Every time I sip coffee out of my green ceramic mug from Provence, it's tinged with an extra spoonful of sweetness as I remember my vacation there. Three years after the trip, the mug's Provençal colors still remind me of market where I bought it, of nibbling charcuterie and wonderfully gooey cheese on the cobblestone plaza facing the vegetable stalls, drinking carafes of rosé at a tiny bistro table as we browsed our purchases. I use the mug nearly daily—it's wonderfully comfortable to hold, and the thick walls help keep my coffee warm as I daydream. It is my perfect culinary souvenir.
Having been to more than 30 countries in search of the best-tasting foods, I've collected many amazing souvenirs—and a few terrible ones. I've learned some lessons about where to find take-home treasures—and what to avoid.
What Makes a Good Souvenir?
The best souvenirs are the ones I gaze back on a decade later and feel like I'm still breathing in the sharp mountain air of the Ecuadorian Andes or thick blue smoke of a bun cha cooking on a Hanoi street. My favorite souvenirs last forever and show up in front of me daily: they hang on my wall, live in my utensil drawer, and sit in my sink, waiting for the most recent cup of coffee to be rinsed out.
The worst culinary souvenirs? Those are the ones that are difficult to transport, spend most of their time hidden away in a closet, or turn out to be something you could have bought for half the price on Amazon. So what should you buy to remember the meals on your next trip?
Reaching for the soft, patterned wood of the spoon I purchased in Sri Lanka, I am reminded of the guesthouses where similar spoons served up coconut-scented rice and vividly-colored curry each night. Everyday utensils are great to bring back: a cleaver from China or a mortar and pestle from Russia will actually be handy in your kitchen. Look for the cooking tools section of a local market (often, I've found, housed in the basement). You might find the same items—at a higher price and lower quality level—at tourist markets, but the best-made utensils will be where the locals shop. I stick to the stuff that I know I'll use frequently, but if you're the type with a vast collection of rare and bizarre utensils, these basement shops are a treasure trove.
The varying sizes of circles on the Alinea menu, or the blue-and-white simplicity of the French Laundry one might not be instantly recognizable to anyone but your most food-obsessed friends. But the likelihood is that it was a special meal for you. By framing a menu on your wall, you have an everlasting reminder of the black truffle erupting from the raviolo at Alinea—and a nice new piece of art on your wall. A pricey three-Michelin-star restaurant meal might be the biggest splurge you made in Paris, so surely that's what you'll want to remember with your souvenir. But there is no need for it to be an expensive menu, simply one you want to remember forever. If you ask nicely, most places will let you keep a paper menu, or you might even find a kind hostess in Peru who will write out by hand the names of the dishes you tried for less than $5. The memory, combined with a nice frame, becomes a great addition to your kitchen or dining room gallery.
Cookbooks and Recipes
The same technique—framing a piece of paper with culinary significance—works for recipes. A friend tells of traveling in Burma and asking cooks to write out their recipes for mohinga (fish stew) and thoke (salads). And while ingredients don't pass the infinite-lifespan requirement for souvenirs, cookbooks provide a two-pronged reminder of the delicacies of a journey: their beautiful photos illustrate the cuisine of a region, and if the book's in English, you'll be able to recreate some dishes to share. The saffron you buy in Spain might last a few years, max, but the paella you learn to make with it will join your culinary repertoire for decades.
While the big name titles from any country are likely available online, bookshops in your travel destinations are heavy with books on regional cuisines. Seek out volumes published by a local newspaper (sure, I could have waited until I got home and bought the Ceylon Daily News' Cookery Book on Amazon, but it starts at $85.00). Keep an eye out for treasures basically stapled together—I found a series of tattered pamphlets on Vietnamese regional cooking in a tiny hallway-sized bookstore in Hanoi. Only a bit bigger than a checkbook, these entries in the "Vietnamese Culture Frequently Asked Questions" series only run about 75 pages, with each bit of text in both English and Vietnamese. Even if your find isn't written in English, though, it'll still make a cool coffee table piece—and the camera function of the Google Translate app can help you use it for your own cooking.
I've already told you about my favorite mug, so you know I'm not opposed to dragging dishes halfway around the world, but you'll note that I advise buying mugs, not plates or bowls. Mugs are informal affairs. It is okay that you've got 'em from seven locations across the globe and none of the colors match. Serving trays (which, conveniently, pack flat) and little bowls for dips and spreads (quirkily cute when mismatched) are also worth seeking out.
Meanwhile, bringing back enough bowls that even a family of four could sit down to soup requires some careful packing and crossed fingers. Of the four plates we brought from Thailand, even with careful packing, two broke completely in transit, and a third was chipped. Which brings me to another tip: if an item is both fragile and not costly, purchase more than you think you want. If one of your $1 coconut shell ladles breaks on the way home, you still have the other. If not, you have a nice gift for the dogsitter.
If you'd like to set your table with memories of well-worn walking paths in Tuscany or crowded souks in Dubai, linens make a far better way to do so than plates or bowls. If I set my table with an Ecuadorian tablecloth, my Laotian placemats, or Mexican napkins, I have the colors of the Cotopaxi foothills, lazy Mekong, or serene Lake Pátzcuaro on my table. Weaving is a near-universal tradition, so it's worth seeking out pieces to add to your collection wherever you travel. Often, a small market town will be known for their distinct designs—it's worth asking a local about traditional patterns. Even if you can't find tablecloths or napkins specifically, big squares and small squares are always common. Take measurements ahead of your trip (perhaps stashing in a file on your phone) so you know the size of your table and can buy the something that'll fit. I've even had luck getting a market vendor in Laos to alter the size of the design I wanted overnight. It never hurts to ask.
Edible Souvenirs: A Warning
One of my all-time favorite travel purchases was the hot sauce I bought at a church fair in rural Barbados. But the joy it brought me was nothing like the crushing sadness when it was gone. Edible souvenirs also require caution: I tried not to cry when an American Airlines agent removed my pineapple vinegar from my suitcase at the airport in Morelia, Mexico. The difference between that bottle and the one holding rompompe right next to it was negligible, but that specific type of bottle wasn't sealed correctly enough to be allowed into the U.S.
On the other hand, I almost wish my spices were confiscated on the way home from St. Lucia. The sight of yellow, red, and brown spices piled high on the vendors' tables at the markets made a rainbow of flavor, a feast for the nose and eyes. It was much less pretty when the turmeric leaked slowly out of the bag for the rest of the trip, streaking all of my clothes yellow, making them appear as if they belonged to someone afflicted with both incontinence and poor aim. To make it worse, when I got home, I discovered that the spices I smelled and tasted at the market were not the ones that ended up in my suitcase—I had staler, less fragrant versions. Was it a sense-heightening market-high or a sneaky scam? It really doesn't matter, since it was a bad deal anyway: you can order nearly any spice that's legal to bring into the country over the internet and get it fresh and well-packaged on your doorstep by the time you step off the plane.
If you are going to buy food, consider purchasing something that comes in a nice package. Cookies or candies sometimes nestle in a pretty tin, liquor might be packed in an elegant wooden box, and tea that comes in a decorative fabric pouch gives you the short-lived edible part as well as a second gift that can be repurposed for another use.
Of course, souvenirs are personal. Perhaps you do want to carry an entire set of dishes home from a Provençal market, or the lure of Dutch licorice was just too much to resist, even if you'll eat nearly all of it on the flight home. The most important thing about a souvenir, whether edible, useful, or a simply ridiculous tchotchke, is that it makes you, the buyer, happy. Happy to buy, happy to use, happy to look at, and, perhaps in a fit of decluttering a few years down the line, happy to throw away that metal figurine of the Eiffel Tower away and never see it again.