Top Chef Canada judge and Travelzoo global food correspondent Mijune Pak is on a mission to inspire Canadians to explore new culinary experiences and “eat authentically” as a way to gain a new appreciation for cultures beyond their own in 2019. Want to know more? Read our exclusive interview with Mijune, including her top tips for making your next trip totally food-tastic—below! —Vita Daily
Hi Mijune! To start, please tell us a bit about your foodie self :)
I’ve always had an interest in food and travel. It started off as a hobby and part of my lifestyle, and then I took it more seriously when I spent a year abroad in The Netherlands. While travelling throughout Europe, I experienced different culinary traditions and dishes and became obsessed. I read, researched, took photos and notes and I learned as much as I could. In every culture, food has a meaning beyond sustenance; it’s associated with survival, religion, hospitality and celebration. That direct correlation between culture and food is what got me interested me in writing about food in the first place. For me, travel and food are directly connected and my new role with Travelzoo allows me to explore this connection and showcase how we all can become global food explorers, whether at home or while travelling.
Besides the usual food-related NY resolutions (lose weight, eat healthier), what are some other culinary goals you could suggest people set for themselves?
The new year, of course, is a time when people make resolutions for themselves. When it comes to food, people often resolve to cut things out—such as eating fewer desserts or removing processed foods from their diet—but my definition of “eating better” is more fun! This year, I’m working with Travelzoo to encourage people to focus not on foods they can give up, but on what they can gain from eating authentically, especially when travelling. I like to set goals that are less about applying restrictions and more about exploring and trying new things. This can be anything from taking cooking classes to food tours and even home-based dinner parties with strangers. We can all gain an appreciation for new foods and begin to eat more authentically.
What does "eating authentically" mean and how can doing so enhance/better our lives?
To me, eating authentically is about expanding your horizons and experiencing a culture through their food. It’s taking the time to learn about a place and through food. When travelling this means trying places off the beaten path and eating more traditional local dishes rather than only dining at touristy destinations. When you aim to eat authentically, you gain a new appreciation for cultures beyond our own and incorporating this into my travel and everyday life makes every meal I have and every trip I take that much more meaningful and memorable. That’s why I’m so excited to partner with Travelzoo in their mission is to inspire people to take on new experiences and explore the world.
What about "dining outside your comfort zone"?
Dining outside your comfort zone means trying new things. Whether it’s ordering off the secret menu, taking an underground food tour or eating things you can’t pronounce, when you dine outside your comfort zone you may realize you have been missing out on great cuisine or overlooking a new favourite dish. You will be amazed by the delicious foods you can find by trying something new while travelling or even by choosing an unfamiliar restaurant in your own city.
In a nutshell, what are your top tips for eating more authentically in 2019?
I’ve worked with Travelzoo to put together some tips on how Canadians can resolve to “eat authentically”—both while travelling and even in their own backyard—and I’m happy to share them with you:
do your research. Before travelling to a new country or city, learn everything you can about the local cuisine. Not only will you learn a host of fun facts about the culture, but you'll be able to make a "can't-miss list" of local foods you won't find anywhere else. When I'm going somewhere known for an iconic dish, I’ll try to go the original birthplace first, so I have an idea of what it’s like at its most traditional—and then I’ll start to explore how the dish has evolved.
let experts help you find authentically terrific food. Food is the number 1 thing I focus on when I travel, and social media makes it easy to scout out the best places in a new region. I search location tags on Instagram and try to find someone who’s a credible source—like an established food writer or influencer or chef. I'll look at their writing and past reviews to see if our palates are similar; if so, I'll probably like restaurants they enjoy.
shop at the local farmer’s market. If you’re renting a place that has a kitchen, it’s really fun to buy ingredients at the farmers’ market and cook a meal with local produce. It’s worth hitting up the market and talking to farmers even if you plan to have all your meals in restaurants. If you try something you like from a farmer, they can recommend restaurants that are using their products. Most likely, those restaurants are going to be more ingredient-driven, because they are prioritizing fresh, locally sourced food.
find a food walking tour. Taking a food tour immediately after your arrival pays offs in so many ways. First, you get a sense of the neighbourhood geography in circumstances much more intimate and fun than a typical bus tour. Plus, you get to try local specialties from a range of places—giving you a jump start on where you might want to eat during your stay. And finally, you’ll find yourself in the company of other foodies, which is a bonus if you’re travelling alone and looking for dining companions—or even if you’re just looking for recommendations. Not all are created equal though, so research one that suits your needs best.
take a cooking class. If you want to learn how to cook the local cuisine in an authentic way, consider making time for a cooking class. The more acclaimed the cuisine, the more classes you’re likely to find; cooking classes for tourists are very common in Italy and Thailand, for example.
make the most of your meal. If you’re like me, when you’re visiting somewhere for a short time, you’ll want to try as many dishes as possible. I’m notorious for ordering a lot of dishes, especially when I’m travelling and I don’t know when I’m going to have the opportunity to come back. I might even ask the server, what’s the best way to sample as many dishes as possible? At some restaurants, if they know you’re by yourself, they’ll try to help you out. It doesn’t always happen, but it doesn’t hurt to ask!
What about those of us who are a bit picky or squeamish when it comes to trying new foods? Any advice there?
I’m a big advocate for research. It’s hard to “judge” any dish without the education, and as cliché as it sounds, knowledge is power. Learning about a food’s history, and how it came to be, and why it is the way it is can be a great way to get over the worry of trying new things. It can also give you a greater appreciation for a dish and the cultural significance it holds, even if you’re a bit squeamish.
How about those who don't or can't travel much? How can we eat more authentically in our own (Canadian) cities and towns?
My tips on how to “eat authentically” apply when you’re travelling as well when you’re at home. You can always explore your own city or town. Try taking food tours and cooking classes in your own city to learn about new cultures or to reminisce about travel memories. For instance, Travelzoo currently has an exclusive offer on an artisan cooking class where you can learn to make pasta or bread from scratch in the heart of downtown Vancouver at Palmer & Sons. In fact, you can find lots of exclusive deals for cooking classes and food and winery tours here.
What food-related goals have you set for yourself for the new year?
I always try to hit up new restaurants, but even I fall into a “restaurant rut”. It’s great supporting the restaurants you love, and it’s easy to go back to your regular restaurant rotation, but this year I plan to explore more ethnic restaurants in my own city. While travelling internationally, I also plan to explore more ethnic cuisine. I did a lot of North American travel last year, but this year I want to explore something totally new and different.
Most "authentic" dish you've ever eaten? Dining experience that's taken you furthest outside your comfort zone?
“Authenticity” is hard to define because history is hard to trace and dishes evolve with time and place. However, one of my most memorable experiences was in Verona, Italy. I was there a couple years ago and ate at an Italian restaurant called Riseria Ferron where the owner/chef grew his own rice and had his own water mill and husking system. The family founded it in 1650. It was the “holy grail of risotto”. I also got to cook with him and learned so much more. For instance, I was always taught to constantly stir a risotto for 15-20 minutes, but he told me to not stir it until the end. I was pretty shocked. It made me question what was “authentic” and “traditional”. Everyone has their own style, but it was a lot easier of a technique and the result was just as delicious. The more I learn about something, the less I feel like I know about it.
Dish, food or cuisine you're dying to try in 2019?
I would love to explore more Middle Eastern cuisine in 2019. It’s just something I don’t get much of in Vancouver and it’s a place I’ve never really visited outside of Israel. People seem nervous to visit some areas, which is understandable, but there are very safe areas with amazing food that is waiting to be eaten and showcased. I would love to learn more about the history, food and culture in the Middle East.
Finally, food you never-in-a-million years would eat (or eat again)?
I actually try things until I like them, which means not only once or twice. I’ll keep trying it until I learn to appreciate it. I’ve had mealworms, water beatles, spiders, scorpions, and all sorts of bugs, and while I wouldn’t seek to have them again, I wouldn’t say I’d never give them another try. Most of them tasted like nothing so I didn’t really see a point, but hey, I’m open-minded and adventurous!