Traveling Through Taste, From U.S. Vending Machines To Albania : Rough Translation You can zoom around the world through sight and sound, but you can't taste at a distance, right? Stories about what happens when we try.


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Let's kick off today's show with a thought experiment. Close your eyes. If you could have any food you imagined right now, what would it be?

NIDHI: When I think about my home, which is Mumbai...

MARTA: The thing that I miss the most...

NIDHI: ...One of the things that I miss the most is the food.


WARNER: Last week, we asked you, our listeners and friends of the show, to tell us, what taste do you long for?

KATZ: Roasting chestnuts.

NIDHI: Vada pav.

KALYANI: Chicken lollipop.

ISABEL: My grandma - she just makes the best arepas in the world.

WARNER: You told us about the tastes you longed for in Sri Lanka, Spain, India, Venezuela, Italy.

MARTA: They're called pasticcini, so they're, like, these mini pastries.

ISABEL: It's basically like bread but made out of corn, except that it's better and it's not bread (laughter).

KATZ: The whole city just fills up with this delicious smell.

NIDHI: Outside schools, outside train stations, and...

KATZ: It's been a long time since I've been able to go because of COVID.

ISABEL: And it just brought me so many memories.


MARTA: So the moment I set foot in Italy, there will be a tray full of pasticcini waiting for me. And then everyone else will eat the ones that I like, and I'm going to complain.

WARNER: There is something stubborn about taste, something homebound, almost old-fashioned. It's like taste has not quite caught up with our modern world where you Zoom into a city with one click. Taste is something you just can't do at a distance. You almost have to be up close.


WARNER: And taste, of course, brings us close. So today on the show, we've got two stories about just how far our longing for taste can take us, from the snacks that transport us around the world...

FOLU AKINKUOTU: Oreo scallion ice cream sandwich.

WARNER: ...To the dishes that bring us back home.

SARA: Ready to eat?

MIRELA: It's ready to eat.

WARNER: What can we learn when taste is off the table? That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Cookbook sales are up in the pandemic, which shouldn't surprise anyone with pandemic food fatigue. We're not going to restaurants. We're not traveling as much. We want to give our taste buds something new to try. But this next story is about a category of food that is pretty much impossible to do at home unless you have a laboratory and a food scientist and probably some weird synthetic ingredients that don't exist in nature. I'm talking about snacks like...

AKINHUOTU: Sunkist salted lemon jelly soda.


AKINHUOTU: My name is Folu Akinkuotu. I am the creator of the Unsnackable newsletter.

WARNER: Unsnackable. The tagline is international snacks that you want but cannot have - red-caviar-flavored Lay's potato chips from Russia, pasta-flavored oat chips from Finland, a Ukrainian candy bar stuffed with bits of popcorn and something called marmalade cola.

AKINHUOTU: Snacks are kind of an approachable way to look into someone else's life. Like, what are other people in other places getting when they're not thinking, when they're almost just reacting?

WARNER: Because you imagine that most Germans don't wake up intending to spend money on a pineapple pizza smoothie - but spend money they do. Most Britons don't put on their shopping list fish-and-chips-flavored mochi, but there you might find it in the frozen food section.

AKINHUOTU: You're just kind of looking and seeing in this moment what is catching my eye? What is resonating?

WARNER: And Folu's interested in what these cravings reveal about our deeper longings - longings for comfort, for home, for childhood or just the chance to eat your dinner for dessert.

AKINHUOTU: To know that people do that all around the world is pretty cool.

WARNER: Folu told us that her mission to understand the world through its snacks began with one very local snack that she knew all too well.

AKINHUOTU: One of the great Minnesotan local candies is the salted nut roll - dry-roasted, salted peanuts around nougat. They were somehow always stale.

WARNER: When Folu was growing up, her parents owned a pair of vending machines - kind of a side hustle, but it wasn't a very successful venture. Folu remembers when she was 8 years old, watching through the glass at rows and rows of unsold nut rolls inching toward their expiration dates, knowing in whose lunchbox they would end up.

AKINHUOTU: I ate so many of them during my childhood where I would just pick off the peanut and then, like, have half of the nougat and then go back and eat some of the peanut. And I would never enjoy it, but there were always so many left. I was just suffering through something that was supposed to be a treat.


WARNER: Her parents were Nigerian immigrants who'd been in the U.S. for 20 years, and their idea of a snack?

AKINHUOTU: Foods like plantain and chin chin, which is kind of a crunchy fried dough that you would cut into small pieces, or puff-puff, which is like a fried doughnut.

WARNER: Delicious but not the sort of things you could stack in a spiral dispenser.

AKINHUOTU: We definitely weren't one of the houses that had, like, the snack pantry.

WARNER: And so Folu, determined to upgrade her lunch and help her parents turn a profit, started using her recess period for research.

AKINHUOTU: Like, these are the things that my classmates are eating. And I don't know if elementary-schoolers are a good analog for what adults were eating in an office, but I think for snack food, it's a decent one.

WARNER: She poured through the candy catalogs that came in her parents' mail.

AKINHUOTU: I think I was just curious to see what was out there, just knowing that there was always more out there.


WARNER: She even joined her parents on trips to the wholesaler. Folu was a kid in a candy store - literally - but if the kid were also this tiny shrewd businessperson who is trying to figure out what an office worker in Minnesota might impulsively pull out their wallet to buy.

AKINHUOTU: It was maybe the first time that I thought about food as something someone else would be experiencing.

WARNER: But what really surprised her was the feeling she got when her dad took her advice.

AKINHUOTU: He would say go out and pick what you think we should get. And I think that was really important to me.

WARNER: It felt like coming of age one snack at a time.

AKINHUOTU: Just learning how to get through the world, and - I don't know, I think it was just very cool.


WARNER: So fast-forward a decade or so.


AKINHUOTU: So I've got the turkey all nestled into the duck fat.

WARNER: Folu is a home cook sharing her creations on Instagram.


AKINHUOTU: Some sprinkles, and you've got some homemade Dunkaroos.

WARNER: And she keeps a travel diary.


WARNER: You can watch her taste guava pastry in Mexico City or strawberry oat milk in Reykjavik or tour candy shelves in Japan.


AKINHUOTU: This cute little Asian pear - look at its hat.

WARNER: She's become the kind of traveler who will visit a convenience store in another country the way that other people visit museums until March 2020. The pandemic hits, and travel halts. Folu is stuck, like all of us, in her apartment and eating less adventurously.

AKINHUOTU: Having so much time to sit and think about the things that you wish you could have or try or buy.

WARNER: So in September of 2020, she launches...

AKINHUOTU: The Unsnackable newsletter.

WARNER: And she starts hunting for the latest snacks worldwide. She'll parse an Instagram live between a German and Australian snackspert (ph). She watches video reviews on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

AKINHUOTU: All of this exploration - it leans pretty heavy on Google Translate...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

AKINHUOTU: ...Seeing how people talk about it with their peers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She'll lurk in the virtual snack aisles of online grocery stores around the world.

AKINHUOTU: I'm sure some of the Turkish chocolate bar bloggers wonder why this American girl is liking all of their posts.

WARNER: But then comes what seemed to me like the hardest part. She has to write about snacks that she has never tried.

AKINHUOTU: I think I'm tasting them in my mind. If it's something that I only know the idea of and I can look up the flavor notes of, you know, this is herbal; this is fruity, there's almost no risk of being disappointed by it. And I think that's kind of fantastical.

WARNER: So tell me - I don't know. Tell me about snacks that just totally stretch your taste imagination.

AKINHUOTU: I think one of the first things I put in Unsnackable - in the newsletter was a chocolate Oreo scallion ice cream sandwich. And I was like, I mean, theoretically, I get it. Onions are earthy. Chocolate can balance things. And no singular flavor ever really seems like it would be that weird. But when they start to stack those flavors - I think once you push it into that savory-sweet middle ground, it can get a bit weird.

WARNER: 'Cause texture is also a thing. I was thinking about the red caviar flavored Lay's potato chips, and I feel like a lot of the taste of red caviar is texture.

AKINHUOTU: Yeah. Chips play in that area a lot. Chips really - they are kind of a sensation that's stripped from its context. And even here, chips in the states - you know, sour cream and onion - it's a creamy flavor on a crispy canvas.

WARNER: Now, as the world has slowly opened back up and supply chains come back to normal, Folu does have more opportunities to taste the snacks that she writes about even without going to the place.

AKINHUOTU: If I was willing to pay maybe $10 or $12 for a bottle of soda plus $50 for shipping, like, you can get anything. But I kind of love longing, if that makes sense. I appreciate the act of wanting something and how that can drive you to learn more about it.

WARNER: Folu says that this year of writing about snacks and not tasting them has put some distance between her and her own cravings.

So it sounds almost like this newsletter born of kind of this temporary period where we are unable to travel, so let's bookmark these things that we want to try later, has turned in to, oh, wow, we better get better at tasting from a distance because we may never get as close as we used to be.

AKINHUOTU: Yeah. And that has brought me a lot of joy.

WARNER: She has less desire to eat the thing and finds more pleasure in the longing.

AKINHUOTU: There are other ways to appreciate the things that exist without having to eat them or buy them or, you know, seek them out.

WARNER: Yeah, well, what you're offering is a calorie-free, money-free, environmentally friendly way of...


WARNER: ...You know, traveling and eating around the...


WARNER: ...Snacks around the world. So thank you for doing that for us.

AKINHUOTU: Thanks for having me.


WARNER: Folu Akinkuotu writes the Unsnackable newsletter. After the break, what happens when the food you long for is all around you but you're told not to taste it.

SARA: And my grandma would scream and - you know, leave the trahana alone. Don't mess with it.

WARNER: A complicated relationship with porridge. That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. We're going to go now from a story about longing for taste across distance to a story about longing through time.

SARA: One of my first memories is of my grandmother making trahana in her two-bedroom apartment, where my mother and uncle grew up.

WARNER: Sara is a writer. She grew up in the Albanian capital, Tirana.

SARA: And you would open the door, and the whiff - this fermentation whiff would hit you in the face. And I would know it's trahana time.

WARNER: Trahana is a simple porridge made of fermented wheat flour. But as you'll hear in this story, Sara's relationship with that porridge is anything but simple. And she first told this story on the podcast "The Europeans." We loved it so much, we asked her to do a version for us. And because Sara appeared in that episode by her first name only, in keeping with a different convention around privacy and storytelling in Europe, we've agreed to do the same.


WARNER: So we begin with Sara in her grandma's apartment. It's September when her grandma starts fermenting the flour that she'll eat all winter.

SARA: You'd have the sunlight, this orangey tint from the sun and from the trahana, which is orange. So everything just felt orange and acidic and fermented. And you would have the flour spread out, thrown over a blanket on the floor, on the table, just on any flat surface. And it would be drying. I would always want to go and peek and sort of touch it. And my grandma would just come and scream and - you know, leave the trahana alone. Don't mess with it. It's not going to ferment properly if you go and mess about with it.

WARNER: And so little Sara would close the door of the trahana room and go back to the living room sofa.

SARA: Watching hours and hours of the Albanian equivalent of MTV.


KELLY ROWLAND: (Singing) No matter what I do...

SARA: Same music, same videos.


ROWLAND: (Singing) ...All I think about is you.

SARA: Kelly Rowland, Nelly, Mariah Carey.


MARIAH CAREY: (Vocalizing).

SARA: Pink.


PINK: (Singing) I guess I just lost my husband. I don't know where he went.

SARA: You know, the three of us would be sitting on the sofa - my grandpa, my grandma and then me - watching TV. And the two of them would have these, like, plates of trahana that they would eat with a spoon. And I would be cutting through a Nutella pile of pancakes or crepes on the little table.

WARNER: This was in the early aughts, only a decade since Albania had thrown off its communist dictatorship and opened its borders to Western products. Nutella was still a relative luxury.

SARA: I do remember seeing that we were having different things, and I do remember asking them what they were eating and if I could taste it.

WARNER: And her grandma would turn to her and give her a look.

SARA: My grandma - so this is my mother's mom - she used to be a math teacher. So you can go ahead and take all the stereotypes that are coming up in your head right now about math teachers and put them in one small, old lady, and that is her.

WARNER: And the stereotypes that she's talking about, the stereotypes in Albania and in neighboring countries, are that math teachers are respected, formidable and not to be contradicted.

SARA: She had these really observing and scrutinizing eyes that she would look at you with if you ever, like, did not get a multiplication right or an equation right that she would just throw at you.

WARNER: And so when Sara asked for a taste, her grandmother would respond by saying...

SARA: No, no. This is poor people's food. This is old people's food. Why would you want that? Just have your pile of crepes or whatever. And then that was that, you know?

WARNER: Sara never really asked yourself why this one food was seemingly off limits until she was 21, at the time studying and living in Hong Kong, only going back to Albania once a year for the holidays.

SARA: I missed home. I was looking for music, books, basically anything which would connect me to it. And at some point, I realized I was eating congee, the famous Chinese savory porridge, and I hadn't even tasted trahana.

WARNER: And the thing is, if you are Albanian, trahana is not just a food.

SARA: To me, it feels like the secret password that Albanians have amongst each other more than anything because I think if you speak to people about trahana, they won't know. But if you speak to an Albanian about trahana, you know, like, it's instant space for inside jokes, and, you know, people know what you're talking about.

WARNER: Inside jokes like this one attributed to an Albanian folk writer - trahana is a poor people's food that rich people find delicious.

SARA: It was really only much later when I realized that there was an actual dish I had been told not to eat, and I realized the absurdity of it.


ELINA DUNI: (Singing in non-English language).

WARNER: And so Sara decided to set out and discover the taste of trahana for herself. But that was not easy to do, even if she could find an Albanian restaurant in Hong Kong. Trahana is not typically on the menu in restaurants. It's something you usually eat in someone's house between friends and family.

SARA: So I called my parents one night and said, this is it, guys. You need to feed me trahana when I come back for the holidays.

WARNER: Even though Sara knew that this request should be fine - I mean, she just wanted to taste a food - she was nervous.

SARA: I think in my head I had built up a - I was prepared for a fight. I was prepared to convince them to feed me it because the first years of my life, my first 20 years of my life, I was - like, said, no, no, no, you're not going to have this dish. And so when I called them up to say I really want to eat this, they responded in a way that I was really not expecting. They said, oh, yeah, sure. Why not? I was like, wait, what? I thought this was a no-go zone in the kitchen cabinet.

MIRELA: Cooking a little bit...

WARNER: Sara joined her mom in the kitchen. And though her mom had never once made trahana for her when she was growing up, now she walked Sara through each step like she'd been making trahana her whole life.

SARA: First you fry up olive oil and butter. Add the trahana flour while the butter is melting.

MIRELA: It came a little bit red.

SARA: It smells a bit nutty. Smells buttery. It smells really good.

MIRELA: Add in hot water, and mix it all the time.

SARA: Slowly, you add the water.

MIRELA: Always hot water because if you are adding cold water, the paste - it's not anymore uniform. It could be separated.

WARNER: When Sara finally sat down with her mom...

MIRELA: My name is Mirela.

WARNER: ...Mirela...

MIRELA: But Sara's mom is better.

WARNER: ...Her mom told her she'd eaten trahana all the time as a kid. This first conversation was in Albanian, so Sara will interpret.

MIRELA: (Speaking Albanian).

SARA: My mom says when she was growing up, my grandma believed that the healthiest food was the one you make at home, like trahana. My grandma never let my mom buy any wheat products from the shops.

MIRELA: (Speaking Albanian).

SARA: That conviction was so strong that my mom as a child would dream of buying biscuits. Like, they were her forbidden foods.

WARNER: Why had Sara's grandmother enthusiastically prepared this food for her daughter, only to tell Sara this was old people's food, poor people's food, that she shouldn't touch?

SARA: Did my mom and my grandmother ever explicitly talk about not feeding me trahana, or is it something that just happened?

MIRELA: (Speaking Albanian).

SARA: My mom says that they never talked about it. She never asked.

WARNER: Mirela did have a theory, one that takes us back to Albania in the late '80s when Mirela was a university student and the Albanian economy was coming off the rails. Everything was rationed. This was when Albania was still under the communist regime.

SARA: Albania was extremely isolated. It had basically cut off all ties with other countries.

WARNER: But trahana was readily available. It's made at home in big batches, and it's really cheap - fermented flour and water. Mirela tells us that one coffee cup of flour could feed a family of four.

SARA: So in my grandma's adult life, trahana ended up being the staple food she would have to feed her family with.

WARNER: The regime fell in 1992, right before Sara was born.

SARA: People were putting themselves back together. There was a lot of trauma to work through. And on top of that, people had had to get used to living in scarcity, and then, all of a sudden, overabundance - shelves filled with Coca-Cola, Pringles, Hubba Bubba chewing gum.

MIRELA: (Speaking Albanian).

SARA: Nobody wanted to eat trahana anymore.

WARNER: Sara felt reassured to learn that this break with tradition was just an accident of history, part of her generation's story, until we asked Sara to call some friends of her age, her generation, to ask them, did they also miss out?

JOHAN: I grew up eating trahana. Yeah, indeed.


SARA: Did you have trahana growing up?


WARNER: All of them?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah. It was always my mother preparing it.

WARNER: They tasted it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Saturdays or Sunday, waking up with warm trahana waiting for me in the kitchen.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I had it pretty much every other day or every other week at least.

SARA: So it was basically, like, a staple food in your house? Would you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Definitely. My mom thought it was very healthy for young children.

SARA: I really thought I was the voice of my generation until I realized I was absolutely not. I was just the voice of Sara.


WARNER: Whatever comfort that Sara had taken in being part of her generation's story, it felt now like too simple an explanation to hold on to. Besides, she knew her grandma as this fiercely independent person, not the sort of person to follow the herd. She was so confident and self-assured, and she'd always encouraged Sara to be the same.

SARA: She'd never really cared about any boyfriend that I had. She's just like, yeah, yeah, cool - next. Tell me about your work. Like, tell me about what you've done. Tell me about that picture you've painted. Tell me what you've done.

WARNER: That was the grandmother she'd grown up with. But now, digging into this story, Sara started to do something that is in general just really hard. She imagined her grandmother as a young mother before Sara was born.

SARA: To sort of get used to living under a dictatorship for over half of your life, get used to mothering children during that time and having to sort of navigate trying to be a good mother but also making sure that your children did not say the wrong thing at school because if they did you could be considered an enemy of the regime, for instance.


WOMEN'S CHOIR FROM PERMET: (Singing in non-English language).

SARA: All of that crumbles, and you realize that, oh, well, all of a sudden, life can be different, and your children, who are now only 20-something-year-olds, might have the rest of their life that will look so different than everything that you prepared them for and that your grandchildren have no clue what any of this is about - that must be so shocking.

WARNER: Sara started to reconsider that moment when her grandma let her sit in front of the American music videos with her pile of crepes and Nutella. Was this her way of preparing her for that new world, protecting her from a taste of the past?


WOMEN'S CHOIR FROM PERMET: (Singing in non-English language)

SARA: I find it quite human and endearing to think that, despite the fireball that she was, it was such a traumatic, confusing experience to go through.


WOMEN'S CHOIR FROM PERMET: (Singing in non-English language).

WARNER: Sara's grandmother passed away this year. Before she did, Sara got to tell her that she had started cooking trahana for her friends in Paris.

SARA: I remember her just, like, opening her eyes the way she usually would when you said something really absurd - and just be like, trahana? You made trahana? But not much more than that, and this was also, you know, towards the end of her life as well. So I wasn't really ever able to have a discussion with her about what it meant that I now made trahana, and I never had this moment of, like, yoo-hoo, remember this thing you told me not to eat? It was really very much more along the lines of, like, you cook for yourself. Well done.

MIRELA: The butter and the oil. Chili? Add chili flakes. This a little bit hot, so...

SARA: I like it hot.

MIRELA: Smells so good.

SARA: Smells so good.


SARA: Ready to eat?

MIRELA: It's ready to eat.

SARA: Excellent. Thank you, Mama.


SARA: The four of us - with my dad and my brother also - we just sat, and we had trahana. And my parents were like, well, kids, so this is trahana. After all these years, my first spoonful (laughter) - I think it was - it felt like - it was not really like anything I was used to eating. It's this really thick, chunky, bitter, fermented but also really savory and spicy thick soup. It's not a faint, quaint, easy-peasy flavor. You know, it is intense. And it was really strange to eat something that was so new in terms of taste but also so incredibly familiar in terms of presence and in terms of smell. Something felt a bit more normal after that first bite. But at the same time, that was that, right? We had trahana now. All is good in the world (laughter).

WARNER: Sara learned during this story that both she and her mom had independently returned to trahana at the same time - Sara, of course, for her first taste; Mirella after 20 years. These days, trahana is having a kind of renaissance across Albania. You can buy it in shops and restaurants. There is even artisanal trahana in fancy little bags with the place of origin prominently displayed. Different regions in Albania compete for who makes the most authentic flour. Trahana has made a comeback not just for Sara's family but for Albania.

This is a sort of weird hypothetical, but do you think, because you didn't taste it as a child and because you had to learn so much before you tasted it, that trahana tastes different to you now?

SARA: I think had I just grown up with trahana - this is going to sound as if I'm almost grateful for it, but maybe I am. I'm not sure. Point being, had I just grown up with trahana, I think a lot of these questions would have not popped up. In that sense, it's a dish that definitely tastes different because of the entire story behind it. I would say that there's probably few other foods that I eat and in which I taste thoughts. I think eating trahana is always accompanied by a little bit of reflection.


DUNI: (Singing in Albanian).

WARNER: Sara's story first aired on "The Europeans" podcast as part of their miniseries "This Is What A Generation Sounds Like," personal essays from young Europeans produced by Katz Laszlo with Are We Europe and funding from Allianz Kulturstiftung. ROUGH TRANSLATION listeners might especially enjoy the first episode in the series, called "Josh And Franco."


DUNI: (Vocalizing).

WARNER: Today's episode of ROUGH TRANSLATION was produced by Adelina Lancianese and Katz Laszlo, edited by Luis Trelles. Our assistant producer is Justine Yan. Our intern is Pablo Arguelles. Thanks to all the listeners and friends of the show that sent us messages about the foods you miss. Thanks to Sana Krasikov for editorial insight and to Katy Lee, Dominic Kraemer, Wojciech Oleksiak and Priyanka Shankar at "The Europeans" podcast. Professor Gazmend Kapllani and Dimitra Gkitsa shared their trahana knowhow.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION high council, upon which they only eat ambrosia nectar, is Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Our supervising senior producer is Nicole Beemsterboer - mastering by Gilly Moon. John Ellis composed music for our show. The Albanian songs you heard in this episode are by Saz'iso, the Elina Duni Quartet, the Peter Pan Quartet and the Women's Choir from Permet.


DUNI: (Vocalizing).

WARNER: Links to all of those on our show notes in our episode page. Check it out - additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Carl Harms. Don't forget to donate to your local public radio station before the year's out. Go to And hey; we always love to hear from you. What are your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments? Reach us at or on Twitter @Roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


DUNI: (Singing in Albanian).

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