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Levison Wood: My life in food

The explorer, broadcaster and writer discusses the best meals he’s had on his travels — and what he craves when he gets back home

Levison Wood: My life in food
Levison in Crossing the Caucasus. Image: Simon Buxton

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It wasn’t exactly culinary high society where I grew up, in Stoke. If I’m totally honest, it was a case of beans on toast. I certainly didn’t know what kale was until I was in my twenties. My dad is a great cook though — over the years, he took over the mantle from my mum, who was a busy teacher, and started making nice curries.

Most of the time, on my travels, I’m at the mercy of whatever food is being sold on the street by local vendors. It can be pretty monotonous; the hardest time was the Nile journey, where — more often than not — it was just ugali or corn fufu on offer. It looks like mashed potato and is very bland – it’s pretty much made up of nothing but starch. That said, I can’t complain; certainly on my last trip, to Central Asia, the food was delicious, healthy — and in very long supply.

In Georgia and Azerbaijan, the people were enormously generous. They would invite me into their homes to eat with the family. We had lots of khachapuri, an amazing cheese-stuffed flatbread that’s eaten with everything: meat on special occasions, or homemade yoghurt.

Dolma – Levison Wood

Dolma; stuffed vine leaves. Image: Getty

The trick in Arabia is to make sure you never finish your plate. Doing that is an indicator you’re full, otherwise the food just keeps coming. On my last trip there, the hosts were so kind; they kept bringing more and more and I couldn’t say no. There were a lot of stuffed vine leaves, tabouleh and hummus.

One of my best meals abroad was in Cuba. I was there in 2009 and had an outstanding seafood platter at one of the restaurantes particulares (private restaurants) that are tucked away in secret enclaves in Havana.

I’m a big fan of cheese. There’s so much variety and I like all types, but I love halloumi, especially when it’s grilled. For me, it’s best in a burger. But no gherkins — I can’t stand them on burgers.

I quite enjoy cooking when I get the chance. My signature dish is butter chicken curry; the trick is to blend nuts and seeds into the sauce to make it thicker and give it crunch — equal parts cashews and pumpkin seeds works well.

I sometimes buy ingredients when I travel. I picked up some saffron in Kashmir and coffee in Costa Rica, but usually there’s not a huge amount of space in my backpack.

#CookForSyria is a great cookbook. It’s a collection of recipes from well-known chefs, as well as little-known restaurants. All the proceeds are donated to UNICEF, to help children and refugees in Syria.

There’s only one meal I want when I get home from a long trip. Tea and toast with just butter.

Levison Wood’s latest book, Eastern Horizons (£20, Hodder & Stoughton), is out now.

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food