Food and travel are two things I have always been passionate about. One of the criteria I looked for during my in-depth research into optometry schools was whether or not it offered extensive travel opportunities so I could marry these two passions with my true love: community service. I have since been fortunate enough to go on two mission trips to Peru and Mexico. Not only did I gain clinical experience and memories for a lifetime, but I had delicious food shared with the most welcoming and vibrant people.
Trying to enjoy local food on a mission trip can be a challenge because you are essentially on a “working vacation”—I was drained after working in clinic all day and eager to go somewhere with adequate Wi-Fi to connect with life back home. I, too, am guilty of this, and I found myself armed with my laptop in a bar three shops down from the motel, checking emails and talking with loved ones. But the experiences that I remember the most are those where I stepped out of my comfort zone, opened my mind and explored my surroundings. So, here is a “how-to” for when one day find yourself in a strange country with a passion to explore the culture through food.
Rule No. 1: Don’t Be Afraid of Public Transportation
This first rule seems odd, right? Taking a bus in an unfamiliar place or walking around unsure of where you are seems highly unsafe. However, what I mean is that you shouldn’t be afraid of utilizing local transportation if you are with a group and don’t feel unsafe. Use your best judgment, of course.
The group I went with felt completely safe because we were in Puerto Vallarta, a densely packed tourist town. We walked along the El Malecon boardwalk and entered a foodie’s paradise—there were about a dozen food stalls adjacent to the boardwalk! One stall offered up tacos al pastor (translated to “shepherd style”), which is pork infused with pineapple flavor influenced by shawarma spit-grilled meat. Another offered the most delicious sopes, which are thick, corn cakes, and these were topped with carne asada, chicken or chorizo, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and fresh salsa. One of the volunteers had a torta, a gooey, cheesy sandwich, dripping with juice from the carne asada. However, my favorite stall was the one offering churros. These churros were made on site and delivered into your hand, nearly too hot to eat, covered in sweet cinnamon and sugar, crunchy on the outside and sinfully soft on the inside. They also offered filled churros with sweet condensed milk, chocolate or caramel, but the traditionalist in me kept coming back to the original, in all its simplicity.
Rule No. 2: Follow the Crowd
No matter what country you venture to, one thing holds true: people gather. It is an undeniable law of physics that humans are drawn to other humans. From Puerto Vallarta, we ventured to a small town called Mascota. At night we walked into the town square, where the entire town had come to take in the food and sounds of the local band playing. The pinnacle of the town square was a vast and old church where nuns were selling tamales, which are cornmeal dough that surrounds meat and/or cheese, baked or steamed in cornhusks. They were extremely hot and delicious; I devoured it before we even completed our first lap around the area.
Language barriers caused us to be inadvertently more adventurous with our food choices, as one classmate discovered when he mistakenly put an excessive amount of red spice on his corn and proceeded to turn that exact shade.
Rule No. 3: Share a Drink or Two
Multiple times while in Mascota, the Lion’s Club President kindly invited us to eat at the ranch. It was here that I have some of the best memories of the entire trip. It is a sprawling ranch where weddings and large gatherings are held under the stars and illuminated with romantic, ambient lighting from large lanterns in the trees. They played music for us and one night even had a live mariachi band come to celebrate a board member’s birthday. The president had tequila (which he manufactured himself) and was eager to share. If you want to experience what it is like being a local, share a drink or two with them. It does not have to be homemade tequila, but the simple act of having a drink with them will surely lead to good conversation.
Also at the ranch, I had the best guacamole of my life, which is saying a lot considering I have tried countless different guacamoles and also make my own. But this guacamole will forever be embedded in my brain as the best. So, share the guacamole and a drink and enjoy your time with those around you.
Rule No. 4: Try the Goat…
…Or cow brain, or tongues, or any other questionable meat that you would only expect to ever be nestled in the body cavities of those animals instead of on our plates. Aside from it being a sign of respect to the locals around you, trying food you never would have thought to try is another way to open your mind and expand your palate.
Our next two clinic days were in Talpa, a similarly small but lively town. One night we went to a taco-stand and tried a taco with cow intestines. Surprisingly, it tastes just like beef. In the morning we walked to a small restaurant called Tres Pistolas (“Three Pistols”) and ate birria (a spicy stew traditionally made with goat or mutton) and pozole for breakfast. It was served with onions, cilantro and the best tortillas I have ever consumed. There was a lady in the tiny kitchen making all of the tortillas, and trust me when I say that she has her craft perfected. They were thick, corn tortillas that were so soft and complemented every dish you consumed, from the birria, pozole (a soup made with hominy and meat, such as pork or chicken, and garnished with radishes, cilantro and lime) or nopales (a dish primarily made with cactus).
Rule No. 5: Just Do It
My spring break mission trip to Mexico was complete with gained knowledge, gained memories, and gained weight. Every dish that the volunteers were fortunate to eat was so obviously made with love and a profound simplicity, yet packed with enormous flavors. Perhaps being surrounded by volunteers who felt like family when discussing clinic, along with experiencing the culture, made the food more delicious. Whatever the reason,the next time you find yourself in a foreign place, I urge you to open your mind, your heart and, most importantly, your mouth.