Since she joined IgoUgo in 2002, SkewedStyle’s travel journals and photos have practically defined travel inspiration—and salivation. Fresh off her U GO! Award win in the On-the-Go Gourmand category, she shares the stories behind her fabulous food writing.
IgoUgo: You’ve said that you’re “addicted to seeking out good food everywhere,” and you’ve certainly made tracks across much of the world. So what and where is your all-time favorite meal? And is there any place where you’ve failed to find good food?
SkewedStyle: There are so many factors to a great meal in addition to food prep, such as atmosphere, company, or attitude. I’m terrible at choosing favorites. But to the best of my memory, it would be:
Çiya, Istanbul. My second visit to Istanbul was less than a year after my 2-month solo trip through the Middle East. I adored Istanbul on that first trip, enough to dream of moving there. But even I was surprised how much being with my friends increased my already-strong love.
Çiya Sofrasi was the pinnacle of five days of amazing meals. Located in Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, Çiya offers southern foods and an extremely local experience, eschewing a sophisticated atmosphere while retaining gracious service. Our waiter, who called himself “The Turkish John Travolta,” was the only English speaker in the restaurant. He asked us to trust him to select our hot dishes, although I selected cold dishes with his help.
Every dish turned out overwhelmingly delicious and perfectly prepared. I may never eat Iskender kebab again because nothing will approach Çiya’s meltingly buttery version. The delicate soups and spicy mouhamara dip still stand out in my mind. John Travolta was bend-over-backwards kind, and we spent the entire meal grinning. It wasn’t just fantastic food, it was a heartwarming experience.
Unfortunately, that kind of meal is an anomaly. My love of off-the-beaten-track travel does not accommodate my love of food. I’ve had middling meals in Honduras, Egypt, and Ecuador, with a few exceptions. I can’t say I expect much out of future trips to Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, or Mozambique. Most of the countries that intrigue me have so much more to offer that I can survive if food falls by the wayside.
But so far, the country that stands out in my mind as lacking anything worth eating is Bolivia. Most of the food is strangely bland and oversalted at the same time. Meat is often tough and vegetables overcooked. Other than the salteñas in Tupiza and my cook’s unusual round tamales on the stunning Salar de Uyuni tour, it was 16 days of dulling my tastebuds.
IgoUgo: You wrote five food journals covering the meals, snacks, and markets of Taiwan, Istanbul, and Oaxaca City. What is it about those cities that inspired you to explore them primarily through food?
SkewedStyle: Mexican, Chinese and Turkish are among the greatest cuisines in the world. I also have a special love of street food/snacks, and while I tend to think of street food as a truly Asian province—in variety, creativity, and sheer volume of vendors—Mexico and Turkey are strong on the street as well.
Taiwan's cuisine is a microcosm of China's. As a developed, modern country, Taiwan takes the foods of China but prepares them with fresher ingredients, lower amounts of oil, and generally sanitary conditions. Taiwan also features heavy Japanese influence, due to a long occupation but also due to proximity. In some cases, the Taiwanese took a Japanese idea and ran. For example, sweet stuffed mochi balls are more popular in Taiwan as mogi than they are as daifuku in Japan.
While I did initially travel in Turkey alone and had great food throughout, going with friends really made the trip revolve around mealtimes. Mexico with friends, both in Oaxaca City and on a recent trip to Mexico City, has also involved constantly thinking about the next meal. My family is quite food-oriented as well, with my father perhaps the most opinionated of us all, so the trip to Taiwan was often about finding the superlative example of a specific dish, such as beef noodle soup.
IgoUgo: With your journal Istanbul Is for [Food] Lovers, Part 1 standing as a wonderful example of your food-based travel writing, you won the 2007 U GO! Award for the site’s best culinary travel writing—the On-the-Go Gourmand Award. Is this something you’ll continue to do in 2008? Is there a place—new or often visited—about which you’d love to write a culinary travel journal?
SkewedStyle: I would love to, but 2008 might not be my year. I already returned to Mexico City for a spontaneous weekend thanks to a sudden flight sale. The trip was jam-packed with excellent meals, but I was generally too busy with the large group of friends I’d cajoled into coming to take dining notes...or even remember basic restaurant names and locations.
I’m going to Japan with my family, and while that’s undoubtedly a chowhound destination, my parents prefer the comfort and convenience of tours. I’m unsure how much chance I’ll get to break away for the kind of meals I find best suited for one of my food journals: relatively inexpensive, somewhat unknown, and preferably found off the street. But we’ll see what happens!
IgoUgo: We love to track your world travels via your IgoUgo journals and your website, on which you post photos and travelogues. Where to next? What can we look forward to reading about this year?
SkewedStyle: My two major trips this year will be Malawi and Burma. I already know I will be replacing some of my meals in Malawi with energy bars...there’s only so much nsima I can take. I am optimistic for Burmese food but I’ve been warned not to be. Burma is simply a long-held travel dream, while Malawi is special to me because of my nonprofit WE ARE ONE malawi, an organization based in New York that raises funds for education. We will be heading there to create a brief summer camp for kids in the northern region, which should be lots of fun.
Most recently, I visited Ethiopia in what was truly the trip of a lifetime. It’s well-known as one of the more difficult African countries for independent travelers, and it was definitely crazy at times. It was also intriguing as hell. It’s not a country known for its mountains or safaris, but it is very special. The people can be both frustrating and incredibly warm and hospitable. It has a long and storied history, and is the only African nation without a long period of colonization. The landscape does not feature one or two huge dramatic points but is breathtakingly beautiful throughout. I would never call it my favorite country—that honor still belongs to Syria—but it was fascinating and is absolutely pulling me back! Expect a few Ethiopia journals in the coming months, but for now, my photos are posted at http://www.nancychuang.com/travel/ethiopia.
IgoUgo: New York City is home—perhaps in part because you label it “one of the greatest food cities in the world.” What are your top recommendations for visitors searching for the best food in New York?
SkewedStyle: New York is incredibly expensive, making price a real factor when looking for good food. It can be tricky to find something that’s both tasty and worth the price.
Good American food tends to be pricey, so I prefer ethnic cuisines. In New York, your best bets are ethnic enclaves. Remember that few immigrants can afford to set up shop in the more central parts of Manhattan. Brooklyn has great Mexican and Chinese/Pan-Asian finds in Sunset Park. Manhattan’s most authentic Mexican neighborhood is currently 116th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Don’t look for Italian in Little Italy when Arthur Avenue in the Bronx has so much more to offer, although parts of the East Village are also far more authentic than Little Italy and make for a better night out. Only on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue can you find not one but THREE Yemeni restaurants grouped together in a concentrated Arabic neighborhood. And of course, the granddaddy of food heavens is the entire borough of Queens. In Queens you can find the best Asian food, the best Latino food, and foods from the more obscure Central Asian Republics. You can explore Queens by walking down Roosevelt Avenue, taking various stops along the 7 train, or simply spending the day in Flushing.
Of course there are exceptions, often found by trial and error. I have a couple favorite Chinese places in Manhattan for the times I can’t justify heading to Flushing, with my favorite surprisingly located in Midtown. The finest Japanese restauranteurs prefer Manhattan as well. The best Thai place in Queens is untouchable but there is one—yes, exactly one—place in the East Village which is a near substitute. You can find a fantastic northern Italian place that doesn’t break the bank in relatively convenient Park Slope. I can’t get pizza in my part of Brooklyn but I CAN get arguably the best Jamaican patties in the city. The best Turkish places in the five boroughs are in easily-accessible Midtown, although you pay for what you get. And the ONLY Sri Lankan restaurant outside of the Staten Island community happens to be in the East Village—and happens to be delicious.
If you don’t have the patience or you don’t live here, take advantage of other people’s research. Chowhound is an invaluable resource. If you’re a Midtown office drone, you can get some good advice from Midtownlunch.com. And just use common sense—you should never get stuck eating a bad meal in New York City. ¡Buen provecho! Afiyet Olsun! Mànmàn chi!