Image: Simphiwe Mbana

Ottolenghi was in town the other day. If you don’t know who that is, then find someone who loves you enough to want to improve your cooking. Yotam Ottolenghi is the guru of why-didn’t-I-think-of-that cooking: a typical Ottolenghi meal takes something you keep in your cupboard (linguine, peanut butter) and adds an unexpected ingredient, usually burnt (lemon, aubergine) with an anxiety-inducing lashing of olive oil. He makes the sort of food you serve self-deprecatingly on a platter with an intimidating loaf of sourdough, in your expertly tended garden, while your guests look on in envy.

What the celebrity chef was doing sampling the last of our summer wine was the subject of intense speculation among my friends and me. Would the proprietor of such unequivocal recipe tomes as Plenty, Simple, and, of course, Comfort, have sampled a Gatsby while he was here? What would he have found interesting, or unexpected?

To travel as someone whose daily grind is all about the sensory joy of food must be a bit of a pain. Ordinary hacks like you or me grow sick of our own cooking all the time, so imagine how odd it might be to fly to the other side of the world only to be presented with someone’s less-good take on your roast-grape and curried-yoghurt starter?

This is perhaps an extreme version of when people say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” The enlightenment era gifted us the romantic notion of the grand tour, where travel is always a voyage of exploration, even if the journey is ultimately about finding yourself (self-obsession did not begin with the forward-facing cell-phone camera). Travel is like a trampoline, where you venture elastically away from where you started, only to return to earth (hopefully on your feet). Bouncing too far away from the familiar becomes scary, so why not go somewhere you can be reasonably certain the food will be good?

For those who can afford to do so, travel is more than ever about seeking out reassuring spaces in which to find ourselves interesting again. It may not immediately seem apparent, especially when you think about how much tourism advertising is about getting you to believe that you’re the sort of person who will fling yourself over white-water rapids or tango in a plaza because that’s who you are all the time.

The fantasy is that being placed in a strange location will unlock the sense of adventure you always knew you had. But the reality is that your medical insurance probably won’t cover a helicopter evacuation if one of your important parts experiences an unexpected change in its relationship with the rest of you. You might well conclude that it’s better to Eat Pray Love your way through your journey. And here lies the alchemy. Food nurtures the soul, as does travel. So, if you think of travel as self-improvement rather than an expensive indulgence, then it makes sense to combine the two. Thus runs the appeal of food tourism.

Travel is more than ever about seeking out reassuring spaces in which to find ourselves interesting again.

But, of course, comfort trumps novelty more often than not. Not that novelty is a readily findable commodity these days: you’re not going to turn over a corner of Dordogne that has somehow escaped the attentions of some other intrepid gastro-tourist. This is why a lot of the culture-mongering you are confronted with when you travel is about reducing all the unique and textured ingredients that make up a place to some easily apprehended version of the local. I would not know what to feed Ottolenghi if he showed up at my door (once I’d recovered). When you try to summarise an entire place via its food, it feels like you set out to devise a rich stock and ended up with an instant-noodle packet.

As the child of immigrant academics who moved halfway across the world when they were in their twenties, I feel like I should be more excited by the intersection of food and travel but, increasingly, I find myself as drawn to culinary tourism as I am to barbed wire. Especially since a large part of my professional life — literary festivals, fellowships, the occasional conference — is spent trying to pick a restaurant in a strange place.

If we weren’t so committed to the idea that travel is about experiences we can relate to our friends later, then it wouldn’t matter so much. But you know as well as I do that one of the first questions you’ll be asked when you return from wherever you’ve been is, “What did you eat?” And you can’t simply say you ate your weight in pizza, even if you were in New York. You’re expected to be discerning, to choose the very best. What you eat will determine the story you tell later.

When I travel on my own time, I try to make that story more interesting by figuring out how something ended up where it is. The story of why there are so many Haitian street-food vendors in Philadelphia is far more interesting than the story of how we tried to find the best Philly cheesesteak. There’s so much more to discover in what we don’t know. So, I’m sure that Mr Ottolenghi ate well (it’s difficult to do badly, down here). But, more than that, I hope he ate something that surprised him.

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