Eating While Foreign

Reader request: “What is your take on all the different kinds of food and cuisine you have sampled in your travels?”

My first take is that it’s about balancing the need to fuel yourself with your desire for novelty. While traveling, sticking to tried-and-true foods will keep you moving, while defeating one of the purposes of travel. On the other hand, constant dietary experimentation will leave you depleted in any of a number of ways, unable or unwilling to explore much more.


Beyond the physical sensation, I’ve found the most memorable travel-food experiences were those that revealed the traveler’s state of mind. Here are a few of mine:

Thrilled: I’m in Siberia walking along the frozen shore of Lake Baikal, a whole smoked fish warm in my hand. I’m nibbling away quickly to save my fingers from frostbite. It’s ridiculous and delicious, and I’ll never experience another situation like it. I couldn’t be more pleased.P1010600

Disappointed: serves me right for thinking I could get a decent basic meal at an all-night Japanese fast food joint on 42nd street in Manhattan. “Insipid, shrivelled, grey meat. A few limp onion shreds…” is how I described it then. Just because you’re close to home doesn’t guarantee good food.

Amused: Christmas Eve, eating Chow Mein alone in a rooftop restaurant in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. I knock back Kingfisher beer while watching a worn-out VCR tape of Octopussy, which was filmed here. Ordering Domino’s pizza delivery to a friend’s apartment in north Beijing, complete with apple pie and “Great Wall” Chinese-Argentinian red wine. Not every food experience abroad needs to be local to be authentic.

Alarmed: that first intestinal inkling that you have made a poor street food decision. Kochi in Kerala, on the Arabian Sea, was beautiful with that one tragic seafood exception. Or on another occasion in Mumbai the realization that spicy breakfast is your only option.

Relieved: oh the joys of street food in Shanghai and night markets in Taipei, once certain there will be no Kerala repeat. Beef and vegetable skewers, broad noodles with egg and spinach, all done while you wait and while the car traffic rumbles a few feet away.India 348

Enlightened: “This is awesome! More please!” The revelation of a new and delicious taste, especially abroad, is one of the great rewards of travel. A green coconut, expertly machete-ed on an Indian beach, and raspberry-filled dumplings in Kiev, stand out.

Delighted: When does ramen in a plastic container, and tea, count as memorable? When you’re on a night train rolling through Mongolia, reading a good book. Sometimes, the food’s really a minor accessory to a great memory.







So nice, I ate there twice

Dec. 22 – Kyiv, Ukraine

“Experience Kyiv”, the city map proclaimed. Inside, plenty of colour ads promoting a Ukrainian natural resource, all trying to one-up each other:

“24 h massage”
“Erotyc [sic] massage. All girls talk in English.”
“24 h massage. Only the best Ukrainian lady. We speak English.”
“Professional & erotik [sic] massage. All girls are experts with certificates.”

A certification process?! I’m sure that has been made into a film.

But I had a more pressing, non-euphemistic appetite. For breakfast, it would have been quick and easy for me to step into the McDonald’s or Subway – they were both in my line of sight from the hotel entrance. But I was not that desperate yet, so I began to walk around the Maidan Nezalezhosti. On this immense square, six roads and three metro stations converge. There is a gilded column, a profusion of Christmas lights, a subterranean shopping mall from which a giant soccer ball protrudes. Ukraine and Poland will co-host the 2012 Euro Football Championship.

I kept going and got to a grocery store and grabbed some bread, salami and raisins. I walked the aisles, while through the audio system Michael Bolton’s agonized voice gave me incentive to leave. My groceries were for the journey ahead, so I returned to the broad boulevard looking for a place to eat. At random, I turned onto a laneway.

Food is important to the traveler. No sustenance, no legs. No legs, no walk. No walk, no see. But it’s not just the calories. If it is tasty and you don’t feel ripped off, it can be memorable. I happened upon a large eatery called “Ukrainski Stravi”. Inside, traditional Ukrainian décor and staff dressed in costume. I liked that it didn’t feel like a tourist gimmick. The other patrons around me were locals – families, workers on break, students. You take a plastic tray, go to the buffet and (in my case) point at an item and get if from the server. Beet salad, borscht, fresh garlic bread, pierogies with sour cream. There were also eggs, sausages, shashliki and vegetables in a variety of combinations. And when I returned in the evening; stew, bread, more pierogies and another pastry. Turned out the evening dumplings were sweet. It was awesome, and astonishingly cheap ($7) meal. The beer ($1.25) was produced on-site.

Kyiv is worth a longer stay, but I keep rolling today before noon. If things work out, I will report from a new country tomorrow.