Smorgasbord: Sous Chef All over the map
Why you should travel with your stomach?
Is there a better way to travel than with your stomach? I think not. How else can you truly learn a new culture if you do not stray away from the hotel lobby restaurants and indulge in that unknown looking meal that has the locals lined up for miles.
Did you know that the famous Beef Pho you find in Vietnam is believed to be largely influenced by the French? Beef at the time was not a traditional Vietnamese food and cows were more used as tools in the farms than for eating. Many say it was not until the french occupied Vietnam in the 1880’s that this was introduced and became a staple dish. What interesting facts about food history do you know?
Recently I hit 20 countries and in the league of fellow travelers, I’m still fairly new to the process. However one thing I think any intrepid traveler can agree on when visiting a new place is, well to sample the local foods. Anytime I visit a new place, I typically have a list of foods much longer than the list of places I want to see, what can I do?! Some of my favorite memories are of foods I do not remember the name to but remember the feeling it gave me.
I love strolling through a market, smelling the fruits, admiring the foreign spices I have never heard of and tasting the foods they sell. Whether it be a floating market in Thailand or a Weekend market in Kiev, food to me is such an honest expression of that countries identity. Though eating food that is unfamiliar to you can seem intimidating, slowly opening up to trying new foods will truly enlighten your travel experience.
Sure the stall on the side of the road that uses the pothole full of water to wash their dishes might not be the best choice, but hygiene will be different in many countries so it is best to use your judgement appropriately but not be seduced by paranoia. I can say with certainty that in 6 months eating off the side of the streets through Asia, I never once was sick from food poisoning. Perhaps I was lucky, or perhaps not. I did eat nearly anything I saw that looked good. I just avoided what I would have avoided at home, places that didn’t seem busy or foods that weren’t cooked. Unless they were fruits…Ummm!
One moment I remember was my first few days in Vietnam, I was staying with a friend’s family and was invited to a death anniversary of one of their family members. They would offer a variety of items including clothing and money, along with food to the deceased atop a mantle in the living room. While it was on this mantle, the deceased could take the offerings. Once the ceremony was complete, we would take the food off and start to eat. We were segregated into groups based on age and being the only foreigner, everyone was interested in talking to me, time to brush up on my Vietnamese!
A good friend who was originally from Malaysia but met while we were both in Ho Chi Minh City had offered to take me out for local cuisine in Kuala Lumpur if I ever made it that way. Well, a few months later and there I was, waiting to be fed..again haha. We explored different mamak stalls and being in Malaysia, were treated to a lovely mix of different cuisines in this culinary melting pot.
Another memorable “food moment” was in Iceland. We had spent so much time exploring the natural beauty of the country that until our last day, we hadn’t really sampled any of the local foods. It wasn’t until our way to the airport that we blitzed their capital of Reykjavik and ate some fermented shark meat and an Icelandic hot dog. This of course was washed down with a rather aromatic and strong shot of Vodka, but hey..it was good!
My advice for eating abroad is simple, eat what looks good to you. I did avoid the spots that no one went to, places that seemed to sit idle with little to no traffic, just be smart but not paranoid. Busy markets were always a good way to sample many things at once and I do remember a baguette place in Vientiane that served the most amazing sandwich of liver paste and chilies. There were multiple times I would line up for something to eat, not because I wanted to eat it, but because there was already a big line and thought “IT MUST BE GOOD!” This method served me well about 95% of the time. Twice it failed me, once in Chiang Mai, eating this strangely textured and rather sour fish stew/paste. And another in the Philippines eating this pork organ stew that was quite hard to stomach.
So what else to say about food? Go try the green mango and shrimp paste in the Philippines or, eat some Vegemite and toast in Australia. A fun thing to do is ask a few Singaporeans to recommend a particular food for you, you’ll never get the same place twice! If you head over to Europe, make San Sebastian in Spain a must stop or visit eastern France for a nice mix of French and Bavarian cuisine. Sure there are also some amazing wonders of the world to see and explore, but going a bit deeper into a countries cultural history through their food, is a must!
When you are sitting at home, at the beginning of that backpacking adventure you are about to set off always remember why you wanted to go. You left your life behind to break free of who or what you used to be. To open your mind to the world and what it has to offer. In between the tourist sites or museums, skydiving adventures or bathing elephants, there is “food”. Perhaps a bit overlooked but something that you should pay extra close attention to as you explore the world around you. Cheers!
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