Five Flavors Worth the Flight

Over catch-up drinks a few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing her upcoming trip to the Czech Republic, a country that ranks high on my list of places to which I'd like to return. I thought it worth mentioning to her a particularly notable local dish – so that she could either seek it out or make sure to avoid it entirely, depending on her travel objectives.

“It’s beef served with a creamy gravy and dumplings, which is pretty familiar, right? But then you have the condiments. There’s cranberry sauce and … whipped cream.”

The puzzlement on her face perfectly matched the expression my travel companion had in Prague, as the dish – known as svíčkováwas set down in front of her.

For the record, the dish wasn’t terrible – unfamiliar to my American palate, for sure, but certainly worth trying – but it wasn’t one that would rank among my top travel picks. But the conversation did get me thinking: What are the dishes that I’ve loved most during my international travels? After some time to contemplate, I’ve compiled them below, as well as information about how you can experience them for yourself should you be giving your passport a workout.

Honorable Mention:
Grand Marnier Soufflé
Chez Dumonet Josephine, Paris, France

I relished every single morsel and moment of our dinner at Chez Dumonet, from the warm and welcoming service to the last sugar crystals of this incredible soufflé.

Number 5:
Beef Rendang
Jakarta, Indonesia

I’ve never felt quite so out of my element as when Matt and I arrived in Jakarta. After nearly 27 hours of travel, I didn’t know what day it was. What time it was. Where within Indonesia’s massive capital city I actually was. But I did know that I was excited to explore and sample the local cuisine. Rice. Sambal. Fruit. Yes to all of it, please.

The only reason rendang is at the lowest spot in this list is because I only experienced a small bite of it while in Indonesia itself. Our tour group popped into a small Indonesian restaurant – the kind with the white bowls and servers of deliciousness stacked in the front window to entice passersby – and were given a brief chance to sample the goods. Rich, smoky, spicy, and decadent, the flavors unleashed a slow burn in my mouth that left me wanting to come back for more and introduced me to the incredible food I would experience for the next two weeks.

While I can’t recall the name of the specific restaurant we popped into, I can tell you that those in the Boston area should keep an eye out for what Kaki Lima is up to. This incredible team is in the midst of a six-month residency at Wink & Nod, and up until recently, the menu included rendang. We've been twice already since they kicked off the residency in March. I'd love to see rendang back on the menu, but everything they create takes me back to Java and Bali.

Indonesian food should be a bigger deal in the U.S. than it is. Don’t waste time. Get a taste of it now.

Number 4:
Soft Pretzel
Salzburg, Austria

I’m a pretty equal opportunity bread lover. Rolls, baguettes, croissants … whatever it is, I’m on board. Warm it up and I’m done for. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the large soft pretzel. I keep mine simple – big grains of salt, please – and love to save the twist in the middle for the very end.

I happened across the motherload of soft pretzels while exploring an outdoor market in Salzburg. And while there were many covered in cheese, dusted with poppy seeds, and other pretty adornments available, I went for the classic.

I took a bite and then went back to buy another one for later, when I’d returned to my Danube river ship. Hearty without being dense. A good crust to bite into, but soft and satisfying inside. Big flakes of salt that melted on the tongue.

These pretzels are the reasons I’ve stopped buying pretzels at sporting events. They can’t even compare.

Number 3:
Shopska Salad
Arbanasi, Bulgaria

By the time I sat down to try one of Bulgaria’s most-celebrated national dishes, I was convinced that it had been over-hyped. For at least two days, I’d been hearing about it. Shopska salad this, shopska salad that.

Fast-forward to my return from Eastern Europe, when all I could do was talk about shopska salad.

This seemingly simple combination of four ingredients – roasted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, and sirine cheese – is a near-perfect marriage of flavors. The brightness of the sirine (the Bulgarian version of feta) enhances the sweetness of the red pepper, which plays nicely off the tomato, which makes the cucumber pop … if I was limited to eating only one kind of salad for the rest of my life, this would be it.

Number 2:
French Onion Soup
Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France

During a return visit to Paris in December, I embarked on a one-woman quest to find the city’s best onion soup. And while this required me to sample bowl after bowl after bowl of delicious soup – the struggle was real – I persevered until I found it.

We’d planned an indulgent dinner (ok, fine, one more indulgent dinner) for our final night in the city. While I’d thought that the meal was intended to celebrate another wonderful visit to our favorite city, it turned into something else: Since Matt had proposed earlier in the day, it became our engagement celebration dinner.

Perhaps my mood – giddy doesn’t even begin to describe – influenced my dining experience a little, but our evening at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie would have been magical even without that element coming into play. Nestled in the 1st arrondissement, the small space embraces its cozy quarters with gusto, with accents of red velvet, a quirky assortment of non-matching chandeliers, and shelves that encourage a visitor to look up and around.

The restaurant is known for some of its more decadent main courses, and Matt still raves about the foie gras ravioli served in a truffle cream sauce. But I continue to lust after the onion soup. The broth was light, but packed with an incredible depth of flavor that I hadn’t quite found anywhere else. The cheese was just the right kind of salty and inviting, and the crouton had a bit of sweetness to it that kept me going back in for more.

Other takes on the soup that I’d experienced – in Paris and back home – were all delicious, but also super rich and filling. This was perfect: flavorful, exciting, and a wonderful introduction to the meal to come. And it left me wanting so much more.

Number 1:
Strawberry Juice
Bali, Indonesia

The best thing I’ve ever tasted during international travel is a tall glass of strawberry juice that I drank during a lunch on the Indonesian island of Bali.

My tour group had just finished visiting Ulun Danu Bratan temple and stopped by a nearby restaurant. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order strawberry juice had our guide not recommended it – the man had good taste and had yet to steer me wrong. When the thick juice arrived in a large glass and straw, evoking thoughts of a ‘50s diner-style strawberry milkshake, I couldn’t help but smile.

Then I sipped. Total gamechanger. It was sweet, but accompanied by this incredible punch of tartness that woke up my entire mouth. I could feel and taste the pulpy bits of the fruit – hear it even, as it made its way up the straw. The simplest possible thing – a glass of juice made from a fruit I’d eaten every year for my entire life – was making me think of strawberries in an entirely new way. Familiar yet fresh. Exciting yet comfortable. I had consumed a third of the glass within two sips and couldn’t get enough.

I feel better about the world knowing that Balinese strawberry juice exists. And yet there is a little part of me that despairs that there are 10,045 miles standing between me and the single best thing I’ve ever tasted while abroad.

Yes, I mapped it. It was that good.