Traveling to a new place can be overwhelming. Picking up even a small amount of the language, forming a mental map of the place, etc… these things take a while. So unless you’re going to be there for a long time, you’ll probably spend your entire trip not blending in. You’ll go to museums, you’ll buy souvenirs, and you’ll take pictures. In short, you’ll be a tourist. So how do you visit a place without remaining so removed from it?
It’s simple. Eat the food!
And by “food,” I mean the local food—food specific to that place. The food that the people who live there eat.
While spending a month in Hanoi, Vietnam, to adopt our son, my wife and I did plenty of tourist things. We went to the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, where we looked at beautiful works of art. We spent hours in the Temple of Literature looking at pools and bonsai trees. We bought books, artwork, wooden masks, and all things silk.
When the constant barrage of unfamiliar sounds and speeding motorbikes became too much, or when we had one-too-many bowls of pho, we’d seek solace in an Italian restaurant. Instantly we were back home in New Jersey. While the food in that restaurant was definitely good, it was like a drug. It comforted us for a little while and then quickly wore off. When we stepped back out onto the street, we’d feel even more like out-of-towners.
The thing about eating is that it allows you to experience, first-hand, an important part of a culture. It allows you to take part in the daily life of a place. We took a boat ride through Ha Long Bay and had a meal with the boat’s crew. Watching the guy next to me eat, I finally learned how to eat rice with chopsticks. (In case you’re wondering, you hold the bowl up to your mouth and use the chopsticks to shovel the rice in; something that wasn’t in any of the travel guides.) There was a serious language barrier at that meal, and conversation was nearly impossible. But sitting next to him, sharing that meal, the line between tourist and local was blurred.
Food is more than just sustenance. It’s something we share, both across a table and across cultures. Immigrants arriving in a new country always bring their cuisine with them. It represents the home they left, memories of their childhood, their cultural identity. It represents them. So when you take an interest in someone else’s food, you’re taking an interest in that person and their culture.
One evening in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (adopting our daughter this time), I went down to the lobby of our guest house to ask Johnny, the manager, if he could order some food for us. I had made it a personal rule to eat only Ethiopian food during our one-week stay. But this was the first time we were ordering out.
“Hey, could we order some food?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Johnny. “Pasta? Spaghetti?” He picked up the phone and started to dial.
I thought about the other guests staying at the house. They only ate spaghetti.
“No, no.” I shook my head. “Ethiopian food.”
He gave me a confused look.
I realized he probably didn’t think of it as “Ethiopian” food, but rather just food.
“Local food?” I asked hopefully.
Johnny put the phone down, still not understanding what I wanted.
I thought for a second and then said, “I want the food that you would order for yourself.”
Johnny shook his head and told me it’s spicy. I told him that I knew that and that I’d had Ethiopian food many times and loved it. His face broke into a smile and he picked up the phone. “I know a great place,” he said.
Later that evening, my wife and I sat on the roof of the guest house. As we looked out over Addis Ababa, listening to the sounds of barking dogs and an occasional car alarm, we ate some of the most wonderful, spicy food I’ve ever had. I felt right at home.
Photo Source: lonelyplanet.com