One of the main things people ask when B or I return from a foreign country is ‘how was the food?’ Food is something everyone can relate to because no matter where you go and what you see, you still gotta eat. This post offers some foreign food advice on how to survive and enjoy the cuisine of foreign destinations (and will hopefully help you not to get sick while you are adventuring).
Foreign cuisine can be pretty intimidating for a lot of people because what’s perfectly normal to person in country A can be perfectly repulsive to person in country B. A friend’s dad once told me a story about how when he was living in South Korea, he won a bet with some locals because he ate some rice with milk poured on top of it. What was rice pudding to him was in fact dog food to the South Koreans. Tomato, tomahto.
Disclaimer: Neither B nor I are foodies. We enjoy tasty food, but are not going to spend a lot of money procuring it or a lot of time eating it.
A travel friend gave B this advice a while ago and we’ve tried to follow it since then. The idea is that when you get to another country you should immediately eat the local yogurt. We’ve all seen the commercials talking about probiotics and live cultures that live in yogurt. So when you first get to a country and ingest the local good-for-you-stuff in yogurt, it will build up resistance in your gut for when you try to eat other local cuisine. If a local bad-for-you stuff gets into your system, the yogurt goodies can take it out, and you will not get sick.
Of the two of us, I have more trouble with getting sick than B, but I feel like the yogurt trick is helpful. Bonus–yogurt is tasty in pretty much every culture. In Iceland, where the cuisine is less than ideal (and rightly so, it would be greedy for Iceland to do everything well) the skyr (yogurt) was a life saver. We ate it as much as possible. Even now, if we can find it in grocery stores we will pick up skyr instead of greek or other yogurt.
Listen to the locals
During the last two weeks I went on two business trips to a certain town in Idaho. On the first trip, we looked up some reviews on trip advisor and yelp for the best places to eat in this small town. One of the highest rated was an italian place that shared a building with the Chevron gas station. We thought what you are probably thinking…no way can that be good and instead ate really subpar pizza at a different restaurant. When we returned this week, we were at a store and asked the cashier for a recommendation and lo and behold, the Italian gas station was her first recommendation. So, we went. And it was really good. Lesson learned–go where the locals tell you to go.
No line = questionable food
You can also use this trick even when you can’t speak the language and don’t have the internet or a guidebook at your fingertips. If you are standing in front of two restaurants and one is packed with locals and the other has only a handful of people there, you should resist your urge to not stand in line and go where the crowd is. They know what’s up. You still might get sick, but it will at least taste good!
Research the specialties
Some places are known for certain things. Can you imagine going to Italy and never having pasta? Sacrilege! Some things are obvious like that, but others might not be. We are preparing to go to Belgium for Christmas. After we made our plans, we started to research what the local specialties are foodwise. Did you know Belgium is renowned for beer, french fries, mussels and chocolate (in addition to waffles)? Now, none of us are super mussel enthusiasts, so we probably won’t be sampling that particular specialty. But man oh man, I cannot wait to try a cone of delicious french fries and sip hot chocolate as I walk around the markets.
To find out what places are known for, a guidebook or the interwebs will give you the information you need. Just goog it…’what to eat in XXXX’ and you are sure to find lots of websites answering that very question.
Don’t drink the water/drink Coke
‘Don’t drink the water’ is my Number 2 rule of travel, followed shortly after ‘use a bathroom whenever one is presented to you.’ Sure, in some countries it is perfectly safe to drink the water and we advise you to save the earth and do that instead of buying bottled water. But in countries where there is a shred of a chance of you getting sick, it is just not worth it (even if you see locals drinking away). Their bodies are conditioned to handle the microorganisms in their neck of the woods, just as ours are for where we live. When we mix it up and go all loosy goosy drinking right out of the tap, we can all get ourselves in trouble (and need to refer to my Number 1 rule of travel).
Or rinsed with water
Another thing to look out for is produce that has been rinsed in water. I remember spending a month in Central America and not being able to eat any salad. You never know how much you’ll miss something until you can’t have it anymore! Cooked vegetables and items with skins you peel off should be okay.
Or made with ice
And while we’re talking about it, you should be careful about the ice you get in drinks or smoothies. I don’t really care about tepid drinks, so I am fine ordering them without ice. But fruit smoothies are so delicious I really have to restrain myself unless I know for sure the ice cubes that went in it are made with purified agua.
Drink Coke instead
If those paragraphs freaked you out, I have something that will help ease your mind. Instead of dirty water, you can drink Cokes. Have you heard about how when you leave a nail in coke for a few days it will dissolve? Well, I’m not really sure, that might be an urban legend, but there is definitely some ingredients in Coke that can kill unwelcome visitors in you if you drink it. This is a little worrisome in everyday life, but a desirable attribute in a foreign land.
Take advantage of indigenous food
I am a big fan of passion fruit. Strangely, good ol’ Idaho isn’t renowned for this particular treasure. That makes it insanely awesome when I go somewhere and passion fruit is a native species. If you are visiting a place that produces a certain item, you need to maximize your intake while you are there. This does lead to some unfortunate side effects. For example: eating so much pineapple in Guatemala that your mouth actually gets sores. But really, when it is all said and done and you come back home to your arctic tundra, you aren’t going to regret drinking all of those pina coladas.
While we were relaxing at our hotel pool in Bali, one of the guys on staff climbed up a tree and knocked down some coconuts. He then proceeded to hack them open, squirt in some lime, add a straw and presented us with our very own slice of heaven. If you are in the tropics, why wouldn’t you drink fresh coconut water? It’s a no brainer.
Seafood by the sea
B enjoys herself some seafood. So one day in a seaside town in Morocco, we visited a restaurant next to the water. There wasn’t a specific catch of the day on the menu. Instead, the waiter brought out an enormous iced tray with all sorts of different fish and seafood that had just been caught out back. Again, being as we don’t have any of these salt water delicacies in Idaho, we were able to take advantage and get a very different food than what we are used to. (P.s. our fish was dang tasty–even to a non-fishy food eater like me.)
One of the main ways you can experience a new culture (which is one of the big motivators for travel, after all) is to try out the local food. Sure, not everything will need to happen (like that fermented shark specialty in Iceland). But if you do step out of your comfort zone, you will be rewarded by a full belly and a good story. And who knows, you might just find a new favorite food.
I was a little worried my good meltdown in Bali was going to be referenced 😬
Ha! Meltdowns make the best travel stories!
Hi Steph–nope, but I was just thinking I should have included something on the Nasi Goreng. That stuff was a life saver once we found out what it was!
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