Never say never.
I had sworn off all forms of organized tourism. I refused to be part of the ugly masses, nor would I picture myself mingling among flowered shirt-wearing, fanny-pack carrying tourists who stick out like a sore thumb and act loud when abroad. These stereotypical Westerners don't know -don't try- how to survive in another place, removed from their comfort zone, and resort to familiar, recognizable places like Starbucks or McDonald's around the world, missing out on the local food culture in an attempt to remain close to what they know. Then they claim they have traveled.
When I worked with Americans abroad in Barcelona, I always made sure to introduce the nuances of the local coffee culture; one can know a lot about a place and its people based on the habits that surround their caffeine consumption. How unfortunate, to miss out on the subtle significance of why you just can't order a café con leche after a meal, or why you don't order coffee to go in Spain; that's just not done, as coffee is meant for relaxation, it's a break from work and not fuel to keep working. If you stick to Starbucks, just because it's familiar, you would never know the difference.
Nevertheless, sometimes it's not easy to penetrate into the local culture of a foreign place, either because it's just too foreign, or because, like Barcelona, the tourism industry is so overbearing that many neighborhoods in the city are designed entirely to cater to the tourists who crave the familiar (Starbucks), or a stereotypical version of local color (the souvenir shops on the Ramblas selling Mexican sombreros!). Hence my softening up to the idea of guided travel...
In late 2014, I was invited by Accent International to Istanbul for a few days, to meet my colleagues from the Mediterranean Politics, Food & Culture program I now teach yearly for University of California Education Abroad Program. Thrilled at the opportunity to get to know such an exciting city, in a rich culture, new to me and different from any I had ever visited, I knew however that I wouldn't be able to stay long enough to scratch the surface, and that was a bit frustrating. Somehow I found out about Culinary Backstreets, a small endeavor then, whose food-focused city walks were not quite as widespread around the globe then as they are now. Their mission, centered on the human aspect behind the food, spoke right to me:
"there [are] countless stories of a city’s foodways that needed to be told. We wanted to focus on a more traditional side of urban culinary life – the workings of simple family-run restaurants, the masters passing their craft on to an apprentice, the banter of regulars gathered around an open table, the rhythm of a life committed to meatballs and nothing else. We were enthralled by all of the tiny epics we encountered while eating our way through the city and set out to share as many of them as we could. From the start, we vowed to go slow and collect these stories one-by-one, giving equal measure to the culinary side as the human element of the story."
I signed up for a tour on one of my two free days in Istanbul, still quite wary as to what this first-ever venture into organized tourism would bring. Would I be dragged down the streets caught in a crowd, led by a megaphone-toting guide holding up an American flag? Happily, that's not at all how it turned out.
I joined our guide Ipek with a very small group (there were 6 of us in all) early on an extremely rainy fall morning, for a full day packed with eating and stories. We started out with a colorful, traditional Turkish breakfast spread Ipek pulled out of her backpack in a beautiful old train station. What better way to introduce ourselves to each other, fellow walker-foodies, than around the table.
For the following several hours, we ate our way through the winding streets of Istanbul. Ipek took us to places I never would have been able to find on my own: not just the right spice shop within the market, but also small, hidden, hole-in-the-wall, family-run restaurants, tons of street food joints (the fact that they were included on the tour validated them as "safe to eat", including those mussels I probably wouldn't have dared to try on my own), and even craftsmens' workshops tucked away in secret city corners. Ipek escorted us up some very old-looking, winding stairs, to find the best views of the city, with food purchased from a nearby generations-old family-run bakery. We devoured our way through the day, and I came home feeling I had gained a knowledge of a place and culture I could never have done in one day exploring on my own. It inspired me to cook and eat more Turkish food, and in fact I later put together some lovely Turkish cuisine workshops at the schools I regularly teach at in the Bay Area. The walking tour also shifted my strong opinions about organized travel.
My absolutely positive experience with the Culinary Backstreets walk in Istanbul surely played a role in my decision to start Sobremesa Culinary Tours. I now understand why people resort to organized travel, and believe that sometimes it's great to have a local guide you through an unknown city. Because food is a perfect gateway into a culture, what better way to offer a foreigner access to a new place than by offering some insider knowledge of its food culture? Culinary Backstreets and I share a belief in "honest tourism"; in fact, I recently started a conversation with them for possible future collaborations, stay tuned!
Three years after my Istanbul culinary walk, as we were planning our Japan itinerary, I felt daunted and somewhat anxious about only being able to spend 3 days in massive Tokyo. I remembered the Culinary Backstreets experience and, lo and behold, by now they are already in Tokyo, too! We signed up for a tour with them on our first full day in the city (but only after an early morning visit to Tsukiji market, which was at the very top of my Tokyo list).
We met up with our guide Noam at Shibuya station, one of the most bustling areas of an already extremely bustling city. Noam was easy enough to spot without holding up a sign (or flag), thanks not only to the fact that he towered above the locals, but also to the detailed instructions and photo we were emailed upon signup. The group was limited to six, i.e., no megaphone needed: only my family of four and one other couple. Another young woman tagged along as an apprentice, an aspiring tour guide herself, and she turned out to be the only non-Californian in the group, including Noam, who had been living in Japan for over a decade, but was touched by the fact that we live in the city where he went to school.
Without too much ado, Noam aimed to get us to the eating as soon as possible. Our first stop was a sushi joint in Shibuya station's depachika. A depachika is a department store basement (which is literally what the name means), where the best local food halls are. In Japan, life evolves in and around the stations, and that's where you can find the best food (remember Jiro? He is in a station, too; we didn't eat there but did track the place down in Ginza station to snap a photo). This was a surprise to me, as it's so unlike my native Buenos Aires, where big stations make for neighborhoods you would much rather avoid.
My first experience of a depachika had been a few days prior, when I stumbled on the one in Kyoto station, where I almost had a nervous breakdown due to the overwhelming excitement of so much good food on offer. I was with Olivia, and I had to drag her back up the escalator, find Israel and Bruno, who were waiting in a loooong line for the bus to one of the temples, and drag them all back down to see it with their own eyes. The array was stellar. The food on display was similar to the one in Shibuya: dozens and dozens of stalls, mostly organized by genre: produce, fresh fish, sushi and sashimi, prepared foods (my family members have a weakness for the tempura stalls; who can resist deep fried?), bento, pickles galore, vegetable and seaweed-based side dishes, Japanese sweets, tea, and a long etc. Sampling was often part of the experience, and we were only too happy to comply.
Noam took us to a corner small sushi restaurant, a side business run by the same fishmongers from the market. We were each instantly -they had clearly been expecting us- served miso soup and a platter with a generous selection of nigiri ("squeezed") sushi: lean tuna, boiled octopus, scallop, and a long eel cut in half and prepared two ways, with sesame and wasabi. When I asked Noam about natto, which I had not been able to try yet (the cooks at the ryokan I had stayed at the first few days in Japan probably thought Westerners don't do that kind of thing), he didn't hesitate, and ordered a natto maki or roll for me to try, even though it wasn't a part of our set menu. Natto, in case you don't know, is fermented soybeans. Its appearance is a total turn off to some, because it's sticky, stringy, even slimy. It also happens to stink. A lot. Nevertheless, I am such a weirdo that when I know something is good for me it automatically tastes good to me, and I had heard a lot about the nutritional benefits of natto. Bruno and I (Israel and Olivia didn't dare try it) got hooked on its umami flavor, and shared several more natto maki throughout the trip. In fact, I have even found a sushi place close to my house in Berkeley that makes natto maki; it's nutritious, and also inexpensive compared to fish.
Before we departed, the sushi master sculpted an array of adorable, tiny, real sushi, an exact replica of everything we had just eaten, special for Olivia, the tiny one in the group. In Japan she got so much attention, just for being a child (and a beautiful one, at that!); whenever we were wandering around in a shop, the shopkeepers would come up and offer her a token, something small, just as if to say, I see you, I acknowledge your presence.
We took a tour of the depachika, while Noam pointed out the highlights. There was of course some sampling involved, including kastera (sponge cake, brought to Japan by the Portuguese, just like tempura) and Japanese tea. With our bellies already pleasantly full, we boarded a local train to Kichijoji, where we spent the rest of the tour, a neighborhood we never would have visited if not for Culinary Backstreets. In order for us to be able to interpret it, Noam described it Tokyo's equivalent of Berkeley to SF, due to its youthful, artistic and counter-cultural reputation.
I won't enumerate all the places we visited on our 6-hour foodie tour (not just because I don't want to reveal CB's secrets), but there were definitely some highlights for me. My favorite was without a doubt Soybean Farm, a miso shop and restaurant where we got to taste 9 varieties of miso, and then choose our favorite (or a combination thereof, which my experimental son gladly went for) to have a soup made out of it. (I felt proud of myself for having chosen the same miso the guide later did, a nettle miso, of which I bought some to bring home with me; they say it's great for allergies.)
The story of the shop's owner as told to us touched my heart, as an illustration of authentic Japanese culture. As it goes in Japan, the miso business had been in his family for four generations; his father and grandfather before him had been miso producers. But he wasn't so keen on it, and wanted something different for himself, so he became a miso sommelier, and started gathering miso from all over Japan and experimenting with recipes. The shop and restaurant in Kichijoji serves some of these recipes; our group got to taste a miso cheesecake and a pork marinated in red wine and red miso. The master has taken to combining different varieties of miso with wines in many recipes; their fermented flavors pair well. The miso-master himself was not there to greet us because he was at his weekly ballroom dancing class when we went, but we ran into him -impossible to miss, in his elegant ballroom attire- on our way out, and Noam stopped to introduce us.
Throughout the day we visited many shops, bars and restaurants, and sampled foods as varied as fugu (the infamous pufferfish, banned throughout the Edo era) and a warm sake simmered with fugu fish fin; takoyaki (octopus fritters, Bruno's favorite of the day), handmade sembe (rice crackers made with mochi rice, dried and then baked, coated, and baked again) in a factory/shop that has been run by the same couple for 60 years (at 85, they are still working there every day); a popular local yakitori joint; taiyaki (a fish-shaped waffle filled with sweet red bean paste; tai is sea bream, but its name is also related to good luck). Our final stop was a funky izakaya, a Japanese pub, which I would probably call the tapas equivalent of Japan. We drank shochu paired with some small plates such as cut up tomato and cucumber, pork intestine (I didn't go for that one, though they say it's very healthy!) or my favorite: grilled bitter melon, super digestive after all that eating.
Just as valuable as the sites we visited on the tour was our guide's graciousness and generosity, in addition to his in-depth knowledge and ability to mediate between the local and the foreign. He accompanied everyone to the station at the end of the day, and then took extra time to walk the four of us to a shop he had mentioned and I expressed interest in, staying to translate for me. Every time we transitioned between sites, he made sure to call the next stop to remind them to expect us, so they were always ready for us and no time was wasted -saving more time for the long stretches we chose to spend sharing sobremesa over shochu or yakitori.
I can only aspire to be as gracious with my upcoming Boutique Basque and Boutique Barcelona guests! My older self now realizes that organized travel is both possible and desirable. I hope the guests of Sobremesa Culinary Tours will feel well received and empowered by the knowledge we will share with them, and, with our guidance, less daunted to leave their comfort zone and venture into new cultures. Isn't it pretty to think that there is such a thing as honest tourism?