If you want to experience life like a local when you travel, go to the markets.
In Barcelona, Spain, that would be La Boqueria, one of the city’s first public food markets and also the most visited. You’ll see throngs of locals and tourists in joyful pursuit of some of the freshest produce, meat and seafood you can find in the area. If you’re a food enthusiast, La Boqueria is your pilgrimage spot, a place to imbibe the sights, sounds and aromas. It is an amazing sensory experience.
My traveling and dining partner on this recent trip to the Spanish coastal city was my 13-year-old son, Ethan. We found a table amid all the bustling activity around our periphery and became transfixed by the plate of paella before us: heaping mounds of layered saffron-colored rice, slow-cooked in an authentic hearth. Originally, the dish was cooked in open air in a huge pan called a paellera. It fascinated Ethan that early versions included snails.
“Snails, Mom!” he exclaimed excitedly. “I bet the kids in my class would make fun of me if I brought that to school for lunch. Just like they did that time I brought Indian food and they called it disgusting and said it looked like throw up.”
Flashback … rewind.
I was suddenly flush with memories, transported to my freshman year of high school in Queens, New York City. I spent my childhood in India, arriving to the U.S. as a teen, with puberty and angst in tow, and reeling from the culture shock of life in America.
In the cafeteria, next to the smells of burgers, mac and cheese, and sloppy Joes, my mother’s tamarind-tinged fish curry could very well have been snails based on the scowls and disapproving glances at the table. “What is that stank?” someone yelled.
If a hole had appeared, I would gladly have escaped into it.
In today’s America, in a post-Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern world where travel and exposure to global cuisine are at our fingertips, I would never have believed my son would go through something like I had.
“What did you do?” I asked Ethan.
“I kept eating the dal (lentil soup) and chapati (an Indian flatbread made with wheat flour) you made for me. No one else has to like it but me.”
Where did my teenage son develop such a strong sense of self to deal with situations identical to the ones I had faced as a teenager? I choked back tears of pride. I’m convinced his early exposure to travel has shaped who he is today.
At the Sagrada Familia, one of our pit stops on a marvelous walking jaunt around Barcelona, I watched Ethan’s face light up as he reached the top of the tower. We agreed that this still-unfinished Catholic church was one of Antoni Gaudi’s singular masterpieces. Despite my helicopter parent proclivities, I forced him to practice his rudimentary language skills by ordering breakfast for us at a cafe.
Indulging in Barcelona’s glorious tradition of churros con chocolate was enthralling for my adventurous eater son. At La Nena, Ethan and I discovered amazing chocolate churros. On the menu, it said it’s served with chocolate milk, which Ethan loves wholeheartedly. We were pleasantly surprised when the churros arrived in a mug of velvety rich chocolate sauce perfect for dipping the fried pastries.
Books and board games lined the cafe shelves. Ethan relished watching Catalan kids of all ages play Uno, one of his favorite card games. He joined a young teenage girl in a game or two. They have stayed in touch over social media. I hope he develops that friendship and has the opportunity to see her again someday, whether in Barcelona or here in the U.S.
These lessons he has learned from travel are ones that he could not have learned in a traditional classroom. In fact, these experiences have made his classroom studies come alive.
To me, this experience underscores the importance of exposing our children to global flavors. Traveling around the world may not always be feasible, but a city like Atlanta affords us access to places like Buford Highway for ethnic cuisine, which can make dining out with kids an exciting, teachable moment.
Sometimes it’s looking at the other side of the aisle at a place like the DeKalb Farmers Market. Instead of gravitating toward familiar Yukon gold or red bliss potatoes, pick up that unfamiliar yucca and make a yucca mash. A world of culinary adventure awaits when our kids ask the question: What’s for dinner?
Creating these memories with my son has helped me reconnect with the joys of motherhood as I see Ethan grow into the confident young man and citizen of the globe I hope he is inspired to become — one who won’t be afraid to try unfamiliar dishes along the way.
Catalan Shrimp and Chicken Paella
Sofrito is the base for a lot of rice dishes in Latin and Spanish cuisines. It is generally made with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices. Yellow Spanish rice can be found in the international aisle of most grocery stores. If you don’t have a paella pan, use a large saute pan or large cast-iron skillet.
Whole-Roasted Sardines and Sweet Bell Peppers
Ask your fishmonger to cut, clean and scale the sardines. Sardines are a seasonal fish, and fresh ones are not always readily available in supermarkets. Look for them at farmers markets and international markets.
Spiced Hot Chocolate
This recipe was inspired by the hot chocolate that my son and I enjoyed with churros during a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain. The condensed milk gives the drink a velvety texture. Add more condensed milk if you desire more sweetness.
Asha Gomez is an Atlanta chef and the author of the cookbook “My Two Souths” and the forthcoming “Color Full: A World of Bright Flavors From My Kitchen,” to be published in spring 2020.
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