Thursday, February 9, 2012

Taste the Trip: Edible Souvenirs

Cambodian Pepper Green Curry

If you are going on a trip soon and want to bring me back a souvenir, I’ll give you a tip: when it comes to gifts, I’m cheap and I’m easy.  Just ask my boyfriend.

When John went on a work trip to Cambodia last fall just before my birthday, he returned with presents in tow.  I adored the scarf of eggshell blue silk and instantly wrapped myself up in the buttery soft pashmina of ivy and black.  But he saved the best for last: three little jars of spices- white peppercorns, green peppercorns, and red chili powder.

These Kampuchean peppers had the ability to clear sinuses with just one little sniff.  I had never been so keenly aware of the difference in smell between peppercorns until they were brought back for me direct from the source.

Over the next month we found ways to work the peppers into meals in ways both big and small.  The black pepper was coarsely ground and crusted on a flank steak.  Both peppercorns were sprinkled on salads and tossed with potatoes before roasting.  Black, white, and the red chili powder made its way into a spicy green beef curry.  Each time we cooked, we inhaled the aromas of the Southeast Asian jungle.  With each bite, we were transported far, far away from our city apartment. 

Spices are also one of my favorite souvenirs for myself.  Light and portable, they are easy to pack and simple to carry, an important factor to consider particularly if they are purchased at the beginning of a long journey.

They are the gift that keeps on giving, a literal taste of vacation long after a return home.  A bag of red salt from Hawaii, Kaffir lime leaves from Thailand, a large salt crystal from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, and most recently, vanilla beans and nutmeg were carried all the way home from a spice farm in Bali. 

Friends will often think of edible gifts for me when returning from exotic trips. Some years ago a friend traveled to Syria and returned with a package of saffron.  It was a rare and beautiful gift from a country now plagued with violence.  I have never been to Syria but I thought of the country often as I bloomed the red threads to season paella and stirred the stigmas into broth adding vibrant color and flavor to bouillabaisse.

When it comes to gifts from travels, it is good to remember that clothing fades, jewelry breaks, and one only has so much room for African drums.  Memories may last forever, but spices, now that is a gift so good you can literally taste it.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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