5@5 - How to bring home a taste of your travels
May 7th, 2013
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Editor's Note: Matt Gross is the author of the new memoir "The Turk Who Loved Apples." Follow him on Twitter @worldmattworld.

For most of the past decade, I was on the road. I was a travel writer, working primarily for the New York Times (where I was the Frugal Traveler), and also for several other publications, including Saveur and Afar magazines. As I ranged from Buenos Aires to Gdansk to Chongqing, I was so hungry for the experience of new, great food that I quickly realized I couldn't just return to my nominal home in Brooklyn, without bringing back a taste of my adventures.

Flouting U.S. Customs regulations (or, really, just not bothering to find out what they might be) I sought out these five essential ingredients that travel well, last long and offer up pungent memories of far-flung lands.

Five Essential Foods to "Smuggle" Home: Matt Gross

1. Hot stuff
Simply put, I love spicy food - Sichuan, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican - and wherever I go I’m fascinated by how the chili pepper, born in Central America, has become an inextricable part of the local cuisine. I try to take that home with me. Dried chilies are usually affordable, lightweight and fascinatingly diverse. They also last forever and my pantry is full of multiple bags.

In the Caribbean, I seek out local markets for homemade, unlabeled bottles of what they call “pepper sauce.” It's vinegary, flush with the power of Scotch bonnet chilies and often made by the women who are selling them. Getting them home in my luggage requires a bit more care than with the dried chilies, but it’s nothing a few layers of plastic bags can’t handle.

2. Italian Chocolate
I never set out to acquire a collection of Italian chocolate bars, but over several trips to Rome I kept noticing beautifully wrapped bars of cioccolato artigianale - high percentage chocolate sometimes spiked with simple, understated flavors like sea salt or mint. Even though I’m not a sweets guy, I found myself buying more than I ever imagined.

You see chocolate bars all over, often at gelaterie like Fiordiluna in the Trastevere neighborhood. Said, my mainstay, has been in business since 1923 and I often I get their chocolate with peperoncino. As I write this, I realize my supply is dwindling - time to book another flight!

3. Olive oil
Sure, Whole Foods carries a few dozen different varieties of olive oil, from Greece to California to Chile, but there’s nothing like getting it at the source. The olive oils I’ve picked up abroad (often in Italy, of course) have been the most flavorful I’ve ever tasted. The one I bought in a reused two-liter soda bottle in the Moroccan town of Ouezzane was so intensely olive-flavored that my wife refused to eat it. More for me, then.

4. Salt
The salt you use has an incredible effect on your cooking. Overseas travel offers the chance to acquire salts nearly impossible to find back home. In Hanoi, I picked up a small packet of fleur de sel de nuoc mam, the crystals of salt that form on the rims of the clay jars used to produce fish sauce. In Yangon, at a gourmet market called Sharky’s, I found sea salt culled from the Ngapali coast.

Beyond these individual flavors, this is also an intriguing sign of how developing countries are learning to market their strengths to food-loving Western visitors.

5. Tea
Are you going to a tea-producing region, like Kenya, Darjeeling, or Taiwan? Then you'd better plan on bringing back as much of the flavorful leaf as you can afford. Get yourself out to a lush tea estate, or find a serious tea shop, taste everything they have and buy enough to last you till your next long-haul back to the area. And by the way, can you pick me up 300 grams of a good oolong?

Got an ingredient you always bring home from your travels? Share it in the comments below.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 100 Places to Eat • 5@5 • Think • Travel

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soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Kelly Rogers

    Hahaha. You are so funny. But it's true that we often bring food items with us from our travels. And food is a great gift to our family and friends.

    March 4, 2014 at 1:12 am |
  2. Terry

    Cumin from Xinjiang, China.

    May 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  3. Cindy

    Balsamic vinegar from Italy.... heaven in a bottle. Thick, syrupy, sweet, tangy vinegar. A drop goes a long way. I brought a large bottle home 3 yrs ago and have used it on simple caprese salad, to strawberries with black pepper. A drop on shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano tossed with a salad. I could go on. There is nothing like it in local groceries. Now, should I book a flight to Rome for summer vacation? I have a pantry that needs restocking.

    May 8, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • Buck

      Try looking on sites like Amazon (they do actually list a few balsamic vinegar items from Italy) or other places that sell gourmet food products. That being said, I don't mean to take away an excellent excuse to revisit Italy. :D

      May 8, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  4. Buck

    Interesting article. However, I'm honestly a little concerned after reading "Flouting U.S. Customs regulations (or, really, just not bothering to find out what they might be)". You should ALWAYS declare any food items. It's not just because "Failure to declare food products can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties". It's also because sometimes you may not be aware of certain food restrictions that have been put in place for VERY good reasons. For example, there's this alert: "Effective July 30, 2011 non-commercial quantities of rice from countries where Khapra beetle is known to occur will be prohibited from entering the United States. Failure to declare rice will result in fines". When traveling internationally, I recommend checking the US Customs and Border Protection website for alerts and ALWAYS declaring your food items. By declaring food items, you essentially remove your risk of getting fined and lessen the chance of bringing back unwanted pests/diseases.

    May 8, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Buck

      Weird, I'm confused as to why my comment above had to await moderation. At least it was finally posted.

      May 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  5. Truth™


    May 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  6. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    Ha Ha Ha! I have definitely been known to "smuggle" things home with me... Shhhh!! ;)

    May 7, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
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