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Five Essential Foods to "Smuggle" Home: Matt Gross

Five Essential Foods to
Friday, May 10, 2013 - 8:13am

Editor's note: 5@5 is a food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe. Matt Gross is the author of the new memoir "The Turk Who Loved Apples." Follow him on Twitter @worldmattworld. 


1. Hot stuff

Simply put, I love spicy food - Sichuan, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican - and wherever I go I'm fascinated by how the chili pepper, born in Central America, has become an inextricable part of the local cuisine. I try to take that home with me. Dried chilies are usually affordable, lightweight and fascinatingly diverse. They also last forever and my pantry is full of multiple bags.

In the Caribbean, I seek out local markets for homemade, unlabeled bottles of what they call "pepper sauce." It's vinegary, flush with the power of Scotch bonnet chilies and often made by the women who are selling them. Getting them home in my luggage requires a bit more care than with the dried chilies, but it's nothing a few layers of plastic bags can't handle.

2. Italian Chocolate

I never set out to acquire a collection of Italian chocolate bars, but over several trips to Rome I kept noticing beautifully wrapped bars of cioccolato artigianale - high percentage chocolate sometimes spiked with simple, understated flavors like sea salt or mint. Even though I'm not a sweets guy, I found myself buying more than I ever imagined.

You see chocolate bars all over, often at gelaterie like Fiordiluna in the Trastevere neighborhood. Said, my mainstay, has been in business since 1923 and I often I get their chocolate with peperoncino. As I write this, I realize my supply is dwindling - time to book another flight!

3. Olive oil

Sure, Whole Foods carries a few dozen different varieties of olive oil, from Greece to California to Chile, but there's nothing like getting it at the source. The olive oils I've picked up abroad (often in Italy, of course) have been the most flavorful I've ever tasted. The one I bought in a reused two-liter soda bottle in the Moroccan town of Ouezzane was so intensely olive-flavored that my wife refused to eat it. More for me, then.

4. Salt

The salt you use has an incredible effect on your cooking. Overseas travel offers the chance to acquire salts nearly impossible to find back home. In Hanoi, I picked up a small packet of fleur de sel de nuoc mam, the crystals of salt that form on the rims of the clay jars used to produce fish sauce. In Yangon, at a gourmet market called Sharky's, I found sea salt culled from the Ngapali coast.

Beyond these individual flavors, this is also an intriguing sign of how developing countries are learning to market their strengths to food-loving Western visitors.

5. Tea

Are you going to a tea-producing region, like Kenya, Darjeeling, or Taiwan? Then you'd better plan on bringing back as much of the flavorful leaf as you can afford. Get yourself out to a lush tea estate, or find a serious tea shop, taste everything they have and buy enough to last you till your next long-haul back to the area. And by the way, can you pick me up 300 grams of a good oolong?

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