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‘You had to be there’: Foods that taste better on home turf

<i>Stefano Guidi/Getty Images</i><br/>A pint of Guinness in Dublin's Temple Bar
Stefano Guidi/Getty Images
A pint of Guinness in Dublin's Temple Bar

By Rebecca Wallwork, CNN

(CNN) — Whether eaten at a white-cloth-covered table, a greasy countertop, or on a stool on the side of a busy street, local food is one of the true joys of travel. After all, memories of exceptional meals with extraordinary backdrops linger long after we get home.

But what is it that makes certain dishes so much more exciting when encountered in their place of origin?

Does a bagel in New York City really taste better because of the water, or is it our desire to feel like a “real” New Yorker, even for a few minutes over breakfast, that does the trick?

How do we know that it’s not nostalgia or novelty or our desire to score bragging rights that make these drinking and dining experiences so darn delicious?

Globalization and high-speed transportation mean we can enjoy almost any nation’s foods close to our own homes. But, as Harvard-trained psychiatrist and nutrition expert Dr. Uma Naidoo, author of “This Is Your Brain on Food” explains, this perk of modernity can deprive us of the incredible freshness we get when eating something close to where it’s grown.

“If we’re eating something in a particular country, there is often a very quick turnover,” she says. “People are eating a lot of it, all the time. It’s not being stored and served to you the next day.”

Talented chefs travel, and it’s not uncommon to be able to enjoy top-notch Southern dishes in New York City or Toronto, or authentic Chinese food in Madrid. So, what makes labor-intensive foods like sushi or Tandoori chicken taste so incredible when we eat them on trips to Japan and India?

According to Naidoo, the skills of the people cooking your food, their location and equipment, all play a role in the unique flavor of certain dishes.

The process is “very innate to that community, that country,” she says. This, of course, makes it difficult to replicate the experience anywhere else, whether the food is premium-grade sushi or a rare but delicious form of street food perfected by its vendor who sells nothing else.

Other factors that play into our tendency to think that the food we’ve eaten on vacation was the absolute best? That word, vacation, is key. We tend to be more relaxed, open and adventurous when we travel. We eat for pleasure, for novelty, for the experience itself – in contrast to the hurried meals we often take at home or at the office.

Like smell, taste has been found to imprint our minds with strong memories. Neuroscience tells us that food memories are shaped not by flavor alone, but also by the context – who we eat with, where, why and how we felt at the time.

Taste may be subjective – one person’s delicious, fresh mango eaten on a tropical beach is someone else’s idea of an overly sweet and sticky nuisance – however, some iconic dishes are renowned for being impossible to replicate outside of their place of origin. Here are just a few.

French baguettes and croissants

Most of us can get fresh bread and pastries at our neighborhood bakery or supermarket. But is that local baguette as good as the one you had that one time in Paris?

How could it be, unless the team at your market are, like the top bakers in France, competing in the Grand Prix de la Baguette?

The expertise of the bakers at this level makes it near impossible to replicate the texture, taste and smell of a freshly baked French baguette.

Those artisanal techniques even earned UNESCO protection in 2022. Likewise, to create the best French croissants, chefs might create upwards of 600 layers of dough, folding, and folding and folding again. The backdrop of the Seine or Eiffel Tower certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

Guinness in Ireland

The idea that a pint of Guinness tastes best in Ireland sounds like it could be a drinker’s romantic notion – but there is science to back up the claim.

In 2011, researchers set out to compare the “Perfect Pint” from the Guinness brewery in Dublin to Guinness pours at bars in 14 other countries. The stats were overwhelmingly in favor of the Guinness tasting better in Ireland – suggesting that the beer doesn’t travel well or perhaps that non-Irish bartenders don’t excel at pouring it.

One theory the researchers offered was that the frequent pours in Ireland may contribute to fresher beer straight from the barrel.

Bagels in New York City

“It’s the water,” goes the popular refrain about why bagels taste better in NYC.

According to the American Chemical Society, the water from the Catskills that supplies the taps of New York City is “softer,” with less mineral content. While “harder” water would make for a tougher baked good, the ACS concludes that New York’s soft water is not the main reason for the city’s legendary bagels.

Working with a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, the organization determined that the texture and taste is in fact a result of proofing the yeast (letting the bagels sit in a cooler for a couple of days), and the boiling of the bagels before they’re baked – a technique they compare to flash-frying a steak before putting it on the grill to seal in the flavors.

Sushi and Sashimi in Japan

Here’s another example where expertise is paramount. Japan has highly trained sushi chefs who go through years and layers of training to become proficient, says Naidoo.

Context is also important in this case.

As Trevor Corson, author of “The Story of Sushi” explains, in Japan, sushi is typically eaten at a bar, where it’s customary for the customer to chat with the chef, who can recommend what’s in season. The short window during which the fish is fresh also makes it more likely to be tastier in Japan.

Fresh fruit on the farm

A just-plucked peach. An apple you picked yourself. Berries right off the vine. This is one (large) category where the ingredients are almost guaranteed to taste best right there where they’re grown, especially if the farming techniques were free of pesticides.

Think of the farmstand tomatoes you scored on a drive in the northeast summer. Or slices of San Marzano tomatoes paired with burrata, enjoyed along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. In this case, the lush volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius gives the tomatoes that irresistible flavor.

“Volcanic soil has much richer elements, like magnesium, potassium, and lycopene (an antioxidant), which the body and brain needs,” says Naidoo. “They add not only to the flavor but to the nutrient density of the tomatoes.”

She also notes that while there are many producers who may claim to be selling San Marzano tomatoes, only those with the D.O.P. seal on the label (the Protected Designation of Origin, in English) qualify.

Jamon Ibérico in Spain

Known as the world’s best (and priciest) ham, jamon Ibérico puro de bellota – acorn-fed pure breed Ibérico ham – is soft and sweet, best sampled in delicate thin slices.

While you may be able to find it at restaurants and specialty markets in the United States, visitors to Spain can’t bring jamon Ibérico or any cured meat products back into America, so the scarcity factor only enhances the rich flavor of Ibérico when enjoyed in Spain.

Even there, the farming and intensive curing process make jamon Ibérico a coveted dish.

Steamed fiddleheads in New England

As a proponent of the Slow Food movement, and co-author of “The Ark of Taste: Delicious and Distinctive Foods That Define the United States” (being published in August), David Shields is a champion of local flavors. Of his many examples of foods that taste best in situ is the fiddlehead fern.

“Fiddleheads appear for maybe two to three weeks in local produce markets and high-end restaurants in New England,” he says. “They taste a little like a cross between asparagus and artichoke, and are usually steamed and served in a butter sauce with salt and pepper.”

The fiddlehead’s brief window of seasonality makes it a fleeting but delicious treat, says Shields. “They’re as evocative of spring as garden peas are to English people.”

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