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Beyond the Law: Jodi Ettenberg’s Journey from Lawyer to Culinary Traveler

Jodi Ettenberg’s journey around the world began with a PBS documentary about the Trans-Siberian Railway that she saw as a teenager. She decided to take that trip, and after going to law school she began saving up money to do it. She quit her job as a lawyer in New York in 2008 to travel for a year and began a blog, Legal Nomads, which started with a single reader: her mother. But the trip didn’t end, the blog’s readership grew, and Ettenberg never returned to her job. “Over the years it just kind of progressed from wanting to see the trains to wanting to see everything,” she said. Her latest venture, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, is a practical guide to eating the local foods she has come to love while traveling (some of which she has shared with us in a great Wanderlist!). The book is part of an innovative series of travel handbooks, self-published by a collective of bloggers.

What was supposed to be a year away has turned into almost five, and a career change. Did you ever imagine this outcome for yourself?
If you had asked me when I left I would have said I’d be back in New York working as a lawyer. I never thought this was in the cards. But while I was traveling I discovered a passion for food that I never really had before. I found I loved learning about countries through their food and using that as my primary tool to make connections.

How did you fall in love with food on the road?
I think it was the trajectory I took. I came in to China on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Mongolia. I was eating boiled mutton in Mongolia with nomads in the desert. When I got to China I realized the Chinese food I grew up with was not really Chinese food. Every province in China has its own food and a very different way of making food. It’s also about connecting with locals. You can come up to any market and sit with all these other people and eat, your legs stuffed under this little plastic table. It gives you this incredible view of the chaos and the noise and of the patterns of food that you’d never get otherwise.

Are there particular experiences that this unconventional method of traveling led to?
In Myanmar I ended up attending a wedding in one of the tiny villages on stilts. It was the first time people from that village had seen tourists, and I was wearing a traditional Burmese longyi—these long skirts that sort of fold and tuck at the waist. That experience started through food. They were excited I knew how to eat their food. It’s a really natural connective tissue and gives you these inroads of communication that language may not, because everyone has to eat.

What advice do you have for casual travelers about to embark on a trip?
I often send people to a Wikipedia page on national dishes. It’s a really thorough list of what’s out there and it’s a fun starting point to breaking down ingredients. Then sites like Chowhound and eGullet—both have good trip reports that really enthusiastic travelers post.

And when you arrive?
When you get there find the early morning markets where people buy their produce because there are normally food stalls set up nearby.

If you’re looking for local food that’s cheap and easy, find the really big university in town and try and find a lunch place near there. I’ve found great university stalls in almost every place I’ve ever been.

Obviously, there are hygiene issues to eating street food everywhere. What are some tips for travelers looking to dive in safely?
I travel with my own set of chopsticks, which I recommend if you’re experimenting with street food in places where the hygiene of the stalls may be an issue. It’s good to go for a two-person stall if you can find it, because someone is handling the money, he shouldn’t be handling the food. Also are the raw and cooked ingredients touching in the stall? That’s something you want to avoid. Lastly, pick a stall where the line is long and varied, with women and children as well.

You have done a lot of travel alone. What do you enjoy about it?
I love traveling alone because I love food so much. So I tend to travel at a different pace—not everyone wants to go back to the same market and stuff her face every morning for four days in a row. But I also like being able to meet people along the way and change plans. You don’t have to be alone to travel like this. It’s more a function of thinking about the world as an interconnected mesh of experiences. Solo travel and group travel are both are better if you keep things open ended.

You are away from home a lot. What do you miss?
I miss sharp cheddar cheese and Poutine from my hometown of Montreal. I miss the smell of pine trees and obviously I miss the people I love very much. But with food, I find it’s the other way around. When I go home I miss Asian food.

How did you end up doing this book?
This was a book I wanted to write regardless. My readers kept writing me to ask how they could eat how I ate and not die of dysentery, which is a valid concern. I was thinking about doing this when Janice Waugh, who published “The Solo Traveler’s Handbook,” was building this collective to make a series of handbooks in specific niches of travel. She had brought on Shannon O’Donnell, who wrote the “The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook,” who suggested me for food.

Do you predict this model to continue? Bloggers publishing in print together?
The industry of travel blogging is moving at its own pace. There is a huge Venn diagram with traditional travel writing as well, many of us have published in print. In 2012 you have to be online in some way to build out a community. It is a great benefit to work together and build out these collectives because everyone’s got their interests and their expertise as a virtue of the backgrounds that they come from.

Check out Jodi’s Wanderlist, “Eating My Way Around the World.”