Tag Archives: place

Home is where the taste buds are

Home is not just where the heart is; it’s also where the taste buds are. This seems to be especially so when in a foreign land.

This past week, I went to dinner with four other expats and one German (but who is part British and part Indian), and we got into a long conversation about where in Munich one can find the best Indian food. One of my dinner-mates was Indian, and he was praising a hole-in-the-wall Indian joint, claiming it sells the best [insert name of said Indian food that I’ve now forgotten] he’s ever had outside of India. Specifically, he described this food as tasting “just like home.”

Another dinner-mate, who is British by birth but Pakistani by heritage, was lamenting the lack of good Pakistani food, saying she just can’t find food like her family makes.

As I walked home from this dinner, I pondered the connection between food, taste, and homeland. People do seem to end up missing certain foods when they have left their home country, which sometimes induces an endless hunt for home-like fare. For example, one of my American friends here, with her German husband in tow, has been on an ongoing search for the best, most American-like hamburger in Munich.

Sure, ethnic restaurants can help satiate one’s desire for that home-like cooked meal (although, if McDonalds and Starbucks are considered “ethnic American,” I can’t say they do anything for me). Some may call these restaurants the globalization of food, but I wonder if they are just expats’ own remedy for their craving for “home-food.”

A brief Google search for attachments to food revealed one article stating that people associate certain grub with specific childhood memories, and another claiming people find comfort foods, well, comforting when feeling stressed or lonely (both emotions that accompany moving to a new place). So there seems to be some science behind the food-home connection.

But whether scientific fact or experiential assumption, seeking out familiar foods does seem to be a fact of life abroad. For example, I asked my flatmate, who lived in Vancouver, BC for a while, if there were any German foods she missed while she was there, and she immediately exclaimed, “Brezen” (pretzels, of the soft variety–a very Bavarian snack).

Brezen! Image by Jonathan M

In my own experience, when I was living in St. Lucia (in the Eastern Caribbean), I recall having strange cravings for vittles like for flour tortillas and cheese that was not yellow, because these were hard, if not impossible, to come by on the island. What was strange about these cravings was that, aside from the cheese, many of them weren’t things I eat on a regular basis in America. My flatmate agreed that you end up longing for food you don’t normally crave at home.

Here in Germany, I tend to cook meals that are close to home (i.e., what I cook in the States). Granted, the food available here is not drastically different than what is available in the homeland. In fact, in some cases, I think the food here is much better. Even so, I haven’t yet ventured into trying any German recipes, even though my flatmate has a healthy collection of German recipe books.

Perhaps if I were living in a small Bavarian village, rather than a big city, with less access to home-like foods and a higher consumption of traditional Bavarian fare–e.g., Bratwurst, Brezen, and Kaesespaetzle (what I consider the German version of mac and cheese)–then I would start pining for quinoa, kale, and the rest of my usual hippie-vegetarian provisions.

Though, I will admit that I do miss my favorite comfort food: Annie’s mac & cheese (note to friends and family: if you send me a care package, please throw in a few boxes of that…especially the organic shells and white cheddar). Kaesespaetzle just isn’t the same.

How about you, dear readers: if you’ve lived in a different country before, what home-food(s) did you miss?

Kaesespaetzle. Image by Wiki der Wikinger

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Same place, different times

Imagining present-day places in past-tense times can be fascinating. One way to do so is by “reading the landscape,” as my former environmental history professor, Bill Cronon, puts it. And “landscape” refers not only to picturesque countrysides and wildlands, but also to urban spaces and other human settlements.

Reading the landscape entails asking questions like what does today’s landscape tell us about past land uses; what social forces were behind those past land uses; and why was this street named after a king who rarely set foot there and not the blacksmith whose shop was on the corner.

Perhaps because my senses are generally more open in a new place, I’ve become an avid reader of landscapes here in Munich (granted, doing proper landscape readings requires in-depth historical research, so my readings have been more like skims). One “landscape” I have recently become smitten with is Odeonsplatz, a public square in the city’s Altstadt, or the old city center.

Historically, Odeonsplatz has been a place for pomp and circumstance. It is situated at the end of the traditional parade route that stretches the length of Ludwigstrasse (named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who also commissioned the construction of the square), down which ceremonies of all sorts still march today. When parades arrive at the square, they are greeted by three grandiose structures: on the left is the former royal residence; on the right is the ornate Theatinerkirche (a catholic church), and straight ahead is Feldherrnhalle (loosely meaning “commanders’ hall”).

Parade's-eye-view of Odeonsplatz. Image by Florian Adler

Historical accounts highlight Odeonsplatz’ tainted past. It was here that Hitler staged his first, but failed coup in 1923. When Hitler had finally succeeded in taking over Germany, the square became a favored Nazi ceremonial and procession grounds.

But this tainted past is juxtaposed with its more cheerful present. Odeonsplatz now hosts happier, more inclusive festivities, such as the annual St. Patty’s Day street party, which I recently attended. (Factoid: Munich has one of the largest populations of Irish people outside of Ireland). A mix of Germans, Irish, and at least two Americans (me and a friend) celebrated with an assortment of traditions from both Germany and Ireland: Guinness, Bratwurst, Irish song and dance, and, of course, a parade down Ludwigstrasse.

Another juxtaposition of Odeonsplatz is its stateliness and its more pedestrian side. It was commissioned by royalty, designed by a prominent neoclassicist architect, but built by commoners (although none of their names made it into the history books). Its namesake was Odeon, a nearby building that was formerly a concert hall for “commoners” and now houses the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior, a conversion that took place when the building was rebuilt after WWII. (This link has before and after pictures of the building; beware, the text is in German).

But even though the original music hall is gone, Odeonsplatz is still a musical venue for the common folk. The square is regularly host to musical acts ranging from street performers, such as the pianist I saw the other day (don’t ask me how he got a grand piano there), to Munich’s annual open-air classical music festival.

Odeonsplatz’ pedestrian significance can also be read in its present-day orientation: it is one entrance to the Altstadt’s pedestrian zone. On a typical stroll through the square, you’ll encounter a myriad of folk: from tourists to bike commuters, and from people drinking coffee at the square’s historic cafe to protestors demonstrating against [insert social/political cause]. A new, favored ritual of mine has been walking home from work, just so I can pass through the square to see what is happening there that day.

And, if I could go back in time, back to Odeonplatz’ early years, I wonder what a normal day on the square would have been like…

Odeonsplatz facing Ludwigstrasse circa 1900.

p.s. Check out this 360 degree panorama of Odeonsplatz (although it is usually not as empty as this picture shows it to be).

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