Recently, I sat down with myself to talk about what it means to be a foodie. It was right after indulging in a homemade lamb pilaf, and the mood was relaxed. So I began with the most obvious question.
Question: So what makes you a “foodie”?
Answer: I guess I’m a foodie because I love to eat. I put a lot of effort into the pursuit of a great meal. When I cook, I try to hunt down the highest quality ingredients. When I eat out, I look for exotic flavors to expand my palette. When traveling, I choose my destinations with great meals in mind. I guess I’m an adventurous foodie, always going out of my way to seek out the new, the unusual and the exotic. Like my wife says, “Let’s not waste a meal.”
Q: What kind of food do you like?
A: That’s almost like asking, “What kind of movies do you like?” Depending on the mood I’m in, I might say I like foreign films, comedies, action movies, musicals, animation or quirky independent films. When it comes to eating, it also depends on the mood I’m in. I’ve eaten everything from beef wellington to chicken feet. Most of the time, I prefer exotic international flavors. Other times, I like simple homemade meals. I’ll try anything once and my pet peeve is poor presentation. The perfect meal would be one that tastes good, smells good, looks good and is shared with good company.
Q: What do you mean by exotic international flavors?
A: The opposite of hamburgers and french fries. Even though cornfields surround us, one can find an incredible range of Asian, European and Mexican restaurants in our little towns. We have quite a few international grocery stores and just about every major supermarket now has an international food section. We no longer have to drive to Chicago for dim sum or to shop in Chinatown for those hard-to-find ingredients. Thanks to the influx of international students at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana’s palette has matured and we couldn’t be happier.
Q: What is the most exotic dish you’ve ever had?
A: That would be a Dagestani dish called tsikav. The dish itself was simply made, essentially a meat pie with a crust on the top and bottom. If I had ordered it at a local restaurant, I probably wouldn’t be very impressed. But the fact that this particular tsikav was made to celebrate our arrival in Dagestan made it special. Our friends Olga and Aslan invited my wife and I to their parents’ home near Derbent in Russia. Aslan’s mother made this dish by hand and baked it in her brick oven. We ate dinner sitting in a circle on the floor of their dining room, our bottoms cushioned by their beautiful homemade hand-woven carpets. I can still taste the flavor of this dish not because it was the best dish I’ve ever tasted, but because the cultural experience of sharing this meal in their home was so memorable.
Q: So food is more than just about flavor and texture?
A: Food is a cultural experience. The company one shares during a meal can transform strangers into friends. In our memories, the sensual pleasures of eating are intimately associated with the time and place of the meal. I have no doubt that food brings people closer together. Does this mean sharing good food could bring world peace?
Q: Why do you take pictures of food?
A: Like a person on vacation, it’s a good idea to take pictures so that you can recall a memorable moment later. Or maybe it’s more like a serial killer keeping score. Or maybe it’s just food porn.
Q: So what can we expect from you in future columns?
A: Well, definitely more pictures, because I’m a visual person and food should be a visual experience. Essentially, this column will be my personal food diary, or at least a documentation of my more memorable meals. Some of the meals will be in restaurants and others will be at home. I’m an adventurous eater, so expect international flavors rather than meat loaf and mashed potatoes. One of my favorite hobbies is recreating great meals from restaurants, in my own kitchen, so anticipate some recipes as well.