One of the most amazing things about travel is the opportunity to try foods that you would never encounter at home. Even foods we were familiar with in the United States, tasted better when we ate them in their countries of origin. After a year of full time travel in Europe, we were starting to take it for granted that bread was fresh and delicious. I still remember the mornings when Jake would go out early and run to the nearest bakery before breakfast (at least on the mornings when we didn’t have a photo shoot).
When we got to Asia in January, we forgot all about bread. There were so many local dishes – flavors and spices I remembered from my childhood in China, but with which Jake and Lisa were unfamiliar – that we coasted for months on the novelty of it all. But delicious though everything was, novelty only lasts for so long. By the time we finished February in Taiwan, we were starting to get nostalgic for the crispy crust and rich flavor of European bread. Stores in China and Taiwan carry western bread of a sort. They have sliced white bread, which they call “toast,” even though it isn’t toasted. It’s sweet, almost like a fast food hamburger bun or a spongecake. There are also steamed buns, and various soft pastries. But none of it tastes so satisfying as what we had grown accustomed to, and none of it made us feel healthy.
In March, we arrived in Dali, China – A city about the size of Boston and settled in for two months in a house near the Old Town, a few miles away from the noisy streets and apartment towers. Lisa was ready to explore. Like never before, she is eager to engage with the world. Whatever Jake and I are doing, she wants to do too. She wants to run around with other children. She wants to pet the animals and climb on the rocks. I started searching for activities she could participate in between the high snowy mountains to our East and the huge sparkling lake to our West.
When I saw a bread making class, the images jumped out at me. Looking at them, I could almost feel my teeth breaking through the crust, and smell the oven in the background. I signed two of us up, and a few days later, we were in the kitchen of Dali’s Black Dragon Cafe, putting on our aprons. Our teacher was CC (short for Cecelia, which the locals found it difficult to pronounce), the owner of the Cafe, who lived in Dali with her husband, a British expat. She met us in a market in the Old Town where we bought fresh fruits and vegetables, before getting started.
As we were getting ready for the lesson, CC told us how she had learned to bake European style bread. They worked as translators, converting English cook books into Chinese for Penguin publish house. After some time living in Dali, her husband began to miss the European Bakeries, much like Jake and I had. When it fell on her to translate some recipe books, CC took the opportunity to teach herself as she worked. After some practice, she began investing in her baking, and eventually saw that was in a great position bring outside flavors into Dali.
I was a little skeptical, at first. In our months in Asia we had already made a few attempts at indulging our nostalgic tastebuds. Generally speaking we have found that Asian attempts at western food are not worth the time or money. Either the food is not fresh, or it is made to look like the intended dish but prepared with local ingredients that simply don’t taste the same. We had signed up to make pizza, ciabatta and focaccia, and I secretly worried that even if we had the right ingredients, that they would have to be frozen or dried. But it turned out that CC had a farmer friend outside town who grew western vegetables and spices. A basket had been delivered fresh that morning, and when it was laid out on the table we saw some familiar favorites.
Before we arrived in Dali, my biggest concern was that we might not be able to find good vegetarian food. Though it’s a good sized city, we were staying far outside the center. I searched online for nearby grocery stores and the results weren’t promising. But we knew that the locals had to get their food somewhere, so we dove in and just trusted ourselves to make due. As usual, our worries amounted to nothing. After a day or two we discovered food markets, open every day, that sold fresh fruits, vegetables and meats from the fields that covered the valley on our side of the lake.
The food markets resembled the farmer’s markets we used to visit on the weekends in big European cities. But the similarity was superficial. Most of the farmer’s markets and green markets we enjoyed in European cities and towns (like Paris, Beaune, Split, and Uzes) catered primarily to tourists. We paid higher than premium prices for breads, cheeses, wines, fruits and vegetables that were only marginally better than we could get at the bakery down the street. When those european farmer’s markets were closed, we shopped at grocery stores, just like at home in the United States, where the food never tasted fresh and we were never sure exactly where it was coming from.
The food from the street markets in Dali is always fresh, local and seasonal – because it has to be. Maybe it’s all in our heads, but we really feel a lot healthier after just a few weeks of living here. The fresh food and fresh mountain air have us feeling more energetic and glancing approvingly in the mirror every morning. Even Lisa seems to be running around with a little more energy than she used to (not that she was low on energy before)!
When it was time to start making the dough, Lisa didn’t need a lot of coaxing. Once CC poured some flour in a bowl, letting a messy puff of white powder rise up and fall gently on the table, Lisa was down with baking. As a two year old, her attention span and her ability to follow steps are limited, but she was delighted by the individual sensations and motions of measuring, preparing, and combining ingredients. At home, we had already begun letting her “help” with meal preparations, but I didn’t realize until then how ready she was to get involved in the kitchen.
Months back, when Jake did his interview about staying healthy while traveling with Christina from Adventure Together, she told us about the importance of teaching children about the food you want them to eat. It helps them learn about what is healthy and why, but more importantly, because kids are so curious about the world around them, they are naturally more inclined to eat foods that they feel a connection to. Christina says that none of her kids have ever been picky, and sure enough, when her pizza came out of the oven, Lisa was more enthusiastic about eating than I had ever seen. A week later, whenever we ate bread of any kind, Lisa brought up the baking class and bragged about the food she had cooked herself.
Since then, we’ve been trying harder to get her involved. She helps crack nuts, she slices mushrooms with a butter knife, and helps set the table. She eats a bigger variety of food now, and more of it. And one last benefit of Lisa’s help, it’s been forcing Jake and I to slow down and take a look at what we’re eating as well. With Lisa’s help, cooking feels a little less like a chore and more like playtime. When we explain to her why her vegetables are so healthy, and where they came from, it drives the point home for us as well. Suddenly snack foods don’t feel so tempting, and those leafy greens are more satisfying than ever.
Jake and I still have a lot of world to show Lisa, and she still has a lot to show us. I really want to make sure that she grows up healthy, and that we are around for every milestone she hits in her life, long into the future. I want our entire family to enjoy the world together, never taking our bodies or our minds for granted. More and more, I’m starting to realize that for Jake and me, taking care of Lisa is just another aspect of taking care of ourselves – for ourselves and for each other.