I’ve recently been binge-watching Supersizers Go…, not because it has anything remotely to do with travel or indeed my regular job, but because I’m a little bit in love with Giles Coren. (OK, I am really a lot in love with Giles Coren.) The format is basically: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spend a week “living” and eating the food of another era, invariably washed down with copious quantities of alcohol, and hilarity ensues. It’s actually rather marvelous. I wish they’d do a travel version.
One of the most fabulous things about travel is the opportunity to try different foods in their far more authentic forms than the often poor imitations we’re served at home. In Mumbai I was dazzled and delighted not by chicken tikka masala (invented, I think, in Glasgow?) but by spiced basa fillets and smoked hilsa (it’s a bit like a big, angry-looking herring), and in Hong Kong by various bits of animal I couldn’t identify, and was probably grateful not to. In Bethlehem I had one of the best meals I have ever experienced – mouth-watering hummus and falafel and lamb in a restaurant called Afteem.
But eating abroad also has its downsides. Imagine coming to the UK and eating what you thought were traditional British dishes – you’d have permanent indigestion, and mushy peas would be enough to give someone who hadn’t grown up with them some form of mild PTSD. I’ve had a number of similar experiences abroad, and am not informed enough to know if I was unlucky or having the sort of “experience” which will allow me at parties to pretend I was posh enough to have a gap year and get away with it. Here’s a rundown.
- Delhi Belly: you’re actually not allowed to go to India and not get ill. I think you sign something that says as much when you get your visa, and if you manage to stay well for your whole trip they don’t let you leave again. Nobody can put their finger on what it is – street food and ice cubes and generally delicate western constitutions all get the blame. The woman with whom I was working confidently blamed watermelon juice, and went into a slightly-too-graphic description of how bugs can get into it via tapwater, which every traveler knows will BRING INSTANT DEATH. Convinced I was nearing the end one night I texted my husband the words “I love you” from my hotel bathroom floor, and when pleasantly surprised to wake up again the next morning still relatively intact and very much alive. Surreptitiously warning my supervisor that I was a little unwell and may need to nip out occasionally, she lavishly presented me with my own toilet (“On the western-style toilet there is now a sign that says Out of Order, but IT IS NOT OUT OF ORDER! IT IS FOR YOU!) and every time I came back 20 people asked if I was OK
- Moving swiftly on, we come to offal. Pretty much every local specialty seems to involve parts of an animal you wouldn’t willingly/knowingly eat, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a ruse of the rest of the world against us. In Hong Kong I was given what I was told (this must have been lost in translation, as I have looked it up since and am assured nobody eats such a thing) “chicken bladders”. I went towards these tiny little things with my chopsticks to be told “don’t pierce them! The juice will escape”! Since you ask, it was like chewing a condom full of chicken gravy.
- Trying to please the tourists: one of the funniest and least inviting “meals” I encountered was the “English Breakfast” in a Spanish hotel, which was apparently provided “in response to customer demand”. It looked as though the chef had had an English breakfast painstakingly described to him but had never actually seen one, and the result was previously-beautiful Serrano ham fried to within an inch of its life and sitting in a centimeter of fat, dry scrambled eggs and baked beans made from scratch by mixing haricot beans with an improvised tomato sauce. We stuck to the pastries.
- Durian fruit. There must be someone somewhere who likes it. It must be something peculiar to particular cultures, like marmite, which you might possibly like by default if you are brought up with it. I tried durian once, and it was like eating vomit, only with an even more disconcerting texture. And what on earth possessed the first person to ever discover it was (in the loosest sense of the word) “edible” to take something that looks like a mutated porcupine and smells like a sewer, and think “I’ll see what that tastes like”. It’s banned on aeroplanes for a reason.
- National delicacies: snails, etc. I actually like chicken feet, one of those rites of passage you’re supposed to try in China; obligingly I have also tried snails in France. They taste of nothing. Rubber, at a push. This is why they’re served swimming in garlic and butter – so that there is something to taste. In this category fall countless other things, usually insects (scorpions, I’m told, are lovely and crispy, but I’ve never had the chance to try them) or snakes. So much still to try, so much disappointment still to come.
- Local booze: this really depends on where you are. In South Africa the Pinotage was, of course, fabulous, and in Canada the white wines of the Niagara region came as a pleasant surprise. In Europe, however, every country seems to have an obligatory “local” spirit that you could either clean your teeth or strip the paintwork from your walls with. Here’s a tip: if the guidebook tells you it was previously used for “medicinal purposes”, avoid it, as this translates as “will kill everything it touches”.