Tom Perkins’ adventure from London to Cape Town started like any great adventure: with several drinks. 20,000km, 501 days and 26 countries later, and the aptly named cookbook, Spices and Spandex, was born. Traveling the length and breadth of three continents on a bicycle, Tom’s trip involved two incidents of being run over (the first bad, the second really bad) and multiple incidents involving food, laughter and friendship. Spices and Spandex is not only a collection of recipes, but a collection of stories and shared culinary experiences. We spoke to Tom about his turbulent escapade and what he’s planning for his next adventure…
UO: Can you tell us a bit about your story? How did The Nomadic Kitchen begin?
To be perfectly honest, quite where the idea for the journey came from is still a fuzzy memory. Matt, my travelling buddy, and I were sitting in our local pub in Cape Town, wondering what was next for both of us. I made a throwaway comment. It struck a cord and gained momentum. ‘Why don’t we just get on a couple of bikes, strap on some basic camping and cooking equipment and then hit the road? Let’s try cycle from one local pub just outside of London back to where we are now sitting.’ We were young and wanted a challenge. We wanted to be exposed and become immersed in the cultures we passed through – we thought that travelling by bicycle, in such a slow, vulnerable, physically demanding way would be the best way to facilitate this.
So we told one mate, and another, and then another. Before long, we had told so many people that we had become accountable to our word – the die had been cast. On a personal level I knew that I needed to have a focus and an end product to work towards. I thought of a project that combined all of my passions – food, travel, photography and design – and the obvious answer was to try and produce a cookbook – with an added dimension. Something that sought to look beyond the measure of a meal being simply the sum of ingredients on a plate – and rather placed as much importance in the human element of a meal. I wanted to create a book that told stories, shared culinary experiences, introduced local characters and shed light on some lesser-known food cultures. And so the concept of The Nomadic Kitchen was born.
UO: We love your new cookbook, Spices & Spandex – can you tell us about the journey, from initial idea to finished project?
Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you. I still can’t believe that it has all come together, let alone comprehend just how lucky and privileged we were to even attempt it in the first place. From the initial idea of the journey itself and the goal of producing the cookbook – to its eventual completion and self-publication took almost four years. We travelled over 20,000 km, through 26 different countries, traversing multiple mountain ranges and crossing numerous deserts, we witnessed the Arab Spring at the height of its intensity and passed through some of the most exceptionally raw and beautiful terrains you could ever imagine.
While our initial planning was threadbare to say the least, we did have a blueprint that served us well. We came up with an idea – one that seemed wildly ambitious and a little bit scary, but importantly one that really excited us. We found a method and a means that best suited our own objectives. We were very aware of our own strengths and limitations. We tried to be conscious, self-critical, and never too serious. We surrounded ourselves with people that were unconditional in their belief and support, and then we fully committed ourselves to achieving those ends. We were flexible and open to the inevitability that many things would go wrong. We decided to put full faith in the inherent goodness of strangers and then we just started peddling. Simple as that.
Once the trip was complete, the hard work really started! The book is all self-designed, self-shot, Kickstarter funded, and self-published – it was a serious passion project and I’m unbelievably happy with how it all turned out.
UO: Where does your passion for travel and cooking come from?
I think that I am just persistently curious. I’ve always loved being pushed outside of my comfort zone and forced to make do and adapt. While I think I’m a pretty open-minded person I also definitely fall fowl of harboring certain pre-conceptions of how I think places and social dynamics are before ever setting foot in these places. It can be a dangerous practice, and one that is so easy to fall into, but that’s the beauty of travel: it broadens, exposes and teaches quite like no other experience. I like being made to feel stupid, and in turn learned, by visiting these places and having any pre-conceptions completely overturned. I love being overwhelmed by the realities you find.
I personally feel that food is the best lens through which to try and gain a better understanding of the cultures and societies you visit. My dream has never been to become a chef; I’m much more interested in the social-anthropological side of food and in documenting the ability of food, and a shared meal to facilitate, to gather, to spark conversation, to celebrate and to give thanks. Irrespective of money, language, class, creed or religion, and despite such vast diversity within the sphere of our journey, a shared meal always proved to be the most enlightening introduction to any new community.
UO: What was the most inspiring thing you experienced on your travels for Spices & Spandex?
Where to start really – the list of inspirational attitudes, communities, social projects and individuals overcoming some pretty challenging social conditions was endless. Every single day there would be a guarantee of yet another experience that would inspire and amaze. We were very fortunate to spend some time working with a primary school in Kigali, Rwanda, and seeing little boys and girls – some as young as 9 or 10 – acting as the head of their household because of troubling family dynamics. The would be looking after their siblings and being asked to perform tasks way beyond their years – it was truly remarkable. They always did so with a smile on their face and a deep hunger for education and learning – those kids were amazing.
UO: What was your worst on-the-road disaster?
Getting run over for the first time in Croatia was not much fun. How I didn’t do more damage to myself or my bike was a stroke of good luck to say the least. However, getting run over for the second time in Malawi is still a memory that makes me shudder with fear.
UO: Tell us about a moment on your journey that made you stop and think, ‘Wow’.
Ohh, a very difficult one. I can barely narrow down a favourite ‘Wow’ moment in each country – let alone for the whole trip. We were persistently lucky and overwhelmed with pretty much all we came across. Visiting some of the ancient wonders of the world was fairly spectacular and awe-inspiring, but often the real highlights were found in the everyday interactions with complete strangers. An invitation to share a cup of tea, to join for a collective meal, or to stay for the evening and enjoy a warm bed or a dry patch of floor. In so many places the automatic setting was to give; the manual to give even more. Through these small personal gestures you gain a fleeting insight into the worlds of extraordinary people and communities that redefine the very concepts of warmth and generosity.
UO: What are your road trip essentials?
With respect to long-distance cycle touring – perspective and perseverance. You can stock up on all of all the fanciest equipment available, but without these two you will be caught short. Travelling such a distance by bicycle is an incredibly fluctuating process, one that is at times wildly exposed and demanding. It is often dangerous, daunting and draining both physically and mentally. There is nothing static. Emotions, energy levels, terrains – they are forever changing. There are therefore inevitably going to be low moments, when things go wrong and you can’t see an obvious solution. But what is essential is not allowing such lows to dictate and disproportionally influence impressions and understandings. Perspective and perseverance are invaluable tools when travelling anywhere, but in some of the more challenging parts of the world they prove to be particularly enlightening. And decent cycling spandex, of course. Eight hours a day in the saddle certainly takes it’s toll.
UO: Where’s the most incredible food market you’ve been to? Tell us a bit about it.
This is too tough to narrow down – can I pick three?! All for different reasons. Firstly, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s one of the greatest spice markets in the world and steeped in so much history. A feast for all the senses – the very definition of an age-old institution. Secondly, the fresh fruit and vegetable market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Of all the 26 different countries we travelled through, Ethiopia boasted some of, if not the very finest fresh produce we found anywhere. Going much against the popular misconception of this remarkable country has an amazing culinary culture, and this market is one of the largest on the continent – the quality and volume is extraordinary. Lastly, the late night street-food market in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Set up on the old cobbled streets, with the Indian Ocean as the backdrop one way and Stone Town Castle the other, you can choose between all variety of fresh seafood, tropical fruits, Zanzibari pizza, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and other local delicacies. You couldn’t dream up a better setting.
UO: If you had to pick just one favourite culinary region – which would it be and why?
The Middle East and North Africa – the use of spice, dried fruits and herbs, combined with amazing grilled meats and the respect given to all variety of fresh vegetable is just incredible. But beyond the wealth of beautifully rich, delicious and historic culinary cultures found in this part of the world, what I really love is the way that food is celebrated in a very communal way. While we found this to be the case in so many of the societies we passed through, it was especially true throughout the Islamic world. The ability to welcome a stranger into your home and share a meal with them is seen as one of the greatest honours and privileges you can be afforded as a host. Strangers are not seen as something to be fearful of, but rather they are seen as a blessing. The riches in giving are far more valuable then the riches in receiving – and food, in this part of the world, is one of the most valuable currencies.
UO: Can you tell us some food or portrait photography tips you’ve picked up on your travels?
Take photos first, ask permission after. This might sound a little rude and insensitive but most often the way to get really beautiful shots is to be as candid as possible and capture people unaware. A photo can always be deleted, but once a moment has gone it’s very hard to re-create it.
UO: What is your hero ingredient?
Firstly, the king of Middle Eastern Spice mixes – Za’atar. A combination of oregano, wild thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. Added to salads, rubbed into roast lamb or griddled halloumi – amazingly aromatic and transforms dishes.
Secondly, one of the many dried chilies of Turkey – Urfa Biber. They are left to dry in the sun, giving them a beautiful dark purple colour, with a slightly smokey, tobacco box aroma. Not just your average chilli.
Thirdly, one of the building blocks of Ethiopian cooking – Berbere. Used in almost every other national dish and with a very generous hand, this heady spice mix using plenty of dried chilli, ginger, fenugreek, coriander and paprika amongst a host of others. It packs a punch when added to any traditional Ethiopian “wott” or stew.
UO: What was the best meal you’ve ever had cooked for you and where was it?
It might sound strange, but one of my very favorite meals of the whole trip was one that I could barely stomach because I was so ill at the time. We were in central Turkey, had met a very hospitable and generous man named Ramazan in the local market, who immediately invited us round to his house to join him and his family for the Feast of the Sacrifice; the big meal to celebrate the end of the fasting period. We were welcomed into the family courtyard where a large tethered bull was swiftly decapitated, dismembered, perfectly butchered and then cooked right in front of us. A stew of green peppers and bull’s lung was the star of the show, followed by fresh cherries and copious amounts of black coffee. The idea of the Feast is to make sure that no-one in the local community goes without food and gives thanks on that day – be they old, sick, homeless or destitute – clearly we fitted the description.
UO: What’s the next adventure for the Nomadic Kitchen?
The next big one – I’m always scheming over maps but my focus is very set on Central and South America. A road trip from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, exploring as many food and drink cultures along the way. I think there is such diversity and richness to the culinary cultures – I’d love to dig a little deeper into the lesser documented ones.
If I wasn’t doing the Nomadic Kitchen I would be… doing my day job – I work for a distillery, Southwestern Distillery, making Cornwall’s first gin for 100 years and the first ever Pastis to be made in the UK. It’s beautiful liquid.
My ideal breakfast is… Shakshuka – I tried it in Jerusalem for the first time and was blown away.
I’m currently listening to… Eddie Vedder – In the Wild
My favourite time of the day is… Sunrise – I love a bit of wild camping. Waking up with the sparrows is ideal.
My favourite on-the-go snack is… I’m partial to a good falafel
My biggest release is… Hiking. Being outdoors, having a backpack with some supplies and just walking.
My failsafe dinner party dish is… Beer braised lamb shanks – recipe stolen off my dear Ma
If I could be anywhere in the world right now it would be… Cape Town – to properly celebrate my best mate’s engagement