Let me just preface my remarks by saying, “I am not good at this.” I am not writing as an expert but rather as a fellow sufferer. I wish I were better than I am at this and I feel like I should be after spending much of my life in some kind of international relocation or other. What I am talking about is dealing with food I don’t like while traveling. I suck at it.
Perhaps it is the Asian influence of my childhood years which taught me to run through walls to avoid offending someone or perhaps it is just my personality but if a host or local offers me food while I’m visiting, chances are I’ll have some of it, even if it makes me want to chuck. And when they offer me more, no matter how bad the first serving was, I’ll likely ignore my gag reflex and endure another round. It’s horrible, embarrassing and very much reality.
Drowning the offending food item in sauce/rice/water – One way I’ve found to compensate for my inability to say no at mealtimes is drowning the unsavory item in other food or washing it down with plenty of liquid. When I was 16 and working in a little town in the northern part of the Philippines I remember eating huge amounts of rice with every bite of the fish that I did not like. I don’t think anyone noticed and somehow the rice helped the fish to bypass my taste buds.
Take it, then disappear and don’t eat it – Alright, I hate to admit to this one but I’ve done it quite a few times in large group settings. I distinctly remember pushing avocado ice cream and some goat stew off my plate (both times I was able to step outside and pull this off). This may not work at the dinner table but it is great in potluck settings. It seems that if you stack your plate first and eat almost all the food you can eat and then get up as though you are going for another serving, you can often subtly find a garbage can or bush that will allow for a quick offload.
Think of another food – This one may not work for everyone but it’s a trick my grandma taught me. If you absolutely loath the food you are eating but you happen to be stuck with it, think of food you do like. The gross food actually tasted better when I tried this. As we mature into adults we forget the great power of the imagination. If you are thinking about your favorite food maybe you’ll be able to stomach that one local dish that you can’t stand but people keep offering to you.
Suffer – If none of the above works there is always the option to grit your teeth (figuratively) and just suffer through. This is obviously the least appealing option but if you aim to make friends and be adventurous in your culinary experiences oversees, you sometimes just have to munch through a few dishes that are horrible. Think of it as your travel tax. You are lucky to be traveling, an occasional unsavory bite may just have to be endured.
Hopefully an idea or two above will work for you on your next trip, service vacation or international food stop. I know some of you are thinking “Why don’t you just say no?!!” It’s obviously an option – just like saying “no” to time commitments or potential purchases. It can be done tastefully if you place emphasis on the fact that you are so full or if you offer to take more of food that you actually do like.
Here’s the flip side though – your willingness to experiment when it comes to local food is often taken quite seriously by local hosts. I’ve seen expats and travelers abruptly turn food down and locals often take offense or, at the very least, are unimpressed by the inflexibility of the visitor. On the other hand, an open-minded attitude towards food shows that you don’t think you are “above” local culture and that you are genuinely open to experiencing the country.
So go forth, exercise good judgment and bon appétit!