Cuisine Around the World Ah, that age-old worry – when I go to another country, will I like the food? This concern has haunted me since I was eight years old and my mother told me of a trip she and my father took to France where she unknowingly ate cow’s brains and sheep’s bladder. She squealed in disgust as she retold it, and I remember feeling somewhat faint and as though I might throw up as I listened.
When I started traveling on my own, this concern haunted me. Because I ate a rotten hamburger at age four and got very sick, I still cannot stomach red meat. To this day, I cannot eat it. My biggest worry before moving to London to study was: what if I accidentally ate red meat without knowing it? What if the dishes were so different I just genuinely couldn’t tell? Or what if it would prove impossible to go without eating red meat while in the United Kingdom? It may seem a small or petty thing, but I almost made myself sick with worry.
I was so uptight about it that, the first couple of times I went to pubs with my friends and ordered food, I would practically bark at the waiter, “Is there red meat in this?!” My friends started joking that I was the cow vigilante, such was my concern that I not ingest any red meat. I was much more intense about it in London than I was in the United States – there was something about being in a foreign country, something about unfamiliar territory, that made me absolutely terrified of eating something I didn’t want to eat.
Honestly, this really cut into the amount I enjoyed London in the first couple of weeks. I was so worried about possibly eating red meat that whenever I was in a restaurant, I felt as though I was constantly on edge. This was not even to the level of cow’s brains and sheep’s bladders; this was mere fear of eating a hamburger. It was kind of ridiculous.
One day, my friend Dan said to me, “I just don’t get it. If you do eat red meat, what will happen? Do you think you will die or something?” I started to reply, and then realized I couldn’t. I genuinely didn’t have an answer for him. Sure, the memory of that hamburger still made me nauseous, and if I ate red meat, I would probably, in all likelihood, throw up. But so what? Honestly, if that was the worst that would happen, why was I letting this worry get in the way of my relaxation?
Once I learned to stop worrying and just let go, London became a much more pleasurable place for me. Once I accepted the central premise that, you know what, you may eat something you don’t want to, but tomorrow, you will still be alive, it became much more possible to simply relax and have a good time.
But what if you are traveling to a place far more exotic than London, a place where your biggest fear might not be eating red meat, but eating something far more “out there?” For instance, throughout Southeast Asia, fried tarantulas and fried bats are a fairly common dish. Raw herring is served in the Netherlands. There’s the infamous cow’s brains and sheep’s bladder my mother ingested in France. Ants and crickets are eaten in Central and South America. The list goes on and one.
Some people thrive on eating strange foods – the more bizarre, the better. To those people, I offer a hearty, “Good for you!” and a pat on the back. But some, like me, would like to stay away from unfamiliar foods as much as possible. It is for these people that this article is largely written.
My best advice would be: if you are taking a trip to a place with strange foods, don’t allow the fear of eating one or more of those foods to paralyze you. I know red meat may not seem like the greatest example to some of you, but I’m as afraid of red meat as others may be of tarantulas. The two are on pretty even ground for me. I have since traveled to other places with much more “traditionally” strange dishes on offer, and I have always comforted myself by repeating Dan’s words to me, “If you eat it, what will happen? Do you think you will die or something?”
Because, truly, if you don’t eat some of the “stranger” dishes, you really are missing out on part of the cultural experience of traveling to that country. It sounds cliché, but it really is true. One of the best ways to explore a new country or a new city is to try, as much as possible, to interact with the locals and do as they do. Adopting this “when in Rome” mentality will do a lot to help you get the most out of your visit.
And when in Rome, if the Romans eat duck brains, or tuna eyes, or anything else you might find completely foreign and revolting, if you want to get the most out of your experience, then you should truly do as the Romans do, and eat the duck brains or the tuna eyes. It might be absolutely disgusting, and you may never want to eat that dish again, and yes, you may throw up. I’m not saying that trying something will necessarily be rewarding or that you will find a dish particularly delicious. That’s not the mentality with which to approach this. Think of it more as cultural integration; a philosophical approach to traveling, a way of melding in and getting more out of the experience.
It can seem quite scary. As I pointed out in my fear of eating red meat, there’s something about being in an unfamiliar place th
at just totally changes the game. You feel less secure when you travel, like you are on shaky ground. And there’
s something about eating familiar or comforting foods that helps restore a sense of solidity or confidence. But the point of traveling is not necessarily to feel confident; travel is meant to destabilize you, meant to get you to question your previously held convictions. And what better way to do that than to eat a dish you’d never eat at home, even if it tastes like feet (or worse)?
And hey, there’s always a chance you really will like the tarantula or the bat or the sheep’s bladder or the tuna eyes. You really never know. And if you do, well, then, more power to you. That sounds like a real win-win situation. But the point is, you never know until you try.
(this article was written by Molly Slavin who is an amazing writer and traveller)
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