The stupas strung with prayer flags, snow-streaked slopes of the mountains and thin air of the Kunzum La pass stole our breath away – literally, given the altitude of over 15,000ft – but it also stimulated our appetite.
Halfway through the slow, winding descent into Lahaul, India, our guide stopped his battered Land Rover at a mud-brick house topped with rusty sheets of corrugated steel. Filled with the scent of spices sizzling in ghee, this rustic abode doubled as a roadside restaurant – or, at least, the only place for miles around serving food to passersby.
The menu was familiar: dal, versions of which we’d eaten perhaps a dozen times on the Kinnaur-Spiti loop, a detour en route to our destination, Ladakh. Remarkably, the dish never palled on the palate – and this particular example, served as we sat on a threadbare sofa in the cook’s front room, remains arguably the best food experience of my travels to date.
‘Arguably’ is important in that sentence; ranking the best food experiences we’ve had on our adventures is a regular pastime in our house, as it is in the homes of many other people, I imagine. And with good reason. Food, as is often said, reflects culture – so no wonder it’s such an important part of a trip for anyone with a genuine interest in the people they meet and the places they go.
Eating dal in India features on Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist, a rundown of the world’s top 500 food experiences, so it’s not just me who has found greatness in this humble dish (globetrotting foodies from far and wide nominated their favourite experiences, which were ranked by a panel of experts).
You won’t find any of the world’s 50 best restaurants in the list, however terrific they are; in fact, in some ways, these experiences occupy the other end of a culinary spectrum that does not run from good to bad, but from formal to informal, stage-managed to spontaneous, and repeatable to unpredictable.
For all the flair and skill on display, there is, indeed there has to be, a uniformity about restaurants reaching for a Michelin star; without it, such a rating system could not exist. Few, if any, punters would pay the premium for haute cuisine without a guarantee of quality, which is what such awards represent.
And then, of course, there is the social dimension. You’re far less likely to chat with a stranger at the next table in a place where you reserved a seat weeks or months in advance, but you have plenty of opportunity for such casual interaction while queuing for a popular street stall or fabled food truck.
Grass-roots eating experiences like these often turn out to be the proving grounds for the Next Big Thing. They test dishes that sometimes catch on, evolve into staples of a local, regional or national cuisine, and are then transformed, deconstructed – or, if you’re cynical, merely repackaged – for the enjoyment of fine diners. Think of the upward mobility of tapas, ceviche, bibimbap.
Michelin acknowledges as much by awarding an increasing number of Bib Gourmands – accolades which recognise places selling good food at keen prices – to street stalls. And you can also see how one end of the spectrum influences the other in that hallowed haunt of foodies, San Sebastián.
Eating pinxtos in its backstreet bars is, in Lonely Planet’s estimation, the world’s best food experience. And you can bet your bottom dollar – or euro, perhaps – that these simple snacks are getting a molecular gastronomic makeover at some of the city’s upscale eateries such as Mugaritz and Arzak, both of which feature among the world’s top 50 restaurants.
I’d love to sample the bold creations on offer there, should I ever get sufficiently organised to snag a table and save enough cash to pay the bill. In the meantime, however, it’s heartening to know that the best food experiences are anything but exclusive. In fact, you might find one in the most democratic of surroundings – a locals’ favourite, a street corner or a roadside shack.