While abroad, be a daring diner
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
June 20, 2004
Author: GIG GWIN
Special to the Post-Dispatch
Estimated printed pages: 6
* Eating exotic food in other parts of the world can be scary, exciting and rewarding. One of the joys of traveling around the world is the opportunity to try new and exciting food. Thanks to my parents, who taught me to be adventurous at the dinner table, I can appreciate a plate of haggis in Scotland, sea eels in Tonga, conch fritters in the Bahamas or roasted rooster comb in Portugal. Of course, I have to admit my courage was tested in Mongolia a few years back when the guide I had hired pulled the car off a countryside road and asked if I'd like to visit an encampment of nomads. While I hesitated to answer, a group of curious youngsters surrounded the car. I mustered a smile and was escorted into a tent in which one family lived. As my guide and the bearded elder talked, it became clear that my presence was causing a good deal of excitement. The conversation became animated as the elder discussed the problems he was having with mountain lions attacking his cattle and yak. I sat on a low stool, observing a pot of bubbling white liquid covered by an unappetizing yellow film. Black flies converged on the surface. Soon my worst fear was realized as the elder motioned toward the pot and back to me. I was being offered a bowl of yak soup. I can't recall ever being less attracted to food, but I couldn't refuse my hosts' hospitality. The first sip went down the hatch, and it wasn't all that bad, although my lips began to numb a bit. As I took more sips, the numbing expanded to my chin and cheeks, for reasons I never understood. I looked the elder in the eyes, held up my bowl and said, "You know, I might have another bowl of that white stuff." The second bowl went down more smoothly, although I developed a twitch in my right eye. Trying to be sympathetic to my host, I suggested we start a hunting safari to eliminate the lion menace. Wisely, my guide gently intervened and led me back to the car and my hotel. Fortunately, most food in foreign lands is much more appealing. I have eaten food from every corner of the world, from local bistros to elegant restaurants in Paris. As explorers of new places around the world, we travelers should consider food one of the true embodiments of a region or country. Dining abroad brings out the best in people. We learn new recipes, new tastes and often experience a whole different style of eating, but it can only be done if you start with a spirit of adventure. Are you a little timid when it comes to eating? Are you someone who is not very comfortable when a menu is presented and you're faced with an abundance of strange words? Do you tend to shy away and ask for something simple? Have you fallen into the hamburger-or-pizza rut? If you have, it might be time to enter the delicious world of new food and, particularly, local dishes. Remember, if you're somewhere else in the world and local food is available, it's probably a dish that has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It might have a flavor that's fairly compatible with your tastes, or it might be new and exciting. It may take you back to another time, and that local dish might become a part of your treasure trove of culinary knowledge. Do your homework When you find yourself traveling to a new country, try to make dining an important event in your trip. Before you go, check the Internet or grab a book and do some reading on the local cuisine. After you've arrived, if you're in a fairly large hotel, the best way to assimilate local food is via a luncheon buffet. If it's a good restaurant, it will be replete with a variety of choices. Ask the waiter or maitre d' about the choice of dishes. Sometimes the restaurant will have little name cards to help you with your decision. This also gives you a chance to try a little of everything. If you're going out, you may want to choose a restaurant that is recommended by the locals. I try to find a place where families eat. If you look for an establishment with grandmothers, kids, aunts and uncles gathered around, you have probably found yourself a good place to eat with fair prices and a menu that will suit your palate. It is also helpful to ask around for recommendations from your hotel staff and concierge. Explain your price range because a great gourmet meal, totally out of your budget, may leave you with a bad taste and grievous harm to your wallet. On the other hand, if you can afford a great meal, consider the evening an investment in your travel dreams and memories. If needed, make a reservation. That prevents a lot of extra bar time, but if you find yourself in a holding area, try the local drink. I learned to enjoy ouzo in Greece, a pisco sour in Peru and plum wine in Japan. Another rule of thumb is that any meal tastes a little better if you're hungry. The French almost totally ignore breakfast, so when their lunch or late dinner approaches, they've eaten less and they appreciate their main courses a little more.

What to wear

It doesn't hurt to blend in with the locals, particularly in your dress. If men are wearing slacks or jackets, then do the same. Remember, blue jeans with white tennis shoes say you are an American. If the dining is casual, that's fine, but consider that white tennies announce you as a foreigner. In some warm climates - Brazil, for example - they frown on coat and tie. You will find their dress is more casual, with open-style, usually elegant shirts. In colder climates, sweaters are always a good idea. But if coat and tie are the norm, that's what men should wear, and women should wear an appropriate style. There's always the chance that buying a local outfit could be one of the highlights of your trip. The opposite of being too casual is to be overdressed. You can stick out like a sore thumb and can look a little clumsy or even pretentious. When the food is presented, notice anything that is special. Sometimes the chef or restaurant takes great pride in the colors of different foods and selections. A vivid display of colors can add to the evening enjoyment, although food with blue color never appeals to me. A word of caution: In Third World countries, especially in countries whose governments aren't strict on hygiene, a meal at a roadside stand or grungy eatery may be a disaster. In 35 years of traveling internationally, I've rarely been affected by bad food. Everyone's digestive system works a little differently. My bad experiences took place in Mexico and India. These two countries have, in the past, lacked proper sanitary laws. Both countries are improving, but there's good reason for the terms Montezuma's Revenge and Delhi Belly. A good strategy for staying healthy is to wash your hands before eating, drink liquids only from bottles or cans and choose a respectable place to eat.

Exotic food

What is an exotic food? Is it barbecued rattlesnake from Texas or precious truffles in southern France or flying fish in Barbados? That kind of food may be over the line for you. The same goes for alligator steak in Florida, reindeer meat in Finland or ostrich in South Africa. Food that is completely off the wall is sometimes more of a challenge than a delicacy. For example, lots of people who have been to Hawaii refer to poi, a white side dish, as wallpaper paste. (Hawaiians have been known to respond that people from the mainland must eat a lot of wallpaper paste.) In any event, it's an unusual food, made from the taro plant. Other uncommon food includes haggis. It's one of those "sounds bad, tastes good" foods. Haggis is made from the innards of a sheep, but you can easily become accustomed to its flavor, particularly with morning eggs. The Chinese seem to think everything is exotic and a delicacy, so if you go to a Chinese market, don't be surprised to see baskets of live turtles, frogs, snakes, cats, dogs and the ever-popular fish eyes. India also has an exotic menu. Since many Hindus are vegetarians, they have many wonderful nonmeat dishes spiced with curry for a flavor that, once you become accustomed, will bring you back for seconds. My biggest surprise in exotic food was ostrich. It tastes more like beef than bird, and it has a delicious flavor. Ostriches are being raised internationally and becoming a regular in many fine restaurants. My least enjoyable food: Korean kimchi (hot pickled cabbage). Between the taste and smell, it can stop a charging water buffalo in its tracks. One of my favorite eating experiences was in Nairobi, Kenya. Near the airport is a restaurant called the Carnivore. It offers a large selection of wild game roasted over charcoal and carved at your table. Slices of hot, steaming crocodile, antelope and zebra are rotated along with more mundane beef, chicken and pork. Camel also is on the menu. It's so tough, you can't chew it down. It's like beef-flavored chewing gum, and you never quite get through it. Eating local dishes in other countries is fun and rewarding, with a few exceptions. Eating camel is one of them.

(1) Color Photo by GIG GWIN - An arrangement of shrimp at the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes Hotel on the Cote d'Azure in France. (2) Color Photo - Like buffets everywhere, this one in Africa presents an opportunity to try a variety of food. (3) Color Photo - A serving of creme brulee at the Carlton. (4) Photo - Gig Gwin enjoys a traditional Thai meal in Bangkok, Thailand.

Edition: Five Star Lift
Section: Travel & Leisure

Copyright (c) 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Record Number: 1000023847