If you are not someone interested in food, look away now. If you don’t believe that food is the most powerful way to experience a new culture, sit back relax and let me explain why I think it is.
I have always been a little obsessed with food, but I’d never consider myself a ‘foodie’. I’ve never eaten lobster thermidor and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if the dreaminess of a dish was down to the ‘perfect pairing of peach and truffle oil’ so I figured that made me a non-foodie. As it goes, I think I might be one after all.
I have also always been a little travel obsessed and I’m lucky enough to do it a lot. I never really appreciated how intertwined food and travel really were until I reflected on the places I’ve loved and the food I haven’t and realised the two often go hand in hand.
I love India passionately, and the food is my favourite on earth. Same goes for Italy, Indonesia and France. Sri Lanka however……well, I was underwhelmed on both counts.
Thailand is a tricky one, as I often fall out of love with the food pretty quickly. My last trip forced me to re-evaluate my eating habits a lot and I realised my stubborn nature was the crux of the issue, as opposed to any culinary failing of good old Siam. To prove the point, I’m heading back in a couple of weeks and I honestly can’t wait to smash down a bowl of steaming Laab and rice, maybe washed down with a fresh coconut.
I met travellers along the way who were so keen to experience ‘real India’ that they refused to eat anything other than street food. I wholeheartedly agree that the street food in India is some of the best you will ever eat but to limit yourself to only eating that is doing yourself a massive injustice. When Oli and I travelled to India last year, we ate in tiny shacks on the side of the ganges, in nicer restaurants as well as consuming stacks of street food, and the variation made our experience far richer.
I’ve also met travellers who avoid the local food due to fear of sickness or of getting out of their comfort zone, sticking to western restaurants, McDonalds and cheap toasties from the 7-11 (FYI I love said toasties). This is a mistake as far as I’m concerned. Of course I like to eat western food when I’m travelling and I absolutely don’t judge anyone else who chooses to do the same, but it’s not all I eat and I certainly don’t do it out of fear. When you haven’t had beans on toast for 3 months, it becomes a pretty exotic treat.
Bonding over food
Some of my favourite experiences with locals have been through food. When we stopped mid cruise on the Keralan backwaters in a crazy little shack (with a parrot!), we picked a fish and had an all-you-can-eat curry served on a banana leaf. It probably cost me less than £1. Another time we were on a long bus journey from Pushkar to Jodhpur and the guy sat on the same row as us nipped out on when the bus stopped, bringing us all back water and 3 steaming hot Kachori (a bit like a Cornish Pasty).
Another facet of travel people regularly told us they were too scared of was eating train food. In Asia, locals regularly hop on and off trains with delectable treats balanced precariously on their head peddling them through the carriages until they are all gone. Yeah, you could say that buying a biryani from a guy in dirty tracky bottoms and a string vest is taking your life in your hands but if you’ve read my post on avoiding Delhi belly in India, you will know that if it’s hot – you will be okay. If it’s hot and stinks of death then obviously it’s not okay, use your head. Train food is by far, the cheapest food we have eaten and often the most delicious.
Comfort far from home
A case in point: Indian Chai. This spicy, sickly sweet, milky tea is the most deliciously comforting tea ever. It is the reason I know have a sweet tooth I think so I should resent it, but I don’t. I bloody love it. After a 17 hour journey in less than dreamy conditions, the call of ‘Chai’ is a god send, and fyi it’s about 10p. I know. But we met so many people who wouldn’t dream of drinking chai from a train vendor. Fools!
Experiencing the generosity of locals through food is another way we have fallen in love with places. On the train to Malaysia recently, we bought some rice, minced pork and egg (yum) and the kind man sat next to us checked that we paid the right amount and weren’t being overcharged. Another time, a guy say opposite us saw us looking inquisitively at a bucket of hot nuts (Insert ‘that’s what she said’ here) and bought us some, explaining what it was and how to eat it like a pro with the little bits of folded paper like miniature shovels.
We would never have had these experiences if we were afraid.
Obviously, sometimes food can be the best of times and the worst of times. I have had the ‘poorly poo’s’ in Thailand more often than I care to remember and I can’t say it has helped with my ambivalence to the epicurean delights so many people rave about. I still love a good old Pad Thai though and hold me back from a Massaman curry at your peril.
There are also some notable exceptions to the ‘love the food, love the place’ theory. I adored Cambodia, but in truth, Khmer cuisine didn’t rock my world. I did appreciate the hotch-potch of Thai salads, Vietnamese banh-mi style baguettes and staple of rice though, and honestly – getting a decent bit of bread was easily the way Cambodia won my heart.
Lastly, it would be a crime if I didn’t show some love for my beloved UK. If you don’t think we have great food, you haven’t looked. Don’t believe the bad press, there are treats to find in every corner of our beautiful little island. In no particular order, here are a few of my favourite things…….
- Fish and Chips
- Cornish Pasty
- Eccles Cakes
- Roast Beef & Yorkshire Pudding
- Eton Mess
- A full English breakfast…with obligatory black pudding.
- Bakewell Tart
- Sticky toffee pudding
Have I convinced you that food is the most important part of travel? What are your most memorable food stories from traveling?
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