Ever since I was a little girl I’ve dreamed of traveling the world, and as my love of food grew, I hungered to taste the unique flavors of faraway lands. Let’s call it hungerlust. Cooking and eating connects us all, and I can’t think of a better way to explore a country or get to know its people than to break some bread, or pita, or crispy wontons with the locals.
I have an ever growing list of places I want to visit, and of course, an accompanying list of the foods I’ve gotta try when I get there. I have to have bratwurst, sauerkraut, and a stein of beer at Oktoberfest in Munich one day (obviously, I’m wearing a dirndl in my vision of the trip). I can’t wait to eat my way through a giant vat of seafood paella in Spain. And perhaps most importantly, the trip I’ve been planning since the ripe old age of nine, I absolutely must eat fresh pasta in Italy, preferably sooner rather than later.
About a month ago I traveled to South America with my boyfriend David. It wasn’t a place I yearned to visit, but his MBA program took him there for ten days, and I tagged along. I’m game to go anywhere, and more than anything I love to wander the streets of my destinations, working up an appetite as I go and tasting cheap, tasty street eats along the way. I didn’t know when I traveled to South America that I would be greeted by my two greatest loves or that I would be welcomed by such a proud, culturally vibrant people.
Left: Santiago, Chile, ridin dirty on the funicular. Left: The view from our hotel window in Quito, Ecuador, no biggie.
It’s no secret I’ve been having a decade long love affair with dark chocolate and wine. Individually, they boost my mood, improve my outlook on life, and instill a deep sense a calm in me that even an intensive meditation, yoga, or a run can’t. Together, they make me feel invincible. I had no idea that in traveling to Santiago, Chile I would learn so much about wine. Or that in Quito, Ecuador I would taste the finest piece of chocolate ever to cross my lips. Not only did I spend almost all of my souvenir money on dark chocolate (it’s now sadly gone) and experience the most unique, interesting wines I’ve ever tasted, I connected on a deep level with the chocolatiers, winemakers, and home cooks I met along the way. I was inspired by their unapologetic love of food and good wine, and I was truly inspired by their drive to create and provide pleasure and comfort through food and drink.
Just a couple of the vineyards I visited in Santiago, Chile. If there’s a heaven it looks and smells and tastes like this.
Left: Frizzy hair, don’t care. The humidity of Quito couldn’t keep this gal from the chocolate shop. Republic de Cocoa. It’ll blow your mind, but don’t think about logging onto your Amazon account to buy some; they don’t export. While I hone my importing and exporting skills a la George Costanza, check out the view of the sprawling city of Quito.
We started the trip in Santiago, Chile; a bustling city akin to New York or L.A. A metro line connects the booming metropolis, and I realized quickly just how little 10,000 pesos buys a girl. Everything was incredibly expensive, leaving me in a panic when I mentally tallied the cost of our quick, casual lunch. Although pricey, every meal was an experience, replete with glasses of wine and multiple courses. Chileans take pride in the dining experience, evidenced by the two and three hour meals we enjoyed dining al fresco.
It was tough to drag myself away from this gem: it’s a whole, dry-aged pig laying on the countertop of a restaurant we visited in Santiago. Everyone knows, pork meat is the best meat.
While my boyfriend met with entrepreneurs and business owners in Chile, I was left to my own devices. Read: I found an all-day winery tour. It would be inappropriate to reveal all the gory details here, but let’s just say, Chileans don’t do one ounce pours. You get a glass. For every tasting. I went to three wineries, each offering 4 tastes per tour. Do the math. It was a glorious day! Let’s just say I was internally scolding myself on the hour-long drive back, “Put on your big girl panties, Amy, and don’t embarrass yourself among your new, totally awesome, American ex-pat lady friends.”
The gals and me getting our wine on. Notice I’m double fisting it. Wine tasting in Chile is not the same as wine tasting in America (in a reeallly good way).
Of course the wine was delicious; rich, and deep, and crisp and somehow better than all of the South American blends I buy at the local Liquor Barn in Louisville, KY. But the thing I will always remember about my journey to Chile’s wine country is the fiery passion in the eyes of the winemakers. They were proud of their craft and kept reiterating how lucky they felt to have the opportunity to craft something that made people feel warm and good and connected to the people they loved. Cooking has always brought me joy, but getting to know these passionate people made me want to push harder to accomplish my dreams.
Left: A local Chilean woman selling her goods on the street. Four snickers for $1?! The only bargain in the country. Right: One word: EMPANADAS!! My new favorite food.
Next we were on to Quito, Ecuador, a place I didn’t know existed until I learned we would be traveling there and whipped out a map. I certainly didn’t expect to love the country, nor did I expect to have my favorite experience of the whole trip while wandering the streets of old town colonial Quito. I occupied my solo time with a culinary tour of the city, a steal at $100 for what turned into an all-day, one-on-one tour of the city’s signature dishes with my kind foodie host, a local Ecuadorian named Byron.
Left: We had the pleasure of listening to a family band just outside of Quito, Ecuador. They played a mean pan flute. I’m working on honing my talent on the souvenir-sized flute we brought back. Right: The power lines of Quito. Seems risky.
I nervously hopped into the front seat of Byron’s pick up early in the morning on my second day in Ecuador and didn’t know whether he would steal my passport and money or show me some of his cities unique culinary treasures. I’m here to write this today (passport intact!) so I guess you know how it played out.
Byron traversed the old cobblestone streets of Quito like only a local could and zipped me around to hidden alley bakeries and native markets. Our first stop was at a 100 year-old family owned bakery where I was lucky enough to not only taste one of all of their sweet specialties, but also bake their signature cheese Danishes with the women who have been doing it since they were able to walk. After we finished making a batch, Byron snagged a still warm pastry from the massive oven and we enjoyed it together on the patio while drinking hot chocolate with mozzarella cheese. That’s right, Ecuadorians serve their hot chocolate with a square of mozzarella cheese. You put it in the hot drink and the cheese melts slightly as you stir. As you drink your cocoa, you use a small spoon to lift out the cheese and take a tiny nibble with each sip. Sweet meets savory done right, people. Try it!
Byron charmed his way into the basement of this quaint bakery in Quito, Ecuador where I got to practice my Danish making skills.
Full from the bakery (I’ve never been good at pacing myself), my guide took me to at least another half-dozen local shops, insisting I take “just a little” of his favorite Ecuadoran treats. I tried everything from the fresh pressed juices of fruits I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce to crispy pork skin pulled off of a pig fried whole. All of it was delicious and fresh and when I communicated my pleasure with each bite, the local merchants beamed with pride.
A local-only market in Quito, Ecuador. I stuck out like a sore thumb until I tore into that giant fried pig. They seemed impressed by ability to handle my pork.
Perhaps the highlight of the tour was its finale which found me making tamales and empanadas in a local woman’s home. Byron kindly translated for us as Maria and I connected immediately while rolling masa and frying our creations in the center of her small make-shift kitchen. She was kind and generous and stuffed me full. She made fun of me incessantly for saying “Delicious!” each time I tasted her creations, asking Byron why American’s always say “ummmm, so delicious.” Her laughs at my expense were absolutely worth getting to experience the simplicity and generosity of Maria’s home cooking.
Getting my empanada and tamale on with Maria. She was sweet enough to not make fun of my deformed versions of her perfect fried treats.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Fullness and indigestion plagued me, but so too did the light in the eyes of the people who prepared food for me and Byron on our tour. As I tossed and turned that night I felt validated, realizing there were other people who loved food just as much as I do.