Don't Sweat the Disgusting Stuff
It’s a travel platitude you’ll have heard time and again: you can’t truly appreciate another culture until you’ve sampled its food.
There’s some truth there, sure. Eating traditional, local dishes can be a delightful way to step outside your comfort zone and immerse yourself in a foreign culture. But simply being in another country doesn’t stop certain things from tasting terrible to you. If you were born with ‘selective’ taste buds, you might not fancy chowing down on fermented vegetables, deep-fried bull testicles, or potentially poisonous blowfish. Unfamiliar food, for some, can be a huge source of travel anxiety.
Being a fussy eater can not only make it difficult for you to find a meal for yourself; it can also create tension with travel companions who, understandably, are game for eating something a little more exotic.
However fussy you might be, food doesn’t have to be a huge problem on your backpacking adventure. Here’s some advice, from one fussy eater to another, to help you out.
Firstly, you should accept that your dietary limitations can make it difficult for anybody you’re travelling alongside. Finding a single place where you’re all happy to eat can be tricky and, as the fussy one, it’s usually you who will take the blame.
Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to a restaurant you don’t fancy, but on the condition that your friends let you stop somewhere else once they’re finished.
It’s not a perfect solution. It means you have to twiddle your thumbs while they eat, and whatever you choose afterwards will have to be something quick. But compromising means your friends won’t resent you for preventing them from eating what they wanted and, by showing that you can be reasonable about it, they’re more likely to bow to your whims later on the trip.
Food markets are a godsend
If restaurants prove too tricky, look instead for food markets and street food. While these are usually the places where the food is at its most authentic, there’ll almost always be loads of menus to choose from, increasing your chances of finding something you’ll like.
So your friends can get their cultural kicks taking selfies of themselves scoffing stir-fried scorpions, while you seek out sustenance which is a little less extreme.
A food market lets you all eat together, but you don’t all have to eat the same thing. Perfect.
You could... try things?
Another advantage of visiting a food market come dinner time is that pretty much everything will be cheaper than their restaurant equivalents. This makes it a good opportunity to try things you’re not sure you’ll like. If it makes you choke, chances are you didn’t pay much for the privilege, and you can easily grab something safer (if you still have an appetite).
This has the added bonus of allowing you to tell people (i.e. your mum) that you did try strange foreign food, thank you very much.
Assuming they’re willing, you can also try a little bit of whatever your friends get. Again, you have nothing to lose. Foreign cuisine can be so different to what you’re used to that, in reality, it might taste nothing at all like what you expected. Who knows, you might find your new favourite dish?
And if all else fails, there’ll probably be a McDonald’s around the corner.
Pack some snacks
Most of the popular gap year destinations will have plenty of variety on offer when it comes to food. Fellow travellers may judge you for not slavishly seeking authenticity, but if push comes to shove the backpacker trail is usually well-served by pubs and restaurants catering specifically for western tastes.
In less established gap year destinations it can prove a little more difficult to find familiar, western food. It’s possible you could find yourself in a situation where there really is no food available that you like.
To avoid starvation in such a situation, dedicate a little space in your backpack to snacks. Take some protein bars, cereal bars, chocolate bars – pretty much anything bar-shaped and delicious. This is hardly a long term solution, but it’ll keep you from going hungry for a night or two.
Authenticity isn’t everything
Many travellers will scoff at the idea of not trying local food while you’re travelling. It’s widely considered a quintessential part of the backpacking experience, one that offers a vital insight into other cultures. By ignoring it you’re little more than a *shudder* tourist.
We agree that food is important, and that the best way to approach any destination is with an open mind to all aspects of its culture. You should never travel anywhere with your mind already made up that you won’t be trying anything you couldn’t find in Costcutter back home.
But there are other ways to immerse yourself in another culture without forcing yourself to eat food you simply don’t enjoy.
Speak to local people; observe and respect their culture, taking part where you are welcome and feel comfortable; learn about and appreciate their way of life.
Not eating local food doesn’t stop you from standing at the peak of a mountain at sunrise as the world seems to unspool at your feet; from watching the sun cast the last of the day’s light like a net across the ocean; from lying on a white sand beach, or walking in the heart of a bustling city, or shivering on top of a glacier, and realising how lucky you are to exist on this planet, to be privileged enough to see it all with your own eyes.
Don’t worry too much about food. If you don’t want to eat it, there are plenty of other ways to make the most of travelling. Do it your way, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.