How Travelers Turn Food Souvenirs Into a Vacation-Inspired Dinner Party

How Travelers Turn Food Souvenirs Into a Vacation-Inspired Dinner Party

I was sitting on a blustery, balmy ferry deck in the Aegean Sea last August when I started dreaming of a dinner party back home in Brooklyn. I had just finished a nearly two-month solo journey through the Balkans, where local food culture has been heavily influenced by the Ottomans, Italy, and the Adriatic. While I rarely found myself lonely on the trip, there were many meals I wanted to share with close friends, so I texted them photos of food as if they were digital postcards saying, “Wish you were here!”

When I finally invited them to A Very Balkan Dinner Party in the winter, I looked back at those snaps to assemble my menu: stuffed fermented cabbage leaves (a wintery version of the stuffed grape leaves I enjoyed all summer), flaky borek filled with spinach and salty cheeses, roasted peppers with kaymak from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, smoky Macedonian eggplant dip, arugula dressed with pumpkin seed oil in a nod to Slovenia, and poppy seed ice cream with sour cherry compote inspired by a cone I ate on a blazingly hot day in Belgrade, Serbia.

A spread of Balkan dishes, including peppers, dumplings, and a casserole.

A meal in Sarajevo, including peppers later served at a dinner party.

I set out on a snowy Sunday for Parrot Coffee Grocery, a Balkan shop in Queens, and chatted for a while with a salesperson from Romania about stuffed cabbage and her preferred brand of ajvar. Before my friends arrived, I turned on a Balkan playlist and set out a small handmade cheese knife I bought in Kosovo and a ceramic bowl from Albania. A friend asked me to share a bit about each dish as we ate, and after dessert, I introduced my guests to a toasting custom with raki I learned at Alpeta, a family-run winery I stayed at in Albania. For one night, I felt like I was back on my trip and that I was able to take my friends with me.

As I started to ask around about dinner parties like this one, I heard from more than a dozen travelers who have hosted similar gatherings. With the help of souvenir ingredients and recreated dishes, they have shared their journeys with friends and family around their tables at home.

Through food, you can bring someone into the experience of your trip, says Liz Furman, who works for a toy company. She and her husband co-hosted a Greek dinner party for her 30th birthday after a trip to Santorini.

“That’s our preferred way of sharing some of our travels, rather than showing a bunch of photos,” Furman says.

For Jerome Halm, a semi-retired clinical psychologist, photo slides were actually an essential part of 20 or so dinner parties he and his late wife Beverly Halm hosted after their travels to places like Italy, Russia, China, and Peru. The dinners in their homes in Queens and Long Island followed a pattern: Beverly, who was a librarian and culinary educator, would oversee the cooking while Jerome prepared a slideshow from the trip to share between dinner and dessert.

Red tea cups served with raisins and candied orange peel.

Tea during a Balkan feast.

The inspiration for one memorable party began at a conference in Peru in the 1960s. After returning to New York, Beverly connected with a Peruvian chef in Queens to learn how to make mazamorra morada, a purple corn pudding. Between courses at the ensuing dinner, Jerome clicked through images of the Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs carved into coastal plains in Peru, while telling a story about a serendipitous lunch with Maria Reiche, a famed archeologist who studied the lines.

For some, these dinner parties are an opportunity to cook with ingredients from the other side of the world. In the early 2000s, it was hard for Singapore-based food writer Annette Tan to source ingredients she read about in cookbooks by authors like Claudia Roden and Paula Wolfert, so she would buy them on trips.

“I couldn’t cook [those dishes] without traveling at that time,” Tan explains.

One Christmas, she made a timballo from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper for a dozen cousins and served porcini mushrooms, Parmesan, ham, and heirloom tomatoes she brought home from Italy. On another occasion, a trip to Japan yielded miso and mentaiko (spicy cod roe), which she used to prepare oxtail stew and a yoshoku (Western-style) pasta dish for friends.

For some, like cookbook literary agent Sally Ekus, these meals are a way to give back to places they have traveled. In 2007, Ekus and her mother Lisa visited Vietnam on a culinary delegation with PeaceTrees Vietnam, a landmine education and clearance non-profit. When they returned home to Western Massachusetts, they made bánh tráng rế (netted rice paper wraps) for spring rolls and banana blossom salad for a 30-person fundraiser for the organization at Lisa’s home.

“This is just ingrained in Lisa and me. If we go somewhere we have to bring it back and share it, letting it transform both our lives and the people we are excited to [eat] with,” says Ekus.

Meanwhile, writer Caroline Eden, who was in Ukraine shortly before Russia invaded in 2022 and has traveled extensively in the region, organized two eight-person supper clubs at her kitchen table in Edinburgh, Scotland, to raise funds for #CookForUkraine. Guests discussed the war over a meal of pickled mushrooms, challah, and regional recipes like a Black Sea borek from Eden’s cookbook Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light.

Extensive kitchen experience isn’t necessarily required for these meals; if you shop wisely on your trip, cooking can be optional. The night after they returned from Amsterdam to New York, senior social media manager Irina Groushevaia of Punch (owned by Vox Media along with Eater) hosted a party they called Back from ’Dam featuring a large spread of snacks.

“The things I brought were telling the story of what I did in Amsterdam,” Groushevaia says. Cheese and stroopwafel recalled a bike tour, while party favors of tea and elderflower lemonade concentrate came from a visit to the botanic gardens. As friends snacked, Groushevaia shared watercolors they painted on their trip.

A hand-written journal entry describing eating experiences while traveling, alongside illustrations of food items.

A food memory from Amsterdam.
Irina Groushevaia

While many of these dinners focus on a single destination, giving guests a taste of a place they could visit, a meal can also reflect the journey itself. Last December, after a long trip to and from Antarctica, Tan served conservas and olive oil she picked up in Portugal, wine from a stop in Buenos Aires, and chocolate truffles from a short transit in Zurich. Her dinners are as much about sharing an experience as they are about specific cuisines.

“I just like the idea that I’m sharing a piece of the holiday with them and, sometimes, kind of encouraging them to go,” Tan says. “It’s a recommendation in physical form.”

Devra Ferst is a food and travel writer based in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. She is the co-author of The Jewish Holiday Table: A World of Recipes, Traditions & Stories to Celebrate All Year Long.

I was sitting on a blustery, balmy ferry deck in the Aegean Sea last August when I started dreaming of a dinner party back home in Brooklyn. I had just finished a nearly two-month solo journey through the Balkans, where local food culture has been heavily influenced by the Ottomans, Italy, and the Adriatic. While…

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