If discovering new cuisines has taught me anything, it is that time travel is not only possible, but far easier than movies make it look. Today, nearly two decades since I began eating my way through temporal portals, memories of my first tastes of various dishes immediately return me to some of the happiest moments of my life.
These moments in love are unique among earthly delights in that they cannot be captured on video. Their essence and expression defy being photographed. I can’t place them inside a time capsule to be opened and enjoyed at some future date. But they are as vivid and affecting today as if they’d occurred only minutes ago.
My mind’s eye closes and I recall the holy basil fried rice I used to get at Sawadee Thai Restaurant on 8th Avenue in New York City, just a stone’s throw from Columbus Circle. I’m twenty years old again, hustling up the avenue seeking respite from a chill Winter evening. I’m stepping into Sawadee’s low-ceilinged dining room that envelops me in candlelit warmth like a grandmother’s hug. I’m filling my lungs with the redolent potpourri of coconut and curry and basil. Enjoying my view of passing traffic from my table near the front window, I am making the menu selection that will become my obsession. I’m twenty years old and the hot oval plate piled with peppery heaven is placed before me to bathe my face in steam as flavorful as a kiss. And I am tasting. Flavors like nothing I’ve ever experienced are clamoring for me to voice my impressions of them. And I cannot, because I’m too busy tasting and relishing.
My mind’s eye opens and I am twenty-six years old. It’s late May and I’m reaping early rewards on my first night in New Orleans’ French Quarter, in the form of a first sampling of crawfish étoufeé with blackened alligator. I am taking the bite that will begin an affair of love with Cajun and Creole cuisines that endures to this day. I swallow fire and rain; the savory smoldering of Creole spice blends, the sweet juiciness of freshwater catch. They bite me back affectionately. I am twenty-six years old and feeling loved and at home a thousand miles from my own bed.
And I can revisit the moment anytime I please, because time travel is easy for those that know how.
That years-old feeling of meeting undiscovered countries, that euphoria that melts through the taste buds and down the throat to warm the stomach is now a part of the person I am. I’m now able to reproduce in my own kitchen many of the delights I first encountered on an adventurous whim.
And how comforting it is to know that with twenty years of exploration under my belt, I still have miles to go before I’ve sampled everything the world has to offer. Be it the flaky, vegetable-filled samosas of Indian cuisines, the indulgent velvet texture of flambéed Mediterranean saganaki with fresh lemon, or some culinary gem I have yet to uncover, that first bite of something delicious that I never knew existed knows few equals among my most joyful and exciting times.
Sawadee has joined the legion of my old, dearly departed haunts; establishments that have long since vacated the addresses where I knew them best. But the ghosts of chilies past continue to delight my palate. The mouth-watering tang of sauces flavored with fish and with tamarind is remembered fondly. Though the dishes have been cleared from the tables, though these maiden culinary voyages of mine now exist only as flavorful phantoms of a younger man’s pleasures, their imprint upon my mind and tongue is indelible nearly twenty years later.
My mind’s eye closes. Several years have passed, and I’m watching with pride as my children find the courage to take their first bites of some exotic dish that they never knew existed. Their faces tell all that words cannot. I am witnessing the birth of new and lifelong love affairs with food’s many undiscovered countries. I am preparing their favorites for them in our kitchen. And when next our family dines out, I’ll be as excited about their next discovery as they are.
These are joys that might forever have eluded me, had I not actively ventured beyond the comforts and safety of my own kitchen to gamble on unfamiliar cuisine. They are joys that I wish to every reader of this article. Rest assured, you will find few less expensive or more broadening and enjoyable means of traveling not only around our world, but through time.