“The Italians and Spanish, the Chinese and Vietnamese, see food as part of a larger, more essential and pleasurable part of daily life. Not as an experience to be collected or bragged about–or as a ritual like filling up a car–but as something else that gives pleasure, like sex or music, or a good nap in the afternoon.” – anthony.bourdain
I am working on enjoying food–and eating–more. Even in the United States, I am a picky eater. I went from being a child who mostly only ever ordered chicken fingers (or maybe pasta with butter) to being an adult who mostly only orders boneless buffalo wings, which are really just chicken fingers reclassified from “kid food” to “bar food”.
When it comes to food, I am mostly just a creature of habit. I tend to eat at the same restaurants and order the same thing. I go to the grocery store with the same list to buy the same ingredients to make the same meals. I have a few rotating meals that I cook in bulk and then eat on repeat until they are gone. After I cook spaghetti or soup, I will happily eat it for two meals a day, four days in a row. Although I have greatly expanded my ingredient list in the last several years and make more of a concerted effort to eat more vegetables and to try new things, I know that my palette is still not very expansive.
Aside from being fairly picky, I am really just not very into food. Food is fine, but I don’t ever get much enjoyment out of it the way that others seem to. Most of the time, I just eat because I have to; eating is mostly a survival mechanism for me. With this trip, I promised to push myself to be more adventurous in my eating. I wanted to be sure to try local cuisines, even if I normally might not. For the most part, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job. I can mostly claim that for each country I’ve visited, I’ve eaten the major dishes and drank the major drinks. I’ve had Portuguese ham and cheese and pastries and fish, Spanish tapas of all kinds; French crepes and cheese and bread and meats; Italian pastas and pizzas and risottos and soups; Austrian goulash and stew; Cambodian Khmer curry; Vietnamese pho and bun cha and banh mi. Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian wine; Austrian and Vietnamese beer; Vietnamese rice wine, Lao Lao; coffee in every country. My spaghetti twirling and my chopstick wielding have vastly improved.
To some degree, it is easier to try new things in other countries with other cultures and other languages. In Portugal and France, I learned how many food-words I don’t even know in English. Many places had their dishes listed in English as well, but I found myself still not quite understanding all of the ingredients, simply because I didn’t know what certain herbs or vegetables or cooking styles were in any language. Eventually, I gave up trying to know. I just ate it. In the U.S. (and in other English speaking countries), it is too easy for me to read every single ingredient in a dish or ask a server what an item contains or what a sauce is made out of. It is too easy to ask for things to be omitted or substituted. I am too set in my habits of what I “like” and “don’t like”. When I don’t speak the language and am not as familiar with the dishes, I eventually just have to take a chance. I order something, and however it comes is how I eat it. I use the sauces they bring with it and eat the vegetables that are mixed into my pasta or noodles or rice and I don’t pick anything off of my sandwiches. I eat it the way they intend it to be eaten and most of the time, it works out just fine for me.
Although I have successfully pushed myself to try new food, I still have not really settled into the habits of eating. Especially when it comes to lunch, I don’t like to stop what I am doing or interrupt my day to eat. It feels more like a chore and a requirement than a pleasant activity. Once I am eating, I often grow bored halfway through the meal. Not necessarily of the restaurant or of the food, but simply of the repeated act of taking bites and eating them. Sometimes I am unable to finish a meal not necessarily because I am full, but just because I can no longer bring myself to continue the motions. Further, I dislike the amount of thought and energy I must often put into eating while traveling. Unlike at home, it is not just an established and repeated habit of the same restaurants and the same items and the same grocery list. I must make constant choices about where to go and what to order, all while trying to navigate through another language and determine how I am feeling and what would best satisfy me. For me, the hardest part of eating abroad actually isn’t the food itself; it’s having to put thought and energy into it and actually make it a part of my day rather than a tupperware container at my desk while I answer emails or a plate tucked into the corner of the server station and a bite eaten here and there as I run between tables.
Today, I honestly just really wanted some chicken fingers. I had unintentionally skipped lunch and had spent the day wandering around in the 95 degree heat. I was tried, dehydrated, and hungry. I could not stop thinking about chicken fingers and I honestly didn’t think I would feel satisfied until I found some–I have a bad habit of growing dramatic and hangry when it has been too long since I ate. I came across none (even restaurants with “western” menus or “western” offerings tend to be limited to burgers and fries, fish and chips, or pizza). So I had some Laos style chicken fried rice, fresh mango juice, and a bottle of water. Afterwards, now properly hydrated and fed and sitting in the shade, I felt significantly better. I didn’t need the chicken fingers anymore. I never really needed them but habit and comfort can certainly be hard to kick.
I’m not likely to say no to some chicken fingers any time soon, but habit and comfort, in any realm, can be extraordinarily limiting. In both food and otherwise, I am grateful to have travel to push me out of them.