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.
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.
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.