Two Chicago deep-dish pizzas, carried on my lap back to the East Coast, each equivalent in weight to a small dog. A suitcase stuffed full of Parisian baguettes. Another suitcase from Hong Kong, crammed full of Cup Noodles because the ones in Asia are far superior to what you can find in the States. Duffel bags burdened with frozen Portuguese sausage and bags of poi. These are the true snapshots from my frequent travel routes and the souvenirs that matter the most.
It would be as unthinkable for me to visit Kauai and not see my Great Aunt Helen as it would be for me to go and not bring back a few bricks of kulolo, a coconut and taro cake, Grandpa’s favorite. In Hawai’i, the practice of bringing back omiyage (special food products of a region you have visited) is a deeply ingrained tradition that started off Japanese and retained its Japanese name but is now very much Hawaiian, too. It can be as simple as picking up some beautiful mochi at the airport, or it can be an extreme sport.
My parents started me young, shuttling omiyage across the globe as we split our time between Hawai’i and Hong Kong. Now in my thirties, I daresay I am an omiyage champion. While some people cram months’ worth of possessions into overhead bins to avoid check-in luggage fees and stuff clothes into neck pillows, I don’t pack light. I have one of those weird hidden talents: the ability to lift a suitcase and tell you exactly how much it weighs.
Here are some tips on how to also be an omiyage champion.
Pack properly but know that disasters can happen.
“I was returning from Poland and brought back two bottles of starter for zurek, a fermented sour rye soup that we float kielbasa, potatoes, and eggs in. I used to make it by first boiling a moldy loaf of rye bread and was excited to find the zurek starter because it cuts out a lot of work,” says flavor scout Kristina Brodie. But one bottle of the starter broke in my suitcase, and I ended up with bubbling clothing. My suitcase was effervescent.”
Ivy Lerner-Frank, a Montreal-based former diplomat, is known to schlep her Rancilio espresso machine from posting to posting. “For my first posting in Manila, we had a coffee mishap where the beans got packed in the Bounce sheets,” she says. “They infused the beans with a ‘je ne sais quoi’ which was not fabulous. We still drank the coffee.”
“Growing up, I would travel back to the Philippines every couple of years with my family and pack balikbayan boxes full of American chocolate, cereal, chips, clothes, Spam, and coffee. Last time I brought back coconut candies, ube food items, shrimp paste, dried fish, coffee, household goods, and traditional clothes like barongs,” says chef Tara Monsod of Animae. “Pack everything tight, so items don’t move around. I use t-shirts to wrap food items in glass jars, which makes more room in my suitcase. For perishable items, I pack the food frozen and add a bit of dry ice in a Ziplock to help keep it cold.”
Bring an extra bag and fly non-stop.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the coverage over the summer about challenges with checked bags in Europe. Thousands upon thousands of bags lost. That said, I bring extra duffel bags to shop,” says Zach Honig, a former travel writer whose job took him on international trips every other week. “I ended up buying some bags at the airport one time I was flying from Cape Town to New York on that non-stop United flight. The non-stop factor is important because I probably wouldn’t have thought to do this otherwise. I had bought four cases of wine since it’s South Africa and the wine is phenomenal. I thought I would be able to just bring the cardboard box of wine and check it, but they said no. I had maybe 10 minutes to figure it out and the pressure was on! All the bottles made it back unbroken.”
Weigh your luggage and know the weight limits.
“Check your baggage allowance and take full advantage of it,” recommends Honig. “Don’t be afraid to check a bag if you’re coming back with souvenirs and don’t have any valuables in it. Worst case scenario, it’s lost or delayed.”
Check your bag for rodents.
“I was in Zanzibar on Mnemba Island at the end of a 17-day safari, staying in a thatched hut with lots of ants and mini deer. I had a thinly quilted carry-on bag for essentials – iPad, passport, airplane clothes. Our flight wasn’t until midnight, so we had an entire day to enjoy the island. I packed my bag in the morning, which had granola and coffee beans in it, so I shook everything out onto a towel and whacked the empty bag against a pillar, repacked it and hung it up on a hook while I went to enjoy the beach,” recalls Brodie.
“We stopped for dinner in Stone Town, then boarded a 21-hour flight back to Philly. As we were going through security, my son said, ‘Something smells like bad broccoli.’ I agreed but kept moving. Before we took off, I decided to change into my sweat suit. The smell of death met me in the face when I opened my bag. My children and my husband looked at my bag in horror and called over the immaculate Qatar Airways flight crew. ‘Excuse me, I’m a very clean person but something seems to have died in my bag,’ I tell them. We had to act quickly before the flight took off, dumping out the contents. The side of the bag was chewed up and shredded. I felt along the bottom of the bag and there was an orange-sized animal, likely a hyrax. I had flashbacks of smacking the bag against the pillar. I felt really bad.”
Bring all the snacks.
Seth Cohen works for a global firm, traveling frequently to Israel to fix technical problems and to bring me back new and exciting flavors of Bamba and buffalo grass vodka for my husband. I am not alone in my Bamba fanaticism. “It sounds silly, but a lot of people want junk food from other countries. My friends in Israel always want Cheetos from America because the ones in Israel really suck and Bamba and Bisli are always welcome in the US,” says Cohen. “Yes, I know you can get them in the US, but they’re not the same.”
And for the buffalo grass vodka? “I always have a few wine shipping bags with me. You never know when you’ll find a wine or liquid you’ll want to bring back with you,” he says. “And I’ll bring a collapsible soft-sided cooler as my personal carry-on item, keep carabiners on my backpack handle to clip them to and pack resealable plastic bags – a must for spices.”
Freeze your poi and know how to explain halvah in Spanish.
Cohen knows the power of freezing when it comes to, “bourekas or any fresh pastry, which wouldn’t last long enough to make the trip home as is and require proper planning with insulated bags and freeze packs.”
I apply the same concept to bringing poi from Hawai’i back to the mainland. Freezing poi turns it into a solid that will get you through airport security if you’re carrying it on. Be prepared to explain what you’re carrying.
“I once carried four kilos of fresh halvah from Israel in my carry-on bag. Fresh halvah from the Middle East has no comparison to anything in the states,” says Cohen. “I had a layover in Spain and as I was going through security, I saw them take my bag for secondary inspection. Apparently fresh halvah looks like some sort of explosive on their scanners.”
Know the danger; this may become your life’s work.
Chef Melissa Fernando spent many years shuttling “curry powders, cinnamon, spiced nuts, tea, snacks, and chocolates” between Sri Lanka and India. “Back in the day, we traveled with frozen hot dogs and bacon — the Keels brand in Sri Lanka is so good — and fruits like rambutan and mangosteen, not readily available in India. One small suitcase was strictly assigned to carry only rambutan,” recalls Fernando. While there were some heartbreaking incidents (curry powders spilling out of their original packaging, pickles and sambals with oil breaking or spilling out of their bottles) Fernando now hauls her Sri Lankan dishes all over Philadelphia, popping up at restaurants and venues with dazzling frequency.
Know you’re relaying comfort to people.
“The things that people have brought me recently as omiyage from Hawai’i are not normally things that I buy for myself, but they’re so precious now – crack seed like li hing gummy bears, lemon peel, dried cuttlefish,” says Malia Yoshioka, who is originally from Maui but has been living in Turkey for the last few years. “Pork products are not readily available, and there’s definitely not an entire aisle of it like in Hawai’i, so people often bring me cans of SPAM Lite, which I now cut up into individual portions and freeze.”
Yoshioka continues, “I rarely used to buy chocolate covered mac nuts in Hawai’i, but someone recently brought me a box of Hawaiian Host and I wanted to cry biting into the first one. Condiments and spices like Hawaiian salt and chili pepper water are precious for when I’m trying to coax something into tasting like home. But any omiyage that someone brings me brings me a smile each time I taste it, knowing that they made room and hand carried something they chose just for me, to remind me of home – my home, their home, or a temporary holiday ‘home.’ The intention makes it special.” Yoshioka’s closest friends are ones she met through a mutual love of food and she says, “It’s easy to want to share the place that I’ve been with them.”
It’s exponentially better than sending a postcard. “Sharing food is the most vivid way to capture a place. It’s saying, I wish you could have been there experiencing this place with me. It’s also an important way to honor the culture of the place by learning about what foods or products are important, especially if I can find small producers or family businesses to support,” says Yoshioka, whom I had originally met over sharing food in Hawai’i.
Years ago, she took me around Maui, laying platters of manju and dry mein from Sam Sato’s Wailuku in front of me, expanding my understanding of Hawai’i’s local food and teaching me new dishes to love.
“Our sensory relationship with food is written by others and the imprint of flavor is incredible,” says Brodie. To be reminded of your home or to be introduced to someone else’s home, knowing that you were in their thoughts as they packed food for you, to share with you, is profound.
Brodie speaks from experience, “Especially if you marry or live outside your culture, it’s a confirmation that your culture is still alive.”