Join host Nisreene Atassi as she and guest Nilou Motamed – who you may know from Top Chef and her time as Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine Magazine – discuss how they’re re-living key travel memories through the meals they’re making.
Their conversation touches on memorable meals through previous travels, and how food connects us all through the globe. They talk about bringing home bulging suitcases of tasty souvenirs and the particular charms of eating like a local in destinations around the world.
Make sure you listen for Nissy’s particular hack for bringing home a taste of your travels – Nilou might steal it, and you can too!
A Trip Down Food Travel Memory Lane
Nisreene Atassi: When it comes to travel, don’t get me wrong. I definitely love meeting new people and seeing amazing sites, but I have to confess many of my travel highlights are directly related to the meals I’ve eaten well far from home. For instance, I will absolutely never forget enjoying the most decadent cheesiest fondue in the Swiss Alps. Or that time when I asked for a menu at a beach side cafe in Sri Lanka, and what I ended up getting was a plateful of the fresh fish that they had caught for the day. Which can only be prepared one way. Either way, this deep connection between food, travel, and memories is what has really inspired this episode. For so many of us, myself included, the food we eat while traveling often has a longstanding impact on how we experience a destination. The reality is that travel is not necessarily an option for everyone right now, but we know that food has a powerful way of bringing back some of our fondest travel memories. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System.
Today’s guest is no stranger to the powerful connection between travel and food. Nilou Motamed, is a recurring judge on Top Chef, and is the former editor in chief of Food and Wine Magazine. She has traveled pretty much everywhere, and eaten pretty much everything that you can think of. Welcome to Out Travel the System Nilou, We’re really glad you’re here.
Nilou Motamed: Hi. Nisreene, so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. So let’s dive right in. In 2019 Expedia commissioned a global study and found that 52% of Americans said that either cooking the meal from a trip or some of the local food, helped them feel like they are recreating that travel memory. Here we are in COVID, and I know personally I’ve been trying to really relive some of my favorite travel experiences by cooking certain meals. For example, earlier this year, over the summer, my husband and I made some paella, with some spice mixes that we purchased when we were in Spain last year. Nilou, what have you been sort of making during the pandemic to help feed your wanderlust if you will?
Nilou Motamed: You are so spot on, it’s as though you’ve been basically in my kitchen with my husband and me, in Brooklyn this whole time. As soon as we realize that lockdown was not going to be for a couple of weeks, we felt like we needed to dig deep in all of those sense memories that we love so much about travel. So first thing we did was actually start going through our amazing photo albums. We just started looking through all of our trips, and it was a great way for us to immediately feel connected to the rest of the world. Because the world got very small, very quickly for us. My husband, Peter is a travel writer and we met at Travel and Leisure Magazine 20 years ago. So we have traveled around the globe together and have a common and obsessive passion about food.
So while we were in lockdown, we really started thinking about what were the meals that made us feel connected to Vietnam? What were the meals that made us feel connected to Tokyo? How could we recreate our trips to India? So we did the exact same thing you did. We started digging through our spice drawers for all of those things we’ve brought back from recent trips, and I started experimenting. I started making Pad Thai, but I didn’t have tamarind, so I decided to use Persian plum and it turned out great. I started ordering from small mom and pop shops all around the country who were desperate for business and so happy to ship things to me. I had almost run out of basmati rice, I’m from Iran. So Persian Tahdig, which is the crunchy bottom of our rice, is delicious. Thankfully my American Scandinavian husband appreciates it as well.
So I felt like I needed to comfort in a lot of different ways. So I got in touch with the market that I usually go to in up in Westchester County. I couldn’t get there myself and I don’t even know if they ship. But the owner was kind enough to ship me the pickles that I was craving, the rice I needed, and that tamarind that I was looking for. Next thing I was in business again. That feeling of being able to create solace through food, and to feel grounded is so valuable and so irreplaceable. So we have always felt that way, but often we’re not at home. We’re traveling, if we aren’t traveling, then we’re at restaurants. Once you take all of those inputs away, we found that it was so important for us to tap into those flavors that we have loved whenever we’re traveling.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it really is a vacation state of mind, right? You don’t realize how much you miss that mental state until you have no way of really achieving it. So we’ve had to get super, super creative. All of the things that you just mentioned are things that Americans are all doing. So looking at photos and videos from their trips, sharing memories of places they’ve traveled to. People even said that wearing some of the clothes that they bought on vacation was a really big piece in helping them to achieve the sort of vacation state of mind and food for so many of us is a really big way for how we can really help to make that an actuality.
Nilou Motamed: Everyone is just looking for that comfort, that only comes from a hot bowl of noodle soup. Whether it’s pho, or whether that noodle soup is has mala spices, it’s something that’s Szechwan, what it is, is the opportunity to sit around the table. To try to remember what’s important, which is the joy of being together. Rather than some of the anxiety that we’ve all been feeling.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, absolutely. So Nilou, you mentioned that you were born in Iran, but I know that you sort of moved to Paris after that with your family. Then now it sounds like you’re in New York. When you’re talking about home, it feels like Iran is really the place that you come to. So is there a dish or a meal that really instantly takes you back?
Nilou Motamed: That’s a really good question. Iran is home. It’s interesting to me that obviously I have been away from Iran longer than I lived there, but my heritage and my culture is very, very tied to Iran. The way that actually we maintain that cultural tie, especially when we were away was through the food. Actually there’s a poignant story while we were in Paris, living in Paris, there’s a word in Farsi, that’s called (in Farsi), which it means being away from home, and feeling like that sense of loss. I think there was a real sense of loss because we couldn’t be with our extended family. We were apart from them and there was a deep loneliness and we were in a foreign place. You can’t underestimate how much that homesickness will affect you.
So my mom, again, through… I was lucky and that she is a great cook. So she would make us rice dishes that resembled the food of Iran. But then there were ingredients that we couldn’t find. She couldn’t find barberries in Paris. I’m sure now you could find them anywhere. So she decided that she would make this barberry rice, which is a… barberries are kind of like a sour, tangy little berry. We’d sweeten them so there’s a sweet and sour balance to that rice. She decided that she would make them with raspberries, “framboise” which is the French word for raspberry. So we would have (in French). (In French) is rice. Then “framboise” is raspberries.
It’s nothing like what we would have at home, but it did make us feel a little bit more connected. I remember the weddings, the parties, any occasions during that time that we were in Paris, every single mom would make such an effort to make these beautiful plates of food. If you haven’t had Persian food, or maybe if you’ve only had Persian food at restaurants, Iranian households are really about the visual appeal of food as well. Which I think is very common to a lot of cultures. But it’s all about the ornateness, it’s all about the beauty of the presentation.
So there would be gold leaf on rice dishes, and there would be huge heaping platters of fruits and just exquisite demonstrations of hospitality. I think that that is another component that we forget is, how important hospitality is as a part of our food dialogue. There’s a reason why restaurants are in the hospitality industry. There’s a reason why I think as we’ve been in shutdown mode. We all feel a little bit bereft because that component of being taken care of, that component of being nurtured through food is a little bit missing right now. Not that we can’t recreate that at home, but there is an element of socializing around the table, and feeling like you are part of a bigger whole that I certainly can’t wait to get back.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. I think that the hospitality piece is actually, I think really important. Especially because not only obviously for food, but when you think about travel, people are looking for these experiences that help them feel welcomed. They want to experience something new and different. But they also want to feel comfortable and that’s why people really lean into the things that help them, sort of travel like a local. They also lean into destinations where they find that the culture is incredibly warm and welcoming. That almost always centers around some sort of a food experience, I think. I’ll remember, there’ve been plenty of times when I’ve traveled to the Middle East and my parents are originally from Syria. So I was lucky enough to go back a lot right before the war started, but I’ve traveled throughout the Middle East.
You always get this sense that even when you go into certain restaurants, or even to people’s homes that you get this sense that it feels very welcoming, and it’s this almost like this whole production, as you say, “These big gigantic platters with these sort of elaborate food displays.” It really makes the whole entire experience something that people really want to emulate. I think for me, that’s how food and travel really solidified its connection.
Because whenever I go to a new place the reason why I love to try the food is because, I do feel like it gives me an insight into the local culture. Obviously the heritage of the destination that you’re in. The agriculture, is it a seaside town? Or is it incredibly fertile lands and things like that. So I almost feel like just by going and having meals in certain destinations, you just inevitably end up learning so much about it. Is there something really specific about food and travel that you found that you’ve really started to lean into? I know you talked a little bit about how at first it was,” These are the must- see restaurants”, but it’s evolved into something a little bit more.
Nilou Motamed: What’s phenomenal about food is I think it’s the great equalizer. So I talk a lot Vietnam because I love it so much. But I think when you’re in Southeast Asia, just like you said about being in Sri Lanka and being at that beach side Jack. You realize that actually you want to steer way, way clear of fancy food as much as possible, and to go closer to what is the most authentic experience you can have in those cities. So whether you’re in Hong Kong or whether you’re in Hanoi, I think I am always drawn to things that local people are eating. In fact, one of the biggest franchises that I started when I was at Travel and Leisure was a franchise called Eat Like a Local. the premise was where are the local people eating? I think that Instagram has been an incredible asset for research and for wanderlust, and for really exploring before you get to a place.
Because I think that when you rely even on magazine editors I’m going to say, we come from the outside. So my biggest joy honestly is going to a city and eating the heck out of it, which means, six, seven meals a day. Then at the end of that week of being in a city, sharing the list that I’ve come up with of my favorite restaurants with a local person, and them not only giving me approval for it… which always is great. But then actually saying, “Oh, I didn’t know about that place.” It’s because our job as magazine editors, as food editors, as reporters, is to reflect the truth of the place. I think there’s no bigger truth than what you get served on a plate on the side of a road, with motorcycles whizzing by. Or, I mean, I remember being in Salta in Argentina, and I’m in the middle of the mountains. There was a “parilla” which is a grill. There were dogs just circling, obviously delicious meat. Why wouldn’t they be circling?
There were no seats available and the owner just took basically a card table, but it was a plastic card table and plopped it in front of a truck that was parked. Put us in the middle of the street. I think I might’ve had my best grilled meal ever in the middle of this dusty town in the middle of nowhere in the mountains in Argentina. To me, that experience of being around local people, that experience of eating what local people are eating is so much more compelling than having, let’s say a Michelin star meal. Not that I have anything against those kinds of checkoff A- list meals. Those are pretty special too. But I think the only time I really liked to have fancy meals when I’m traveling, it’s very specific. Two times. One is hotel breakfasts. I love a hotel breakfast. Especially when I’m in Asia. I feel like that to me is the epitome of luxury.
Nisreene Atassi: Because they’re so different and so unique as well.
Nilou Motamed: Yeah. So you can have Japanese breakfast when you’re in Tokyo, you can have pho when you’re in Vietnam. By the way, let’s remember that I eat six or seven meals a day when I’m traveling so-
Nisreene Atassi: Of course, you have to, it’s your job.
Nilou Motamed: I know, so that’s not my only breakfast, but the fruit is beautiful. I love mangosteen. So when I’m in Asia, any opportunity where someone else will have gone to the market and buy beautiful fruit and cut them up for me, makes me very happy. Then I also, I’m a real sucker for incredible sushi. While you don’t have to necessarily go to a fancy restaurant, the restaurants in Ginza… I have a list of the ones that are my favorites, tend to be a little bit fancier. What I love about those experiences, where you sit at a counter with only six other people, and you better show up exactly when your reservation is otherwise, you are really putting shame on yourself and the restaurant.
Then there is this beautiful choreography of having exquisite pieces of fish that are really thoughtfully sliced. Then the shaping of the rice. Then the fact that someone is actually looking at the size of your mouth and deciding what size your piece of nigiri should be. That to me is sort of the epitome of luxury. I am fine with getting dressed and feeling like I am having a special night out for sushi.
Nisreene Atassi: It’s funny that you bring that up because I definitely had one of those nights when I was in Tokyo, where we went to very, very lovely sushi restaurant. Omakase style. There were maybe 10 seats total. We were a group of five, so we took the last five. But typical Americans, we let our sort of hotel concierge set it up for us. We had no idea that we were going to such a lovely place and we were enjoying it. It was just absolutely beautiful. Then the bill came and we had to do some math conversions. Then we realized how nice of a restaurant we were at. But you’re right. I think you can run the spectrum of all of the different types of experiences that you can have. Okay, this conversation is making me very hungry. After a snack break, we’ll be back with some expert advice from Nilou about keeping that connection between travel and food going between now and your next vacation. Stay with us.
You’re listening to Out Travel the System and I’m your host Nisreene Atassi. We love getting to dream about travel and sharing our inspirations with you. We also love sharing all kinds of insider tips and tricks for travel savings. Please make sure you like and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. So you can keep getting all the love we put into Out Travel the System. We’re here to listen to you too. So message us at Expedia on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook whenever you get a chance.
I’m here with Top Chef judge Nilou Motamed. So we both had a bit of a snack I’m ready to dig deep into your most delicious travel secrets. So I want to talk a little bit about planning a trip. At what point does the food come into play for you? Are you the type of person who plans ahead for restaurants in the destination that you’re going to? Are you looking things up and making reservations? Are there things like local markets that you want to make sure you try? Or are you the type of person who typically arrives first speaks to the locals and then sort of plays it by ear?
Nilou Motamed: Nissy, I feel like if you knew me, you would know I don’t leave anything to chance. So I would like to say that I am that girl who just packs a carry on, and then just shows up and then rolls with it. That would be totally not true. So my job is to dig deep into a destination and find the best of it. So I look at any trip that I take as an opportunity to do just that. So for me, I come at travel from the point of view of a reporter. I think a lot of people nowadays, do. We all have limited time to travel, limited opportunities to travel, travels very expensive. So when you’re going, you want to make sure that your trip is going to be everything you wanted it to be and more.
So for me, that really means that I do a lot of advanced research. I do many different things, which I think a lot of us do. I will certainly go on social media. Instagram, I think is a phenomenal tool to start digging into places that I might be interested in. Obviously, magazines and websites are a great resource as well. Ones that you trust, writers, that you trust, are a great idea. People whose pieces you’ve read before, and you feel like if you see that byline on a story… If someone doesn’t know what a byline is, that’s the name of the writer. You can trust their taste. Food critics are the same in different cities.
I think local websites like local eaters around the country, eater. com are great resources. So I think I’ve, I’ve hinted at this, but yes, food is a very important part of why I would go to a destination. Whether I’m traveling domestically. So if I’m going to, let’s say Austin, or I’m going to Los Angeles, or I’m going to Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. I’m definitely going to be thinking about what I’m going to be eating. Whether I’m there on assignment or not, that’s just who I am. I think part of the training that I’ve had over the last 20 plus years of being a magazine editor is I really just can’t turn it off.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Nilou Motamed: A funny story when my husband and I, now a long time ago, in 2003 we went on our honeymoon. We were in Bali and it was beautiful. We were staying at very, very luxurious hotels. We were staying at Amans and Four Seasons. Honestly, we were so wiped out from the big trip. Obviously the fact that we were coming right after our wedding. Finally after maybe a week of us relaxing, and getting massages, and lying by the pool, we both basically gave each other permission to go out and find the story.
The funny thing is we weren’t working, but the point is it’s in our DNA. So we both felt like we wanted to go find out what a cute little cafe would be nearby, or what the great shopping places would be. My twin passions… I have actually many. But I love to shop in a destination as well. I love bringing things back that remind me of the trip. So that’s why during the pandemic, it was so great that we had sea salt from Bali. We had sea salt from, from our trip to Australia. We had all the spices from all of our trips because that’s how we bring back some of those components that we loved. So anytime we travel we always take… Do you know those, those bags they’re called Baggallini, which are like a little foldable bag that actually kind of expands out into a big bag?
Nisreene Atassi: Oh yeah. Yep.
Nilou Motamed: So because we know that we are obsessed with both bringing back things for us, and bringing back things for friends. We often, when we come back we’ll have a party on the destination that we visited. So if we go to Tokyo, then there’ll be a Japanese kind of hangout where we share all the delicious treats that we brought back with our friends. I’m sure no one is listening from the State Department, but when we come back from France, we sometimes bring back-
Nisreene Atassi: The cheese, (crosstalk) Yes.
Nilou Motamed: But you know what? There are cheeses you can bring back. So we bring back those cheeses and those sausages, et cetera. So yeah, so we have this foldable bag that we put at the bottom of our suitcase and invariably I’ve bought honey, and I’ve brought cheeses, and I’ve brought all the things that I’m so excited to bring back home and share with our friends. So my clothes and my dirty laundry end up in the Baggallini. Then all of the beautiful food is in my suitcase and protected.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. My family does that a lot too. I think it’s ingrained in us from going, back in the day when we would travel back and forth from Syria. This was before the United States had all of these lovely sort of ethnic grocery stores. We would bring back so much food and so many ingredients that we just couldn’t get here in the United States. So now every time I travel somewhere, it’s like ingrained in me that I have to pack a little collapsible cooler bag, that I fill with food for my way home. So every time I go to France, I have a little cooler bag and I stock it full of cheese. I put that in my suitcase. Or things like, making sure that I have space to like bring wine back and things like that.
Nilou Motamed: You’ve just taught me something. I feel like the cooler bag is next level beyond where I have not-
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Nilou Motamed: I actually always pack resealable, like kind of Ziploc bags. Because I feel like there’s lots of things that leak and there’s nothing worse than whatever it was that you were so excited to drink, being something that ends up on all your clothes. But I love the idea of a cooler bag as well. So it’s so interesting your family and my family are very similar. My parents go back and forth to Tehran. I will tell you an entire suitcase will be filled with pistachios and rose, dried rose and dried herbs. [foreign language] which is like a mix of nuts and dried fruits that we… It’s like Persian [foreign language], basically. All of that, it’s a 50 pound suitcase filled to the brim with things that I think we could possibly find here in, in the U.S.-
Nisreene Atassi: But it’s not the same.
Nilou Motamed: … but it’s not the same.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Nilou Motamed: Saffron, and all the things that are sort of essential to our cooking. But it’s so interesting. I was talking, there’s an amazing Persian restaurant that opened last year or year and a half ago called Sofreh, in Brooklyn. I was talking to the owner. She was going back to Iran just a couple months ago, actually. She was saying, I’m so excited to bring back dill. We have a rice that is a saffron rice with dill, and Lima beans or fava beans. I said, ” Dill? Really? You’re going to bring back dill?” She’s like, ” The dill here doesn’t taste the same.”
Nisreene Atassi: Are you the type of person who would recommend choosing a destination first? Then filling in the food gaps after you’ve chosen the destination. Or do you think there’s something to be said for choosing a destination based purely off of the food that you want to try?
Nilou Motamed: I’m obsessed with food, but I do think that we all have a bucket list, right? There’s always sort of a list that I have going with my husband. We’d play a game where we’ll send each other additions. We have a little notebook that we… And this has been a notebook that we’ve kept since we first got together. It kind of keeps track of the places we’ve been, places that we want to go. I think that there’s a lot of things that obviously go into a destination, and when you want to go there, and what the weather is, and what your kind of in the mood for. Whether you want something sybaritic and relaxing, or whether you want to be in the city and kind of a go, go, go kind of trip.
So what we tend to do is kind of figure out what part of the world we want to be in, then it’s about… We haven’t actually zero problems going back to the same place. We actually love returning. They’re cities that we’ve gone to once a year, and we have no problems with that. Because it feels like coming home. There’s something very appealing to me about returning to Paris, or returning to London-
Nisreene Atassi: Absolutely agree. Yeah.
Nilou Motamed: … and seeing the things that I’ve loved about it. Also, kind of feeling a little bit more like a local than when you land someplace and you don’t know anything. Because honestly, when you go to a place you’ve never been there’s a certain excitement to that, but I think at the end of that trip, you sometimes almost need a vacation from your vacation, right?
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Nilou Motamed: So I think for me, I tend to think about the kind of experience I want to have. Then I know that great food will come from that.
Nisreene Atassi: Well, Nilou, thank you so much for being on the show today. It has been quite a pleasure having you. I feel like we could chat for hours and hours and hours. My guest today for a walk down food memory lane has been new Nilou Motamed, who you know from Top Chef and Food and Wine Magazine. Nilou, thank you so much for being here today.
Nilou Motamed: Thank you so much.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m Nisreene Atassi, this is Out Travel the System brought to you by Expedia. Please be sure to join us for our next couple of episodes, where we look into our travel crystal ball for 2021 trends, and deep dive into some of my favorite destinations, including Mexico. Until then, happy travels.