A Black Girl's Guide to Traveling Deliciously

Travel has defined Harvard alumna Kiratiana Freelon’s life. Right before she graduated with an economics degree in 2002 at the age of 21, a surprise e-mail landed in her inbox. It told her she had been nominated for a $20,000 around-the-world fellowship. The catch? She needed to write  two pages on what she would do if she got it.

Inspired by the 322-page Black Guide to Life at Harvard she had written with a friend — covering “what every black student at Harvard needed to know” — she had her proposal tied up within the hour.

Freelon said she would use the fellowship to explore the African Diaspora with a view to writing black travel guides. “West African destinations like Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Gambia; also Paris [where she lived for a year and which is the subject of Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Black Paris]; London [which is the subject of a new guide she is trying to complete in time for the 2012 Olympics]; plus Brazil and the Caribbean.”

Freelon got the fellowship and a few weeks later set off with a backpack.

Her aim with her guides and her “let a black girl show you the world” travel blog is to inspire more people of color to travel.

“African-Americans tend to think travel is something you only do when you’re well established and have tons of money. In fact, to go explore a foreign culture doesn’t cost more than a flat screen TV.”

And the advantage of overseas vacation compared to flat screen TV?

“Well the TV is a material thing while travel is about the experience, which is more valuable, in my opinion. Travel changes you. When you connect with people of different cultures, you grow as a person. Travel has opened me up to how big the world really is. The different foods, the music, connecting with so many great people. It all becomes part of your life, even when you’re not traveling.”

Culinary Travel — and Proof That the Free Lunch Exists

We caught up with Freelon, now 31, in Chicago. It’s where her lawyer mom lives and where she “goes home to” when she touches down. We asked the globe-trotting adventurer to share some of what she’s learned on her travels. Be inspired!

  • London is the most multi-cultural city in world. I’d argue every nation is represented. It’s different from other cities in that the multiculturalism is so blatant. You see it in the food, you see on the streets, the music, the museums. London gives you access to a world view in one city, if you’re open to it.
  • The best thing I did when I set off on my fellowship was that I backpacked. I had a friend who knew tons of people in West Africa and I made sure to connect with them. So I didn’t go there knowing nobody. But every two weeks or so I was able to meet up with people who had me to stay.
  • Having said that, do you know that if you buy baguettes from 20 different boulangeries, they will all taste different? I learned that when I lived there.
  • And it took me eight years to be able to say I am not a fan of traditional French food. I love the breads and cheeses and everything else but the main courses are typically too heavy on the meat for me. But I enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • When I came back from Brazil, I made feijoada [a stew of beans, typically with pork and beef, and considered a national dish]. It’s not the best thing I ate in Brazil; it’s a bit heavy. But I came back and made if for my mother. And recently, when I came back from London, I made curried chicken. I ate a lot of Jamaican and Indian food in London.
  • I’ve come to see myself as a Francophile. I think it’s a combination of Paris and French culture being both exotic and — at the same time — knowing African-Americans have long gravitated toward the city and the culture. Artists in particular were expats in the 40s, 50s and 60s. So while France is a foreign country, it is almost like a distant relative for African-Americans.
  • Most people from the U.S. who go to Africa have as their entry point either South Africa or Senegal. [South African Airways flights typically stop in Dakar, Senegal, on the route between New York or Washington and Johannesburg.] And Senegal has what I consider the best cuisine maybe in all of Africa. There is strong correlation between French colonization and good food. The French were in Senegal, Morocco, Thailand and Cambodia.
  • My favorite food in African, period, is thieboudienne. It’s this flavorful dish with fish, tomato sauce and tons of vegetables including carrots, yams, and a type of indigenous squash. It’s served with rice. Strangely enough, the best thieboudienne I had was in Guinea-Conakry, in the home of a Senegalese woman. I got to watch her cook it. It takes, like, half a day. The best place to eat is at someone’s house. Or at a Senegalese restaurant in Paris.

Read Freelon’s article on eating thieboudienne in Paris, complete with stories and a how-to recipe.

  • Another great Senegalese dish is poulet [chicken] yassa. There is chicken, usually grilled, smothered in a spicy mustard, lemon and onion sauce. You can see the strong French influence. I’ve made poulet yassa at home. See this poulet yassa recipe.
  • The best meals I’ve had while traveling have been in people’s homes. The French have perfected the idea of the dinner party. I went to several. Generally you arrive, with wine or flowers for the host, who is waiting with a glass of champagne. There is always an appetizer. Then you sit down at the table and the very long dinner starts. Several courses and all the while, people are filling your water glass and your wine glass. After dessert, there’s espresso to help it all digest. The dinner is about conversing; having intellectual conversations and connecting with people. By the time it ends, you’ll have been at the table for at least four hours. You’ve used 50 or 60 dishes. And they never let you help clean up.

I’ve never been to one America dinner party like that. Americans have get-togethers.

  • Last fall I went to South Korea. My intro to the food was at a Buddhist temple in Daegu. At around lunchtime, there was all this commotion. Next thing, they invited me to sit and have this elaborate vegetarian meal. There was kimchi and rice and fermented greens and fruits and rice dessert. And they wouldn’t let us give them any money. So often the best meals when you’re traveling are the free meals.

So — for all of you who think there’s no such thing as a free lunch, go traveling!

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.