecuadorian restaurant. Fried scorpion proffered at a Beijing night market stall.
It sounds like a menu Andrew Zimmern would tuck into on an episode of Bizarre Foods. But to Elyse Pasquale, 34, a theater producer in New York City, these exotic eats are the cornerstone of a personal travel and tasting quest in which she's aiming to fly 100,000 air miles and eat 100 meals around the world by the end of 2010.
Pasquale, who's been blogging about her experience as the self-dubbed Foodie International since early 2010 when she set out on her quest, first got the idea for her tasting world tour when she took part in pig slaughter in a Tuscan village in January. Pasquale spends summers at her family's home in Italy, where their Tuscan neighbors welcomed them into the community fold. She was intrigued by the hands-on approach to food. "Our neighbors make fantastic cured meats, prosciutto and sausage," says Pasquale. "They kill their own animals, all their veggies come from their garden. I can't even tell you how amazing the food there is."
Amazing enough to inspire Pasquale to hit the road in search of more fabulous food experiences, it seems.
While in Tuscany, it occurred to Pasquale that men are most often the hosts of shows involving bizarre and exotic food themes -- while women are usually relegated to cooking shows staged in a show kitchen.
"It's really rare that you see a woman going out there to far-flung destinations and eating crazy things like guinea pig." she says. "And I thought, why can't it be a woman?"
So Pasquale, who says she "will eat literally almost anything on the planet," decided to embark on a quest to discover the world's cultures by taking a seat at as many foreign tables as possible.
Her travels, at the roughly 76,000 mile mark so far. And Pasquale, who usually travels solo, says that taking a different approach to tourism has been key to serendipitous foodie experiences along the way.
"When I go to a new place, I say, 'Take me where you like to eat,'" says Pasquale. "Their faces totally change. It's a great way to meet people."
She recalls a Peruvian friend of a friend she met in New York and later reconnected with in Lima: "He brought me to the most local street corner in Miraflores, where a little lady was selling beef hearts on a stick, anticuchos de corazon," says Pasquale. "He told me she's been there so many years. And as popular as she is, she prefers to cook on the street corner."
And that's just one of many authentic food experiences Pasquale would have been unlikely to find without the help of a local.
During recent travels to China, she used the website Asmallworld.net, which calls itself "a private community of internationally minded people around the world," to connect with Shanghai locals in the food industry for possible dining companions and advice on the best places to eat. Through the website, Pasquale met the manager of a hotel restaurant who helped her secure a table at Jesse Restaurant, one of the city's most exclusive destinations for Shanghainese cuisine. "It's super casual, but it's so famous for being so delicious and you have to know someone to get a reservation," says Pasquale.
There, Pasquale had one of her braver food moments when she tried drunken shrimp -- shrimp drenched in rice wine that arrived at the table wriggling, still alive.
"They were still moving, and I'm apologizing to every shrimp I ate," says Pasquale, who describes the taste as "very, very fresh sashimi."
"I bit off at the tail-end, which is nice and crunchy," she explains, "and the inside is sweet."
During her travels, Pasquale says she aims for a mix of street food and restaurant food, opting to splurge on one high-end meal during her trips.
"I'd never been to Russia, and it was one of my dreams to go there," says Pasquale, who is of Ukrainian descent and has fond memories of foods like borscht from her childhood. "So I wanted to go the best restaurant in Moscow, but then I also went to a place where I could get my food on a cafeteria tray. Restaurants don't have to be Michelin-starred, they just have to be known for spectacular local cuisine."
When it comes to funding her travels and meals, Pasquale does a lot of research in advance of trips to get the best airfare deals. Since she's trying to rack up as many miles with the same airline as possible, Pasquale flies exclusively with Continental Airlines.
In deciding where to go, "I get out their route map for inspiration," she says. "I also look at their specials, weekend specials, last minute deals." And searching fares for flexible dates, says Pasquale, is a good way to find an inexpensive ticket. "You can look for a three night stay over the next six months," she says, adding that she recently found a $510 roundtrip fare to Istanbul from New York.
Eating guinea pig in Lima, Peru:
And if you're wondering how Pasquale stays healthy with all that eating on the road in exotic locales (she says she hasn't fallen ill once), she's got a few rules she follows.
"Eat local yogurts, the bacteria helps your system," she says. "I don't [eat] Western food in places that don't serve it. Looking for food you miss from home is often where you get in trouble."
Eating spicy foods helps kill bacteria, too, she says. "And wash it all down with the local alcohol."
Before year's end, Pasquale's travels will take her back to Tuscany for the annual olive harvest and to one of her all-time dream destinations for eating -- Japan.
"I am really looking forward to sushi and going to Kyoto, as it's apparently the seat of all Japanese cuisine," she says. "I'll go up there to have Imperial-style meals, all home made."
But for all her exotic desires, Pasquale's last meal request, she says, is as All-American as it gets.
"Basically a pound of some good farmer's bacon. I like American style bacon over the flatter, wider European variety with a side of ketchup," she says.
After the year's travels wrap up, says Pasquale, she's considering writing a book that shares more stories about the people she's met in all the fabulous places she's been (her blog focuses more on the food aspect of things) .
"This journey feels very much like The Wizard of Oz," says Pasquale, "I've been meeting people and keeping in touch with them." She's even met back up with a few new friends in different places, too.
"It's amazing what kind of luck you can have in really experiencing a culture through the food."
You're probably wondering at this point if there's any food that Pasquale won't eat. The answer: cake.
Still hungry? Check out our list of the 10 Strangest Foods in the World.
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