MEET A TRAV­ELER

Writer, self-taught cook and ca­reer won­derer Von Diaz talks travel, food and more.

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Contents - See Diaz’s work and some of her fa­vorite recipes at von­diaz.com. In­ter­viewed by CINDY GUIER

As a child, Von Diaz moved from her na­tive Puerto Rico to At­lanta and spent time in Western Europe while her mil­i­tary fam­ily was sta­tioned in the Nether­lands. These days, the New York–based writer and ra­dio pro­ducer trav­els al­most con­tin­u­ously for work. She also trav­els to eat. We talked with her about travel, sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Puerto Ri­can and South­ern cuisines, and more.

Q Were there any par­tic­u­larly for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences that led to your pas­sion for food?

A Spend­ing sum­mers in Puerto Rico with my fam­ily as a kid shaped my ap­pre­ci­a­tion for bold fla­vors and the way dif­fer­ent cul­tures in­flu­ence each oth­ers’ foods. I be­gan to un­der­stand how much you can glean about his­tory based on what and how peo­ple eat. There, I was also given my first cook­ing les­sons in the kitchen with my grand­mother, Tata.

Q How would you de­scribe Puerto Ri­can cui­sine? How would you de­scribe South­ern cui­sine? Do they in­ter­sect?

A Puerto Ri­can food can be both rich and fla­vor­ful, and bright and trop­i­cal. South­ern food sim­i­larly has a round­ness of fla­vors that is com­ple­mented by an abun­dance of herbs and veg­eta­bles in the re­gion. Both of these cuisines are also types of soul food with deep roots stem­ming from African and in­dige­nous cul­tures. An­other qual­ity they share is that they are of­ten ex­clu­sively seen as be­ing heavy, fat­ten­ing cuisines, but South­ern and Puerto Ri­can food have tremen­dous po­ten­tial to be health­ful and nour­ish­ing.

Q De­scribe your per­fect meal.

A Cheese grits topped with spicy, tomato-laced sautéed shrimp and sim­ple greens.

Q Why do you think food has be­come cen­tral to trav­el­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ences?

A Fig­ur­ing out what to eat while you’re trav­el­ing can be a mixed bag, but ul­ti­mately great food ex­pe­ri­ences truly make a trip.

When I’m on va­ca­tion, I check the food op­tions be­fore I check the weather. Food is such a strong marker of cul­ture and his­tory, and I find I learn just as much from tast­ing as I do from read­ing guide­books.

Q Fa­vorite travel des­ti­na­tion?

A My home­land, Puerto Rico! There’s noth­ing like the fla­vors of my is­land, and the deep nos­tal­gia I feel when I smell and taste trop­i­cal fruit, sa­vory roast pork, and cod­fish frit­ters from road­side stands.

Q What des­ti­na­tion would you most like to visit?

A Patag­o­nia. I saw Chef Fran­cis Mall­mann on Chef ’s Ta­ble and was en­tranced by the place he lives. I’d love to see it.

Q What one place would you most like to re­turn to?

A Sin­ga­pore. The hawker stalls blew my mind, as did kaya toast (co­conut jam served on hot but­tered bread), fresh durian, spicy steamed cock­les by the ocean, Hainanese chicken, fried dumplings, crispy dosa and so many other dishes.

Q Tell us some­thing about your book.

A Co­conuts & Col­lards (Univer­sity Press of Florida) is both a cook­book and a mem­oir of grow­ing up Latina in the Deep South. Through­out, I aim to in­tro­duce read­ers to fla­vors from the is­land I was ob­sessed with while grow­ing up, while pep­per­ing each with in­gre­di­ents and tech­niques from my South­ern home. I of­ten feel as South­ern as I do Puerto Ri­can, and am hon­ored to get to cel­e­brate my two homes.

Q What are you work­ing on next?

A I hope to ex­pand my ex­plo­ration of Puerto Ri­can food more broadly across the Caribbean in or­der to bet­ter un­der­stand the food his­tory of the re­gion, and the sim­i­lar­i­ties we share through our African and in­dige­nous roots.

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