The other day we were watching “The Goldbergs,” the ABC sitcom that takes place in the 1980s, and the episode was about how Chinese food had arrived in their town. Everyone was in love with its exotic dishes made by the matriarch of the Kim family. It was funny. It was real. And it made me think about Deb and me, and how far our food tastes have come over the years.
At one time our choices for take-out food were Italian (pizza) or Americanized Chinese food complete with sweet-and-sour chicken balls and chicken fried rice. How authentic! (Not.)
The first time I tried Japanese food (a.k.a., sushi) I was in Japan working as a singer, fresh out of college. It hadn’t become mainstream in North America yet. I walked by a sushi bar every day in my then-hometown of Vancouver, Canada, and it seemed so foreign, expensive, and, I thought, very confusing. What would I order? Of course since then, cuisines from Thai, Ethiopian, Korean, and Moroccan restaurants have enticed our taste buds. In Toronto, our current home-base, you can take a tour around the world eating a different cultural dish every night.
We’ve encountered some interesting food traditions during our travels. Here are some of the most memorable.
Viewfinder Tip: Always approach international travel with an open mind (and an open stomach) to try new foods.
When I think of Vegemite, I always think about the Men at Work song, titled, “The Land Down Under.” There’s a great stanza where they sing: Buying bread from a man in Brussels,/He was six foot four and full of muscle./I said, “Do you speak my language?”/He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
I had no idea what I was singing as a kid, but it sounded awesome. I’ve tried Vegemite in Australia and it’s strange to me how many Aussies love it on toast. I have a friend from Perth, a fellow travel blogger known as Travel with Bender, who loves it. Her kids asked her for some while I was visiting, and they even fed me Vegemite chocolate. I have another friend from Brisbane who hates it and told me never to believe every Australian eats it by the bucket. Either way, I assume it is an acquired taste; fermented yeast takes some getting used to. Each time I’ve tried it, I’ve had people tell me that I must have been eating it wrong. “Try less of it over a little butter on toast, you’ll love it,” one said. “Give it time, it will grow on you,” said another. Well, it hasn’t, and I even finally threw out the bottle that was sitting in my fridge for more than a year. I just couldn’t bring myself to taste it again.
Fermented Mare’s Milk (Mongolia)
While driving our car from England to Mongolia, we received many peculiar gifts from the locals in Mongolia. As we camped, men would ride across the Mongolian Steppe to bring us gifts of milk and cheese. The milk they drink in Mongolia is not your ordinary milk; it’s fermented mare’s milk (yes, it comes from a horse). And it’s alcoholic. The first time I tasted the stuff, it was sour and bitter, but we welcomed the hospitality and gladly enjoyed a shot or two as we sat around the campfire.
Century Eggs – China
While in China, you’ll see many “strange” foods at public markets. There are scorpions on a stick, deep fried spiders, and just about every single part of chickens, pigs, and ducks on display. Also, don’t even get me started on the canine cuisine. Another seriously strange food I was willing to try: the century egg. Contrary to popular belief, the century egg hasn’t been sitting in a hole for 100 years. Instead, the egg is preserved for several weeks in a salt solution causing it to turn black and hard. They smell exactly as you think an old egg would smell, and they take on a creamy texture with the yolk turning to jelly. Yum!
Dubbel Zoute Licorice (Netherlands)
I grew up in a community with many Dutch immigrants. It was a small town, but many of my friend’s parents came from The Netherlands. Whenever I went over to their houses, they had these terrible treats they adored. The treats looked like candy and felt like candy, but they sure didn’t taste like candy. Double Salt Rounds, as they’re called, are black licorice buttons filled with salt. Dutch people love them, but, to me, they are the most bitter treat I have ever tasted. Even after years of attempting to give these goodies another shot, I never found a taste for them.
While traveling to Greenland, I wanted to understand whale-hunting culture. In the west, we have been socialized to believe hunting whales is wrong. In Greenland, however, the Inuit have been hunting whale in a sustainable way for centuries for food, oil, and skin. In the remote villages of Greenland, the only source of vitamin C is whale blubber or seal. Men put their lives at risk hunting for whales in long kayaks, going out for days to kill one whale that will feed the entire village for a winter. These people can’t grow fruit, and they can’t just walk to the grocery store to buy an orange. This is the way they survive and they have done so for many years.
I tried a piece of whale while visiting a village in Greenland and it was difficult to swallow. The oil exploded in my mouth making me cringe, the gristle was chewy, and very hard to swallow. You can read all about my experience and the culture on our blog. The article is titled, simply, “Would you eat whale?”
It’s a big world out there, and people have very different tastes. What we think is delicious could be downright disgusting to others. We’ve had ice cream smothered with kidney beans in Singapore. We’ve eaten termites, tasted snake wine, and held our noses as we’ve tried to swallow stinky durian in Southeast Asia. Trust me, it’s been an adventure eating our way around the world.
But while our palates have become more sophisticated over time, the Canadian in me still craves a simple bowl of mac-and-cheese or fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy every once in a while (for the uninitiated, we call the fries dish, “poutine”). If I told someone in Asia we could put melted cheese on anything and be happy, that person would think I was out of my mind. And that’s what makes traveling the world so much fun: the differences in all of us.
What’s the most exotic thing you’ve eaten abroad?