Tastemaker: Jodi Ettenberg and Her Worldly Appetite

[Note: This post was originally published on MarcusSamuelsson.com.]

For Jodi Ettenberg, traveling has literally become a full time job. On the road since 2008, the lawyer-turned-professional blogger has been documenting her journeys on her leading blog, Legal Nomads. Seeking out stories of different cultures and highlighting the travelers and people she has met along the way, Ettenberg also developed a penchant for waxing poetic about the international flavors she encountered.

Whether delving into the flavor profiles of Southeast Asian cuisine, or learning how to avoid gluten in Italy—Ettenberg has Celiac’s Disease—the perpetual jetsetter knows her way around a street stall. Which is why she and other travel bloggers recently group-published a series of handbooks for others seeking their own journeys. Her contribution, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, is a collection of Ettenberg’s savvy tips for eating in foreign climes and how best to enjoy the flavors while not getting sick.

“Traveling really changed how I thought about food. I was brought up not realizing that food was a connective tissue. It was necessary, but not much more than that,” says Ettenberg, who hails from Montreal. By traveling and chasing flavor, Ettenberg became a gastronaut, in search of deeper, richer flavors in each country she visited. “After being on the road for a while, especially in Asia, I would come home aching for those flavors,” says Ettenberg. “You would find me dragging a friend with me, and there we’d be–in the middle of Flushing, Queens or wherever–going from restaurant to restaurant, trying everything because I was craving authentic Chinese food so badly.”

Street stall eats in Flushing, Queens
Street stall eats in Flushing, Queens

In “Food Traveler’s Handbook,” Ettenberg lays out practical tips to developing a taste of international eating for experienced travelers and novices alike. A huge fan and proponent of street food and hawker stalls, Ettenberg wanted to dispel the myth that you’d get sick from the food being prepared in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. “It’s about being smart and alert,” she says. Ettenberg’s tips run the gamut: carry your own set of utensils (she packs traveler’s chopsticks) so you know the source of water used to clean them; visit stalls frequented by women with children and older crowds; and try to learn how the food is stored and prepared. “More often than not, I got sick in restaurants. I couldn’t see what they did in the kitchen, but on the street, it’s transparent and you can avoid those stalls,” says Ettenberg. And don’t mistake hawker vendors for the trend experienced in this country now. “For someone who doesn’t know, the hawker/street culture is not street cred cachet. It’s not a trend but a necessity. For a lot of countries, it is the soul of that place. It’s how people eat.”

Beyond her expert advice on maintaining health and hygiene on the road, Ettenberg’s book also shows a deep passion for her subject. Her palate for big flavor is apparent in her stories about the Sichuan peppercorn, keffir lime and sumac. “Dude, I love pork,” Ettenberg says. In Asia, she loves eating soup for breakfast; in Morocco, she implores readers to visit the morning markets, or learn about the national dish before arriving and finding someone to teach you to cook it. Our favorite piece of advice: take home a bunch of spices. “A food-based souvenir is an ideal gift for yourself or for those you love. Using it at home instantly transports you back to the smells, the tastes, and the feelings of discovery you experienced when you first tried it abroad,” says Ettenberg in the book.

Spices used to make tagine.

As for “healthy food” abroad, Ettenberg says don’t worry too much about Western ideas of diet. “[Back home], we think of “healthy food” as salad, but salad in a developing country could make you sick, due to a lack of clean water,” she says. Instead, eating abroad is all about “maximizing your calories per taste.” She says that the foods we know (pad thai, for instance) is the “sexier, richer stuff that’s easier to sell overseas.” Everyday food, she says, is grilled or steamed, served in lighter, smaller portions. “These foods aren’t drenched in oils and fats, but are fresher flavors that you may never have seen,” she says.

If there is one thing Ettenberg wants readers to take away from reading her book, it’s to not be afraid of exploring a place through its cuisine. “Engage with the people around you. Learn the basics of each country’s cuisine and ask questions. Food has become ‘too cool’ for some, but with travel, there is no barrier to entry, so jump right in and stuff your face!”

[Photos by Jodi Ettenberg]
[This post was originally published on MarcusSamuelsson.com]

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