The town of Keralan of Thiruvananthapuram is located less than 600 miles north of the equator, so the seasons range from hot to rainy heat to particularly hot heat. April is a particularly hot season, with a humidity of 95 ° F, and as I step into the smothering kitchen of Chef Murtry to film it while I prepare a chickpea curry, I wonder what the hell I'm doing. I traveled to India on vacation to see a friend who works there. I have no reporting task; I'm just a guy with a camera phone who asked his friend to ask a local restaurant if we can go out with the chef.
I'm soaked with sweat. I'm not relaxed The heat from the stew pot is burning my hair as I try to capture footage from the top. But I'm spending a lot of time. Murtry is not used to anyone who cares about how he prepares his incredibly delicious food, and is telling us all about it. It shares a technique I've never seen before: deep fry pieces of coconut in their oil to add a layer of intensity to the stew. And as we speak, the pieces of the puzzle of a kitchen that has always fascinated me begin to intertwine. When the dish is ready, I learned more than how to assemble a black chickpea curry; I began to understand the fundamental building blocks of the local taste of Kerala.
We advance a few months and it turns out I'm testing a homemade version of the Murtry chickpea dish for a future story of a newspaper. But this is just salsa, never part of the plan. In Murtry's restaurant, all I care about is learning something new from a guy I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise.
This is the way I go. And, while an unrepeatable experience as a private lesson from a chef may seem like a trick of the journalistic profession, the truth is that if you have time, money and privileges to travel, you can probably find something similar. I'm always tickled by articles and tourist announcements that promise "local", "authentic", "local" experiences … for the low price of any package they sell. In many cases, all you have to do is think like a reporter.
To be honest, I'm a bad holiday organizer. I never understood how to accumulate hotel points or plan a route. But I learned to ask because is As, to question the way cities work and the way food makes its way into everyday life. In Singapore: how the egalitarian ideals of a country are opposed to its complex ethnic politics and what it means for its famous centers of street vendors. In San Francisco: what growing real estate costs are doing at restaurants in East Bay.
This is not the way the travel industry wants you to think about your trip because they can not sell curiosity the way they can sell hotel rooms. You must bring your questions with you. And you can not respond by following a guide.
It's true that I often have access to special places and experiences that your average tourist probably can not do. I am a friend of writers and businessmen who can connect me to the locals with the juice. I can get around the press credentials to attach myself to farms and factories. And above all I travel alone, without any other significant or scion to appease, and foreign cis-white males like me do not have many problems abroad.
But as many signal trips do not require special access. Consider the trip to Boston that Daniel Gritzer and I took three years ago, visiting 45 restaurants for three days in search of the city's best lobster roll and pho. Of course, our reports were about the demand for well-connected landlords for the recommendations, but once we stumbled across the streets we were nothing but starving civilians, hobbled by the lobster shack at the pho counter and absorbing the local culture along the way. .
Every report task begins with a question, and to understand what questions to ask, I like to consult sources outside of travel guides. Do not get me wrong, the service-oriented travel writing is an essential, good service. But the local paper usually gives you a better idea of where you're going, and obsessive bloggers are easy to reach and are often happy to oblige a friendly email with recommendations. And when I'm tired of reading, I cook. A practical way to understand the skills you get in a local kitchen is to impress you at home.
Here's how Kerala happened. After reading dozens of blogs about recipes and eating Keralan's kitchens in New York, I asked myself a question: what is the famous food of the state – its abundant seafood and coconut, the rich use of spices, a talent for fermentation – what makes you taste so damn good?
Fortunately, an Indian-American friend of mine had obtained a Fulbright scholarship to study world-renowned palliative care practices of the Communist state. Growing up, she spent her summers with her family in nearby Tamil Nadu, and since she is also a good eater, she was happy to offer herself as a translator while we spent a week asking cooks and cooks for lessons on how to prepare their dishes favorite.
Local experts like these are called fixers and everyone from journalists to Andrew Zimmern rely on them to make connections. But it is not necessary to work in the media to find and hire one. In Mexico City, for example, my friend Lesley Tellez has a whole company dedicated to this kind of thing. In New York, he combines the obsessive Scott Wiener with a specialized tour for pizza fanatics.
Even with a fixer, entering Murtry's kitchen took perseverance: numerous visits and carefully explained explanations that we were just curious people – one of whom was a journalist – who loved his food and wanted to see how he had done it. At one point, we were promised entry at 6 in the morning, just to show up and be rejected by another staff member who was not of the right mood to humor us. Which led us to visit another restaurant nearby and have a lesson on dosa-making.
Here's how the report goes. Start with a list of names. Make your approach. Try another tactic when things eventually go wrong. It takes patience and a flexible program, a luxury for every traveler, but a luxury worth fighting for. I prefer to spend six days in a city rather than two days each in three. You have to get used to the local rhythms. Accept a minimum of boredom as the story unfolds.
"At the market, I would just like to start asking questions to the ladies," travel writer Robyn Eckhardt told me last year in an interview about his fabulous Turkish cookbook. "" What are you doing with this? "" How do you do that? "" Things foolish like that. "From there, maybe you see someone making bread, and hey, I'm interested in bread. "Well, if you came to your village, would you show me how it's done?" Sometimes it's yes, sometimes not. "
Eckhardt and her husband, photographer Dave Hagerman, have spent over two decades traveling and reporting across Europe and Asia, finding hidden food stalls and tracing family recipes, sometimes on assignments, to sometimes just for kicks. Hagerman is early riser, he says, and leaves before dawn to capture the morning light. In the middle of the morning, the markets are busy enough to allow Eckhardt to convince the locals with questions. "Everyone wants to talk about food and it's not threatening, I'm not a prankster or anything, I just want to talk about your cheese and people trust me because I really want to talk about their cheese."
The non-rabble-rouser part is important. Every traveler is a guest in someone else's home. So respect when someone has finished talking to you, or if they are not likely to start a conversation. Remember to compensate the people who help you, paying the services of a repairer or bringing a friendly family to lunch.
A few months ago, I was able to observe a master of reportage at work when my friend and neighbor, the writer Anya von Bremzen, was reporting a story about the different foods of Queens for Airbnb Magazine. (Disclosure: I also wrote for the magazine.) Von Bremzen is a hard-party muscovite with a talent that leads to jealousy making fun of stories out of people. Talk to Bukharan bakers. Jokes in Spanish with taco on the World Cup match on TV. They open up to her, tell her where he likes to eat in the neighborhood, offer fresh blood sausage flavors from the plate. Von Bremzen, in turn, absorbs all this. Follow on lead. It's always time to hit another empanada shop with an attractive window.
This is a more difficult job than it looks. A lot of intriguing angles turn into blind alleys, and empanadas are not always worth the trip. But learn something along the way. And bring home an incredible story with you.
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