Chow Town

Eating your way around the world in Swope Park

The world is a vast expanse of land and oceans, with countries and cultures filling areas dense and sparse alike.

For every Tokyo or New York, cities made from mountains of humanity and infrastructure, there are large stretches of Earth where few footsteps of people are to be found.

Borders come and go, topography changes and bleeds into waterways while a metamorphosis of flavors and aromas transforms with the faces and customs of communities across the globe.

Food is one of the most obvious and visceral signifier of the changes that come when crossing borders, literally and figuratively.

Each place and its people have a story told by the things they grow, eat and cherish. I have a recurring dream of living in transit, cooking and eating my around the world, learning about people and new ways of life by sharing a meal in front of or behind the stove.

A trip around the world is an expensive proposition and even the most adventurous and studious of travelers would find it overwhelming to tackle even a small portion of the cuisines and cultures the planet has to offer.

I find fulfillment in cooking and eating the foods of far off places, wherever I am, as a way of appeasing my relentless wanderlust to taste and learn new things.

That is why every August in Kansas City is a cause for celebration and more importantly, for feasting. This is the time of year where Swope Park fills with the cooking fires and flags from across the globe, opening its borders to the world in the form of the Ethnic Enrichment Festival.

This year’s festival was held last weekend and it was a weekend of dancing, food, education and entertainment spanning dozens of countries, and for me, one of the true highlights of a summer filled with festivals of every kind.

The first page of the festival guide lays out a simple but noble credo.

“It is the responsibility and duty of each Ethnic Group to preserve the cultural heritage of their people not only for the benefit of their descendants but also for the enrichment of our entire community.”

The format of the festival lends itself well to this purpose, as each country has a booth or tent set up in a wide reaching circle around the stone column adorned pavilion that sits opposite Starlight Theatre in the heart of the park.

Each booth represents a country, many featuring foods and/or crafts and goods from those cultures.

I particularly how children can get a passport and collect stamps from each country they visit. Engaging younger generations is an important component in passing on the cultural customs from old to young and from one people to others.

Older patrons of the festival stamp a more figurative passport, one of an eager hunger to take in the sights, sounds and tastes of the international samplings on hand.

People can simply graze at the varying country’s culinary offerings if they like, but many more also gather to watch dances in the pavilion, participate in activities with people in native costumes or browse products from the different homelands.

These run the gamut from Russian nesting dolls to traditional Japanese kimonos and loads more.

The true draw for much of the hungry masses is their yearning for international treats and there are more offerings than even the most gluttonous diner could hope to consume. Some countries have more menu items than others, typically a main dish or two and a selection of smaller side dishes, sweets or drinks.

Every year brings more choices for the ravenous crowds, but certain countries or selections are perennial favorites.

The Hawaii booth — yes, it is technically an American state, but features a long and proud cultural history of its own — is always inundated with throngs of thirsty folk clamoring for ultra-refreshing Hawaiian ices to round the edges of the August sun.

It makes for a lengthy queue stretching dozens deep but it is well worth it once the first flavored ice chip parses the lips.

The jerk chicken of Jamaica also seems to make for a perpetual line, but I find myself standing in their line for the slightly gamey delight of the curried goat and a spot of Callaloo. I seek out the less common offerings of some countries, though there is never anything too terribly exotic, much to my offal addicted palate’s chagrin.

Ideally, I’d love to be able to sidle up to Spain for a little stewed tripe and chorizo, or jet over to China for braised pig’s feet and beef tendon.

Most countries offer a wide variety to sample, from the authentic vegetarian specials of Ethiopia — served with the traditional spongy Injera bread of course — to the crepes of France or Lumpia of the Philippines.

People wanting a taste of the familiar have plenty to choose from as well. Italian sausages, lemonade, ice creams are present with Americanized ethnic options like egg rolls and tacos also filling out menus.

The quality and authenticity definitely differs from booth to booth. Some of it is downright mall food court-esque in its marginality, but these aren’t meant to be Singapore hawker stalls so you shouldn’t expect world class quality street food.

The beauty of the event is more in the bringing people together in celebration while exposing one another to the unique aspects the cultures of the world have to offer.

Food is a common language we can all speak. It communicates so much of the past, present and future of our cultures when we eat together.

That is the real beauty of a festival like this, one that has enriched Kansas City for 34 years and hopefully for many more to come.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.