A Taste of Something Different.
Enjoying local cuisine is a special part of traveling that shouldn’t be overlooked. Travelers who tend to dine on their creature comforts while otherwise being adventurous always perplex me. Why fly halfway around the globe only to eat at McDonalds? I travel specifically to sample the local flavors, explore the regions’ spices and cultural specialties. The cuisine says a lot about the culture and diving head first is how I travel.
Obviously there are restrictions that I usually follow, never drink the water in Central America, avoid extreme spices and be wary of some street food. I tend to eat too much street food, but I figure if the locals eat it, why shouldn’t I? Water in third world countries in general should be avoided due to parasites that your insides might not be used to. Eating extreme spices when on a road trip is another danger all together.
Countless times I’ve been unsure about tasting something only to be completely surprised and amazed by the new flavors. Eating live octopus in Japan sounded and looked insane but once I actually did it, well, it was pretty gross, to be honest. Not everything you try will be appetizing but at least I can say that I tried it. The memory is always with me and the experience was unforgettable. Had I decided not to push my boundaries and try the still alive octopus, I don’t think the memory would last.
My travel memories are constantly awakened by smells, tastes and textures. It’s amazing how the mind connects memory and experiences. I can’t walk past a gyro shop without being reminded of my time in Greece, the aromas are so overpowering and pleasurable. Gyros are now one of my favorite dishes and I have an afternoon in Athens to thank for that.
I have a few simple rules that I live by when I travel that apply to food. First, I always eat local my first meal. You won’t find me eating at an American chain restaurant anytime soon, even if it’s in Istanbul. Instead I’ll ask my cab driver or concierge at my hotel what food I NEED to try. You’d be amazed by how many suggestions you’ll receive.
I find that people are generally proud of where they are from and revel in the opportunity to share their favorite local spots. I know that when friends and family visit me in Los Angeles, I am a venerable fountain of information, just spewing restaurant names and my favorite dishes at anyone who will listen.
My second travel cuisine rule is simple… do not be afraid. Many of what you are about to eat may look, smell or even taste bad, but you cannot show fear. Instead be brave and just go for it, take a big bite, chew it up and savor the flavor. Granted, you may spit the food immediately out and that’s fine, I’ve done it. It’s a natural reaction of your body to reject some tastes, but at least you now know that whatever you just ate is bad.
My wife and I were traveling in the Philippines a few years ago and my cab driver said that we had to try balut, which if you don’t know is fermented bird embryo, and is a very acquired taste. When I first saw balut I was honestly scared, it does not look appetizing, in fact it doesn’t even look edible. The smell was horrendous and all the locals stared at me like I was about to do something real dumb, and I was. I followed my own rules and I took a bite, not a large bite, but a bite nonetheless and my reaction was violent and over the top. I spit out my bite, threw my arms into the air, yelled a primal scream and tossed some water down my throat. Was I overreacting? Sure, but with the added audience I figured a larger than life response was warranted. I got a loud boisterous reaction from the gathered crowd followed by applause. This was my favorite moment from our trip to Manila. A simple taste of local cuisine has stuck with me for years like it happened yesterday and to think, if I hadn’t been adventurous I wouldn’t have ever experienced this. Of course I remember the awful taste, but what I truly remember were the connections I made with a dozen locals that day.
My last rule of eating while traveling involves your intestinal fortitude. When I travel, I always try whatever on the menu scares me the most. In England, this was blood pudding. Just the idea of eating coagulated blood is so unappealing to me its no wonder I was terrified by this choice. But just like all my other food related travel memories, I can perfectly paint a picture of that day. I was visiting my good pal Simon, who was on weekend leave from the British Army. We met at a local pub and began drinking pints, as the locals were known to do. Who was I to shy away from local traditions?
Simon and his mates knew I was terrified of eating blood pudding, so they egged me on for hours. I finally caved to their taunts and ordered blood pudding. A horrid looking dish, much darker than I had ever imagined and the smell was similar to an old dumpster. They come in sausage casing, which is already a strike against them, and are cut into bite size pieces. All that build up and you know what… they weren’t half bad. They taste similar to liver, very irony and grainy. The texture is one I won’t soon forget, but you know what… that day was incredible. I’m honored to have spent it with young soldiers while we sampled their local cuisine.
Remember friends, travel with your senses and you will never forget.