Why do we fear foreign food? When visiting exotic locales, I have trepidation regarding unfamiliar foods but it’s compensated by the rewards of sampling unknown delights. To understand a people, you must share their food. I can’t adequately describe or explain why visits to a Mexico City bakery and a Turkish café impacted me so, but the adventures of eating foreign food are the foundation of true cultural experiences.
“Oh, I would never want to go there,” a friend once said about a prospective travel destination. “I don’t like their food.” I can’t comprehend bypassing the marvels of an amazing culture with all its splendors just to avoid its food. Some people should just stay home.
I spent one summer backpacking Europe, Asia, and Africa with a dozen college students. Incredibly, at meal time the pack inevitably headed for the nearest McDonald’s. The Golden Arches have invaded 118 countries; many Americans choose the comfort of its familiarity over the uncertainty of strange foreign food. I failed to talk those kids into joining me as I tasted unusual street foods that might not have met USDA standards but rarely disappointed the palate. I came home with fantastic culinary memories. Big Macs don’t compare.
Last fall I fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit one of history’s greatest icons: the Great Wall of China. After decades of dreaming and months of planning, I debarked the bus at Mutianyu and hurried through a shopping area. The only thing left between me and the Great Wall? A small building with a canopy depicting a familiar logo as well as the words “Burger King” and “Taste is King” in two languages. It felt blasphemous.
Numerous American fast-food franchises have exploded onto cityscapes all across China. In Chongqing I was amazed to see KFC and Starbuck’s rubbing shoulders in Liberation Square with Rolex, Louis Vuitton, and Longines. I shuddered.
It’s not that I have anything against fast-food. In Shanghai, I sampled Chinese fast-food. Yang’s Dumplings serves traditional pan-fried fare. Even reading the menu was an experience! I bypassed the “noodles with pork intestines” for pork dumplings, which ended up one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Here’s my best travel advice: When you travel, walk on the wild side …Eat the foreign food. On occasion, you won’t like it. But you’ll always enjoy the experience, treasure the memory, and have a closer affinity with the culture.