When Melissa Suzuno isn’t eating amazing food in foreign lands, she works as a freelance writer in the Bay Area. She previously freelanced and taught English in Japan, and earned her Master’s degree in Translation and Professional Language Skills in the UK.
Tell us a little about your writing background.
After majoring in Literature as an undergrad at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I moved to Japan and taught English for a few years before heading to the UK to earn my Masters in Translation and Professional Language Skills at the University of Bath.
When I completed my MA, I moved to Tokyo, where I started freelancing for several English-language publications and writing textbooks and learning materials for a conversational English school. I eventually relocated to the Bay Area, where I’m now based and work as a freelance writer.
I’ve been a writer throughout my career, but the formats and topics I focus on have evolved over time: textbooks, travel pieces for magazines, marketing assets, and B2B blogs (to name just a few!).
I even had a stint where I regularly wrote bar reviews for Tokyo’s English-language weekly magazine and had a monthly column about intercultural relationships. (The subject of many of those columns is now my husband.)
Do you ever travel for food?
Before COVID-19, I traveled frequently, and one of my favorite aspects of traveling is discovering new foods and ingredients. As a longtime vegetarian, I do a balancing act between finding food that’s true to what locals eat, but also meat and seafood-free.
Luckily, many Buddhist countries have a long tradition of plant-based fare, and an increasing awareness of different dietary needs means it’s easier than ever to find veggie versions of traditional dishes all over the world.
Some of my most memorable meals from recent years include an all-vegetarian tasting menu of spice- and flavor-packed Oaxacan classics at Criollo, a Buddhist vegan feast (including tofu and yuba made table side) at Ajiro in Kyoto, and a market tour and cooking class in Chiang Mai with drunken noodles and mango sticky rice I still dream about.
Do you believe that being a writer helps you enjoy or appreciate food more?
Yes, definitely! Because I’ve done some travel writing in the past, I developed a habit of keeping a journal whenever I travel, and many of my notes tend to focus on where and what I’ve eaten that day. I think being a writer helps me pay attention to details, and, of course, writing notes about my experiences helps reinforce those memories.
Do you have any favorite food books or kitchen products?
I love books that combine a travel or personal narrative with culinary elements, like Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi, about her time in Kyoto, learning about Japanese tea ceremony and kaiseki cuisine, and The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee, about the history of Chinese food around the world.
As far as kitchen products, I recently got a milk frother and it’s been a game-changer for my chai and matcha lattes!
What about favorite food writers, chefs, food TV shows, restaurants, food travel destinations?
Chef’s Table on Netflix is beautifully filmed, and I love how you get to know about the personal history of the chef and how that influences their cooking. Taste The Nation is a newer show on Hulu, hosted by Padma Lakshmi (of Top Chef fame). Padma explores the relationship between food and immigration, while investigating the complex and nuanced notion of American cuisine. Basic versus Baller is also a fun travel show featuring brothers Marko and Alex Ayling who always manage to find mouthwatering meals at every price point.
For restaurants, one of my local favorites is Gracias Madre in San Francisco. It’s all plant-based, super-satisfying Mexican fare using wholesome ingredients like sweet potato, avocado, pumpkin seeds, and cashews.
For food travel destinations, there are so many, but one that really stands out is Hong Kong. I love how there’s such a blend of global cuisine and settings, from super casual street food to high-end fine dining. Vegetarian dim sum. Egg waffles. Milk tea. Bao. English tea service at fancy hotels. Quick snacks on the go from British supermarkets like Marks & Spencer. I could go on and on!
Another favorite is Japan. While it used to be a little tricky as a vegetarian, they’ve had the tradition of shojin ryori (Buddhist vegan cuisine) for many hundreds of years, and going to have a shojin ryori meal is a real treat.
There’s a gorgeous spot in Tenryuji temple in Kyoto, where you sit on the tatami floor and overlook a traditional Japanese garden while you eat. There are also a handful of vegetarian cafés that do meat and fish-free takes on popular Japanese foods.
One of my favorite dishes is taco rice, which originates in Okinawa, and was apparently created when American soldiers stationed there were craving Tex-Mex flavors from home. It’s basically like a taco salad — seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomato, grated cheese, and tortilla strips — served over Japanese rice. Of course, I only eat the version that’s made with tofu or a meat substitute.
Where do you turn for great food or food inspiration?
My husband is a chef, so I get a lot of great food and inspiration from him. One of his favorite activities is analyzing and trying to recreate favorite dishes we’ve had. For the past several months, he’s been trying to perfect his cacio e pepe (like a sophisticated version of macaroni and cheese) after trying it for the first time at Fiorella in San Francisco.
Anything you’d like to add about being a writer who loves food?
It’s been exciting to see how video has become the next evolution of food “writing.” YouTube is such a great source of recipes, restaurants and cafés to check out, taste tests, and supermarket hauls. I haven’t created any food-related videos myself yet, but maybe I’ll be inspired one of these days.
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