09 Feb The Fussy Eater Travel Guide
There’s something I need to finally admit here on the blog; a somewhat shameful secret that may well brand me as a ‘bad’ traveller by many. So here it is: I don’t like Asian food. In fact, take away my British and Western food staples and I tend to panic. In short, I’m an extremely fussy eater, so how on earth do I cope as a traveller?
For as long as I can remember food has been a bit of a minefield for me. I was a skinny child who wasn’t fond of eating and if food looked or smelled weird, I just wasn’t interested. Forget anything spicy, meaty or adventurous, I would eat only simple potato or pasta based meals and would often skip a hot dinner in favour of a sandwich or bowl of cereal. I was 18 before I even tried Chinese food and when I moved away to University the only thing I knew how to ‘cook’ was a pancake. It’s fair to say that my diet was pretty limited throughout my childhood and teenage years.
Things changed when Andrew and I moved in together when we were 22. We put our unhealthy student diets aside and started full-time jobs; we took packed lunches to work and planned out what dinners we would eat throughout the week. I learned to cook and to bake – it even became a kind of hobby of ours. Despite all this I still wasn’t an adventurous eater; trying new dishes always seems like a bit of a gamble to me; I get anxious if I don’t know what to expect from a meal. Back in London I’d typically have a banana and cereal bar for breakfast, fruit and sandwiches for lunch and vegetables with either pasta or baked potato for dinner.
I know many people consider food to be one of the most important aspects of travel, something to explore and discover in its own right; I wish I could be more like that but my taste buds and stomach don’t agree. Given all this, I knew from the moment we started planning our travel adventure that I’d be forced to eat outside of my comfort zone in Asia.
How I Eat in Asia
Aside from Australia and New Zealand, where we cooked familiar meals in hostels, the one country I’ve been to that I was able to eat happily in was Italy. I can eat pasta every day of the week and not get sick of it, add in some cheesy pizza and delicious gelato and I’m sorted. By contrast, I get sick of rice very easily. I’m not good with spices and did I mention that I gave up eating meat a few years ago? Yes, Asia is probably the worst continent for me to be travelling in food-wise, so how do I cope?
Eating outside of my comfort zone: while in Asia I’ve had to get used to eating things I’d rather not. As a consequence there have been some horrid food experiences so far; sugary bread and watery soups, greasy rice dishes cooked in copious amounts of fish oil, chicken floating in my Vietnamese ‘vegetarian’ soup and street food in Laos that made Andrew violently sick. There have been times when food has been offered to us out of genuine kindness and it would have been rude not to accept; when staying at a longhouse in Borneo for example we were given some local food which included cucumber soaked in fish-oil and tiny minnows which were cooked and eaten whole, eyes and all. We were also treated to some Chinese-Malaysian food by our new friend Mr Chem and his daughter while in Borneo; my stomach clenched up at the sight of the fried dough balls floating in a frog-spawn-like substance that they gave us.
Discovering new foods I love: there have been occasions when daring to try a new dish has worked out well for me though; one of our hosts in Borneo cooked us the most amazing Indian-Malaysian meal ever and I finally understood the appeal of Pad Thai once I’d ordered one from Apple and Noi’s in Kanchanaburi. After a terrible start in Indonesia I grew to like Nasi Goreng, a local rice, vegetable and egg dish and ate some delicious veggie meals in Ubud. Sometimes I’ve also managed to find familiar, locally sourced foods in Asia that I’ve loved; delicious salads and homemade bread at the Buzz café in the Philippines, tasty yoghurt produced in Dalat Vietnam, French-style baguettes in Laos and fruit, muesli and yoghurt breakfasts practically everywhere we go.
Finding comfort foods: although it doesn’t do our budget much good, there are the times on the road when I’ve simply succumbed and paid more for the comfort of some proper western-style grub such as vegetable pie and mash at the UNIrish pub in Chiang Mai, tasty pizzas in Kanchanaburi and proper Italian-made pasta and veggie burgers when I can find them. Cheese is the food I miss most from home and it’s almost impossible to find in Asia, when we’ve been absolutely desperate Andrew and I have paid up to £5 for a tiny block of mature cheddar to calm our cravings. Staying put in an apartment in Chiang Mai for a month also allowed us to cook our own meals and indulge in the foods we missed from home, such as macaroni cheese.
Battling bad habits: we find it much harder to eat as healthily as we did back home while we travel and have found ourselves buying fast food at times; back home we never touched McDonalds but we’ve been to one at least once in half of the countries we’ve visited so far. Pot noodles became a favourite meal of ours in Malaysia since it was difficult and expensive to get tasty food. There have also been plenty of travel days when we’ve eaten nothing but crisps and biscuits while other meals have been skipped entirely – we’re constantly battling these bad habits as we travel.
Fussy Eater Travel Tips
If you’re a fussy eater like me who’s nervous about finding food you like on the road, here are some tips that might make things easier for you:
- Visit night markets – the biggest problem I have with trying new foods is the anxiety over ordering something I’m not sure I’ll like. One of the ways I’ve conquered this in Asia is by visiting markets where I can pick and choose a few different foods which typically come in small portions and are quite inexpensive so if I don’t like something, it’s no big deal.
- Travel with a more adventurous eater – Andrew is a far more adventurous eater than me and will often encourage me to try his food, which is a great way to find out whether I like a dish without having to order one for myself.
- Find a staple dish – try to find at least one local dish you can eat if you have to; I look for variations of a simple rice, vegetable and egg meals or spring rolls when I become daunted by unfamiliar dishes in a local eatery. I’m surprisingly pretty good at eating Indian food which is usually available in Asia, so we’ll often search some out when we’re stuck for something to eat.
- Learn how to express yourself – if you have specific food needs, learn how to express this in the local language. We try to learn the word for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘no meat’ in each country we visit to make things easier when ordering in restaurants. This strategy doesn’t always work; in Vietnam we often ordered ‘vegetarian’ food that came with meat in it – one menu even advertised ‘vegetarian pork’ which I still can’t get my head around!
- Go to the supermarket – pick up some staple foods from the supermarket to make cheap lunches or breakfasts with. We buy fruit, bread, spreads, yoghurts and snacks to put together an easy meal when we’re struggling to find places to eat or don’t like the local options.
- Stock up on fruit – it can be hard to find something tasty and nutritious to snack on when you’re stuck on a bus all day or have just arrived in a new city. To combat this I try to stock up on fruit when I travel; in Asia you can buy fruit everywhere and it’s usually pretty cheap. I try to choose fruit I can peel like bananas or oranges to avoid getting sick.
- Research where to eat – we often research restaurants on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet when we arrive in a new destination to find somewhere which serves the type of food we’re after, has good reviews and is in our budget range.
- Cook when you can – hotels and hostels in Asia don’t generally tend to have cooking facilities but there are a few around with basic amenities that will allow you to prepare meals you’re comfortable eating. Better still, rent apartments with kitchens occasionally, like we did in Chiang Mai, to completely alleviate your food worries and cook your own meals.
- Carry a few home comforts – we travel with a supply of Marmite and peppermint tea bags, generously restocked by our parents when they visited us over the summer. It’s great to have these small food comforts when you’re feeling sick of local foods.
- Be brave – sometimes you just have to swallow your fear and try something new; while I’ll never be the most adventurous eater, travelling in Asia is slowly teaching me to step out of my food comfort zone.
Any other fussy eaters out there; how do you cope with food when you travel?