By Emily Bennett
I will not pretend that the first time I found myself in a foreign country, I unquestioningly ate everything that was set before me. To be fair, I was a thirteen year old raised on my mother’s conservatively American food scheme, and I was in Japan. I did try almost everything, although I declined most of the sushi I was offered after my first piece turned out to be well doused in wasabi.
Once I tried it, most things were delicious. Notable exceptions include an unidentified glob of chopped vegetables that looked like salsa and tasted like vomit, a piece of raw squid cut from around the squid’s beak, and every type of tea I was offered. Of course, I have never met a tea I did not dislike, no matter what culture it originated in, so I can hardly hold it against the Japanese that I dislike theirs, too. Of course, being served such a substance by a bunch of five-year-olds who are desperately trying to conduct themselves with all of the proper dignity for a traditional tea ceremony, and who will be devastated if you do not drink all of your tea with pleasure, adds an extra layer of complexity to things.
The most important culinary lesson from the time I spent in Japan, however, was that foreign food is fun! Every evening, my host mother, my host sister, and I would cook dinner together. Mostly, I chopped salads and sliced zucchini and eggplant (two vegetables that my real mother avoids entirely), but I learned to cook tempura and an unusual type of fried rice. I was invited one evening to a barbecue where noodles were served by floating them down a bamboo shoot full of running water, snatched by chopsticks (or forks, for the clumsy American girls) and dipped into a cup of soy sauce.
I did not eat the cui (that’s guinea pig, in case you have never heard of it) in Ecuador, but only because it cost twice as much as the next most expensive thing on the menu. When my classmates headed to McDonalds in Guayaquil, I found the nearest vendor and ate shrimp and fried plantains, and it was not only delicious, it was less expensive than the cheap, American-style fast food. As for food poisoning, always a concern in developing areas, the only time I got sick after ordering a calzone from a “New York Pizza” place in Cuenca, Ecuador.
I am not saying that American food should be entirely avoided overseas – I have eaten at McDonalds on four continents and sometimes order something “American” just to laugh at how wrong they got it. For instance, in a café in Australia I once ordered an “American Burger” and was served a hamburger with an egg and a slice of pickled beet on it, along with all of the typical toppings, mayonnaise, and carrots. Similarly, at the University Brasserie of Sunshine Coast University, I picked up a packaged sandwich labeled “Hamburger” as I was rushing between classes. I was shocked upon opening it to find that in place of a bun was some kind of crusty focaccia-bread, but I was undeterred. I enthusiastically bit into the patty to discover that it was not, in fact, anything close to what I would call a hamburger. It was not bad, actually. It had onions and spices cooked into the meat, and finely shredded vegetables (and pickled beets) on top, so it was spicy, juicy, and crisp. Still, the first bite was a major shock and it took several further cautious bites to determine that it was actually not only vaguely edible but actually rather tasty.
Variety is good for you, and McDonalds is not. So when you find yourself away from home and trying to decide what to eat, do yourself and the local economy both a favor and try whatever’s local. Even if it looks or sounds disgusting, it is highly unlikely that anything worse than a bad taste will result, and if you like it, you can always use your new food-eating skill to impress and disgust less courageous friends!