I HAPPEN TO be walking the busiest street in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, where a span of a couple seconds cannot pass without an array of horns being blown. Buses, cars and tuk-tuks are jammed together like a bad game of Tetris. There are literally more people stuck in this traffic jam than the population of my hometown. Tuk-tuk drivers constantly inquire if I need a taxi, usually around three per block.
People see me walking, yet my mind is halfway around the world. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes, and I’m driving down a dirt road just off Sulphur Springs Road outside of Malvern. Not a vehicle in sight, my windows rolled down, the smell of autumn in the air.
Oh, the things I would give to be on a dirt road.
I have traveled plenty of dirt roads around the world, but there is just something about having a wheel in hand, driving down a road that knows you better than most people in your life—full of childhood memories, heartaches, my best days and my worst days. To think, I used to always hastily make my way on these roads from point A to point B (I was most likely late for something), now to only long to return.
I suddenly snap out of my daydream, as there’s a break in traffic. I have to cross the street. Wish me luck.
I walk up to a little breakfast spot I’ve grown to love in Colombo: a small stall down a little side street only open for a few hours a day, serving up hoppers (thin rice-batter pancakes) and green gram curry.
As I walk closer, I can hear the cook working at his brisk pace. Lids continuously clank, the wood fire crackles, and the oil sizzles as fresh rice batter is thrown into the hopper pan (a slightly deeper wok, specially made for hoppers).
The chef grabs the hopper pan as if it were an extension of his arm, twirling the batter to coat each square inch of the pan. He slams down the pan and covers it with a lid. He moves fast, yet his demeanor is calm as he balances cooking five hoppers at once.
I’ve come here enough to be a regular. The owners see me walking up, and my hoppers and green gram curry are placed on my table simultaneously as I sit down.
I take the bowl-shaped hopper and split it down the middle. The edges crisp and crackle from the thin batter that has been cooked over high heat, yet the middle is doughy, soft and warm. Stewed together low and slow for hours upon hours with onions, tomatoes, curry leaves, chili, turmeric, mustard seeds and more, the green gram curry fills the air with an inviting aroma.
I dip my hopper into the green gram curry, like an Arkansan would chips into cheese dip.
I close my eyes, and a smile comes across my face.
Every time I take a bite, I can’t help but laugh. Not only because it’s so darn good, but because hoppers and green gram curry remind me so much of the purple hull peas and cornbread I grew up eating, a little match made in heaven. It’s food that doesn’t just fill your stomach but feeds your soul.
Now I have traveled high and far, eating food from all over Asia. You name it, and I have had it.
I’ve gone deep into China to try the fiery and mouth-numbing Sichuan cuisine and into the villages of the Khmer and Hmong people of Laos to experience a true foraging diet. I’ve tasted the best lechon, whole roasted pig, in the Philippines and maybe the world, in the local markets of Carcar City and devoured as many varieties of the king of fruit, durian, as my budget would allow.
But can someone please get this boy some Southern food?
I’ll take a full spread from McClard’s with a chocolate shake, pulled pork with extra sauce from Sim’s (John Barrow location). Is it too far to drive to Marianna and get a pulled-pork sandwich with coleslaw from Mr. Jones? Nahhhhh, we’ll just make the trip worth it: “I’ll take two, Mr. Jones.” I need a pulled-chicken sandwich from Whole Hog with all six sauces, and yes, I’d like the volcano sauce as well.
And I haven’t even started on my soul food—some fried catfish, hushpuppies, extra onion and lemon with a big ole bottle of Louisiana hot sauce. Take me to Bobby’s for a meat and three. I need a sweet cornbread with extra butter, pinto beans and a side of collard greens. Tell Aunt Kelly I’ll take some cheese dip (the world doesn’t know cheese dip), deer jerky and peanut-butter fudge when we come up for cousin Holly’s birthday. And oh my, will somebody please get me a slice, maybe even a whole pecan pie?
I could talk about food for days and days, but I am afraid that would have to be another topic for another time.
A motorbike zooms past me and jolts me back to my tiny red table on the street. I finish my breakfast and step outside to the main road.
I wave down a tuk-tuk (not that it was hard, as three eagerly awaited me).
I hop in and tell him to take me to the airport.
It seems to be a theme that no matter where I’ve traveled in Asia the past couple of years, there just aren’t many people from the South (I think I can count everybody on one hand), let alone somebody from Arkansas.
What I thought was something so mundane at one point in my life—“ain’t,” “y’all” and a hard “r” pronunciation that turns wash into “warsh”—has become something that sounds strange to my ear.
My co-workers from my days working in Hong Kong couldn’t get enough.
Come on, say it one more time.
“Y’all,” only to be followed by some laughs and a terrible impersonation, Youuuuuallll.
A shake of my head—it’s all good, just a little bit of banter, good fun.
Oh, it will be so nice to get back and get my Arkansas accent right, as it almost feels foreign to me as well. It’s amazing how we all use a common language, English, yet being unable to speak the particular English I grew up with has left me feeling like a fraction of myself.
TO ALWAYS BE in a foreign land, trying to converse in a foreign language or eating dishes you’re not familiar with can wear you down. Yet the more I explore, taste and learn about the world, the more I realize how special that little farm in the middle of The Natural State is to me.
If it wasn’t for my early years in that place, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
As I make my way through customs, I can’t help but feel uplifted and anxious to board the plane, not because I am tired of traveling, but because my relationship with Arkansas needs rekindling.
They say home is where your heart is, and I happened to leave a big part of my heart in Arkansas. I may no longer lay my head down to rest in The Natural State, but no matter how many countries I check off my list, languages I learn or dishes I try, Arkansas will always have a piece of my heart.
I’m finally through customs, getting ready to board my plane, as someone asks me, “Sir, why are you wearing a pig on your shirt?”
I just laugh and murmur “Woo pig” under my breath as I make my way onto the plane.
Max McFarlin is the creator of MyKindofEats a travel and food YouTube channel. A lover of spicy food, dark coffee, and brown sugar. When he’s not in search of delicious food you can find him practicing his Chinese and Japanese.