When traveling abroad, it only takes a couple of days for frustration and hunger to set in when you are in a country where you don’t recognize any of the food. It is completely normal to turn your nose up at something that you cannot assign to some kind of familiarity in your brain.
After two days of skipping meals during my first visit to Vietnam, I was thrilled on day three to stumble on the first real, recognizable thing at my hotel’s breakfast buffet. It was a plate of mouth-watering, powder-covered pastries. Frustrated and hungry I bit down only to discover that it was actually some kind of oddly prepared meat!
I can say from LOTS of experience that surviving only on trail mix and power bars gets old really fast. So, the hard-earned travel lesson is this: keep in mind these 4 things about foreign foods when you travel:
1. Common food ingredients. Every country has food staples that are used in many dishes. For instance, in Thailand, you will find curry in a lot of dishes; in India you will find primarily vegetarian dishes. Become familiar with the staple ingredients in the country you are visiting so there are no surprises.
2. Locally grown Spices and Peppers. Be aware of various spices and locally grown peppers used in dishes in the region you are visiting. I can tell you that every country has their own standard of what is considered “spicy.” It is REALLY important to find out what this means for your own travels.
Take for instance the Thai Pepper gown in Thailand and neighboring countries and commonly used in many regional dishes. I ordered a delicious tuna melt sandwich for lunch at a bistro in Bangkok. It looked just as I had expected. The taste had a little kick to it and within 5 minutes my tongue swelled, my face turned red and hot to the touch and I instantly had a migraine. It is critical to know the kind of common spices and peppers you might encounter especially if you have sensitivity or worse, allergies. It is common for these local flavor kicks to show up in things we would never consider spicing up, like a tuna melt sandwich.
3. Local food preparation. Preventing stomach upset in an ongoing priority when you travel. You already know food will be prepared differently than at home, but it is important to find out how. Some countries drown food in oil or add accouterments that simply aren’t appetizing in our culture. I couldn’t wait to try authentic Pad Thai in Thailand and learned the hard way that in some regions Pad Thai preparation commonly involves including shrimp heads in the dish. While researching your destination, find out how the locals prepare the authentic versions of your favorite American-ized foods.
4. Food allergies. Beware of your food allergies and know how to say “no peanuts” or “no mushrooms” fluently. Better yet, have those requests written on a piece of paper that you can carry with you. Even with those requests, before you eat, carefully sift through your dish. I am deathly allergic to shiitake mushrooms. Guess what showed up in my stir fry 3 times while traveling in Asia–even AFTER I made those requests AND had my guide reiterate them to the waitress. There is no replacement for diligent actions. Many of the places I’ve traveled are not where I want to end up in the hospital so it is worth it to take extra precautions.
No matter where I travel, I always pack plenty of power bars, trail mix and beef jerky as last resort protein items just in case. My world traveling mother, Robbie Hamper, also never leaves the country without small cans of chicken…just in case. And, while it is easy to tire on power bars alone….in a desperate pinch…they are lifesavers!