One of our recent family movie nights featured “Around the World in 80 Days.” Our children enjoyed all of the action and gave it two thumbs up. The movie not only offered lots of opportunities to laugh but also provided an ideal light-hearted entree to discuss different countries, cultures and customs. Since they were old enough to talk, we’ve welcomed conversations about people from different backgrounds and leveraged these discussions as a way to celebrate their own cultural history.
My husband and I have taken a bit of an international travel hiatus since our children were born (The Magic Kingdom’s “It’s a Small World” notwithstanding!). I didn’t have the courage to whisk around Paris with a two-year-old attached to my hip, as one of my “Super Mom” friends once did. But I do look forward to taking our boys to many of the amazing places that they are already learning about in school.
As I’ve been living vicariously through friends who are currently spending months away for summer vacation in other countries, I realized that I didn’t have to wait. Why not create an international experience for our boys right here at home? So I set out to take them on a trip around the world –culinary that is! We were able to experience five of the seven continents. Outside of North America, we also traveled to Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.
Particularly for my seven-year-old, it was truly refreshing to see how engaged he was, and how intrigued he became with the surroundings of each new culinary experience. We call him an aspiring foodie, our own little “Anthony Bourdain.” He will try absolutely anything! During our trip around the world, he ordered everything from escargot to Thai-inspired frog’s legs. We had not only conversations about the taste of the foods and different seasonings but also the ambiance, traditional decor and artwork representative of each country, primary languages spoken, the unique smells in each restaurant and even our interactions with the staff.
Although there is nothing wrong with large food chains, I really tried to find smaller, family-owned authentic venues for this experience. I was glad I did because it offered an opportunity to meet several of the owners who were more than happy to talk to us about their food, family, and culture.
On day #1, we started out in Europe, taking in Italian and French cuisine at a restaurant called Siena’s. Located in East Arlington, Cleveland IV was transported into his culinary adventure with an order of escargot. He loved it! During trip #2, we traveled to South America where he tried empanadas and the most delicious pan de bono (cheese bread) from a Columbian bakery called Antojitos Colombianos. On day #3, we continued our expedition to the continent of Africa via The Nile Ethiopian Restaurant. What it lacked in fanciness, it certainly made up for in hospitality, authenticity, and taste! The owner’s eyes lit up when we told him that we had never eaten Ethiopian food. He proceeded to personally walk us through every step of our new experience. From the savory flavor of the fried sambusas to the unique taste of the vegetarian injera bread platter combined with all of the classic “fixins” like alicha dinich (potato, onion, ginger, stew) and difin misir (whole lentils cooked with turmeric, onion, garlic and ginger). We took two trips to Asia, outside of the standard Chinese fare that the boys routinely experience. On day #4, Cleveland said that although the boba tea was the best “smoothie” he’d ever had (minus the tapioca), the Vietnamese cuisine he tried at Bowl of Pho will take some getting used to. On day #5, however, he fell in love with the Thai flavors of the phad thai chicken, phaneng curry shrimp and frog’s legs at Sala Thai.
One of our true favorites had to be on day #6 during our trip to Spain when we visited Tapas Old World, a Spanish family-owned place in downtown Jacksonville. I told them we wanted classic Spanish offerings, and that is just what we got. We started off with the manchega (chorizo, queso manchego, and serrano ham imported from Spain) and bravas (fried potatoes with “bravas” red sauce) as appetizers. I was initially considering paella since Cleveland had never tried it but thought we’d compromise (for time sake) and order the fideua (pasta with fresh seafood in a creamy white wine sauce). It turned out that it wasn’t a compromise at all… It was simply delicious!
Finally, our last, and most memorable experience had to be when we visited South America on day #7 for the second time by way of a Peruvian gem called Ceviche. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get a little concerned when we walk into a new restaurant, and we’re the only ones there. In this case, it must have simply been our lucky day — we had beat the dinner rush! Everything from the ambiance to the service, to the food, was a treat at this jewel we found in Atlantic Beach! Talk about a history lesson! We’re sitting there about to order, and my seven-year-old says “Hey, that’s Machu Picchu” (referring to an image on the wall)! And the server surprisingly responded, “You’re right, that is Machu Picchu”! This led to a deeper discussion about more of the Peruvian culture including the 200 unique varieties of corn and potatoes in the country. Cleveland experienced some of those potatoes when he ordered the traditional Peruvian dish, anticuchos and I enjoyed the tastiest shrimp ceviche. The story that Cleveland can’t stop talking about is the “secret ingredient” in his purple Peruvian punch. He guessed and labored until he finally gave up identifying the final special ingredient in the delicious blend of juice that actually gave it a purple color. Grapes? No. Blueberries? No. What could it be? Peruvian purple corn!
It was an amazingly fun (and fattening) experience “traveling the world” with our children… passport not required, as it was all right here in the city of Jacksonville.