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Obsessive Vacation

June 01, 2008|Leslie Brenner | Acting Editor

When I travel someplace I've never been, I hit the supermarket straightaway. I have to do it, but not because I forgot to pack toothpaste. It's because we are what we eat. If travel is about understanding people, what better way to soak up culture than hitting the grocery aisles?

Around the world, I've seen some pretty compelling stuff. In Stockholm, at an amazing department store food hall, dozens of kinds of herring, shrink-wrapped smoked reindeer meat and fish roe in a tube shared the aisles with gorgeous elderberries and wild raspberries. In Madrid, an entire area in one supermarket was devoted to bocadillos--long toothpicks that skewer, say, caperberries, white anchovies and roasted red peppers. Tapas-on-a-stick! The bocadillos were as pretty as jewelry and spoke to the Spanish spirit of entertaining and fun.

In Tokyo, you'll find long displays with 100 kinds of pickled vegetables and mountains of fresh green tea. Or salty snacks such as wasabi peas and sesame rice crackers. A corner grocery in southwest France might be tiny, but you can count on finding big bags of fleur de sel for just a couple of euros, cans of cassoulet, jars of duck confit, little bottles of espelette pepper, cellophane bags of verveine tea. And always poches surprises--big paper cones that kids buy for a euro; they're filled with cheap little toys and maybe a kids' magazine.

Am I obsessed? Maybe a little.

I'm not the only one. This month, Times staff writers let us in on the obsessions that add an extra layer of passion to their travels. Hotel writer Valli Herman, with her love of nature and abiding yen for luxury, invites us to Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn. The exclusive retreat in the woods, a pioneer in the sustainable hospitality movement, has just completed a super-green expansion. Assistant Food editor Betty Hallock satisfies her insatiable jones for sweets in the pastry capital of the world, Paris. Columnist Dan Neil, obsessed with getting a great look at the night sky, heads up Mauna Kea in Hawaii--with a bottle of oxygen to improve the view. And Tokyo bureau chief Bruce Wallace takes us deep into the heart of otaku, illuminating Japan's obsession with obsession itself.

Can't afford a big trip right now? Magazine contributing editor Laurie Winer has pried the secret of one of the best Thai dishes in town from the chefs at Jitlada restaurant, right here in Los Angeles. It takes some chopping and slicing, but the khao yam rice salad tastes so wonderfully exotic you'd think you were in southern Thailand.

Finally, Image editor and Times fashion critic Booth Moore, who spends a good part of the year traveling to fashion shows in Paris, London, Milan and New York--looking fabulous everywhere--lets us in on what she packs.

What's your travel obsession? Drop us a line and tell us about it.

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