I thought it was just me. But as I chatted with a woman who had just finished a grueling five-day work party with Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador shortly before we both left the country, I found myself nodding in agreement when she started talking about how good the lightly seasoned Salvadoran cuisine was. The simply sweet plantains, the mashed black and kidney beans, the rice with carrots and onions; the chicken, incredibly moist and tender, the beef “the best I’ve ever had” said my boyfriend in a kind of shock as he chewed at a random roadside restaurant. (I don’t even eat meat, so I'll take their word that it was delicious!)
Neither the Habitat volunteer, myself or my boyfriend were eating at expensive places — quite the contrary, we were supping at streetside shacks, urban B&B's, cafes where all the people were locals, and in mid-range hotels on the beach. And Salvadoran food isn’t known to be heavily flavored; the food, from single ingredients like eggs, avocados, meat, papaya and tomatoes, to prepared dishes, like traditional Salvadoran pupusas and empanadas — just tasted better. It seemed to have more natural flavors (as opposed to added flavors). I found myself adding hot sauce to my food less and less over the course of my two weeks there.
The Habitat volunteer speculated that it was because, for the most part, processed foods aren’t that big a part of the diet for the average Salvadoran (yet — the fast-food chains are making their way in, as they do everywhere), so the people take more pride in the food that they do have, which tends to be what's simple and inexpensive to get in the region. I suggested it was because everything was so fresh, not shipped from halfway around the world; mangoes and avocados literally fall of the trees there, ripe and uneaten, even by birds and animals, because there are just so many of them. I also wondered where GMO foods might come into play in this discussion; or monoculture farming.
Certainly the meat that was being eaten in those roadside cafes and people's homes came from the chickens we saw running through the streets of every village, the cocks crowing at the crack of dawn, or the meditating cows that meandered along every roadside as soon as you left the highway, or being herded along the beaches.
I'm always searching for more flavor in my food at home, and I found exactly what I was looking for in El Salvador; eating less of the food was satisfying due to the natural flavors, and it got me to thinking. Maybe our problem with overeating is that our bodies are searching for those natural flavors, that freshness, and we aren't finding them, so we keep eating, and searching, and eating. Maybe we've forgotten how good real food can really taste.
I write this as an organic-produce buying, summer vegetable garden-having, food conscious person who is persevering in learning to cook (and truth be told, I can make a few dishes quite well, though I often lament my cooking skills). I pay attention to where my food comes from and how it's prepared. But when one visits El Salvador (or Italy, or Mexico, or so many other places in the world) and is blown away by the quality of the eggs, the freshness of the tomatoes, the full on flavor of the beans, it makes me wonder what exactly I'm usually eating that's so unsatisfying that I feel the need to each so much more of it.
The truth is, I have no idea why food tastes better outside America, it just (generally) does — to me, to my boyfriend, to the random woman I met from Colorado, and to most of the people I know who love to travel. From California to Florida, from New York City to Chicago, much of what I eat in this country is lacking in some kind of integral flavor, so I'll keep loading on the hot sauce (Hey, it's healthier than mayonnaise or ketchup, right?).
And don't even get me started on the fruit.
Do you think food tastes better outside the U.S.? What's been your most memorable meal abroad?
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