An exploration of what happens when a travelers requires food from there native country in a foreign land.
There was a great scene in the movie Shanghai Kiss where one of the actors orders a chocolate martini at a bar in China. The bartender gives him a strange look and the actor responds “It is a martini with chocolate in it.”
The bartender then comes back with a regular martini with a piece chocolate sticking in it. Now many travelers have had similar experiences when looking for a taste of home. My brother Paul and I where in Yangshou China on New Years Eve and he saw to his great surprise tomato juice on the menu. He ordered it with quiet haste and sat there. Leaning over he whispered to me, “Mike if tonight goes a little too wild we can hit up some bloody maries here tomorrow.”
The waitress returned a few moments later with a glass filled with an oddly pale red substance in it. She hands it to my brother and Paul sadly lifts the glass in his hand. He takes a sip and almost spits it out, “What is this! All they did was blend raw tomatoes.”
Now if your from a culture were all other juices are just made from blending or squeezing fruits then it would make since to just blend raw tomatoes to make tomato juice. This instance makes it apparently clear that most Chinese have not discovered the wonderful hang over cure of the bloody marry or they just stick to mimosas.
Looking for a taste from home can feel like a great victory or the ultimate loss. I remember living in Tianjin China and I ordered a pepperoni pizza from a Korean pizza joint and it was real pepperoni, not hot dog meat. Even though the pizza was square I was jumping up and down with joy just have to that taste of home. Or having a BLT in Cambodia after not having one for over 6 months.
In general though most battles for familiar’s food at best are a slight let down. Ordering a pizza and it turns out to have no cheese or tomato sauce on it. Maybe getting a chicken sub that has some crazy local sauce on it. Most of the time this twist on a familiar thing would be interesting but if the goal is a taste from home it can lead to a major bummer.
Now even the most veteran traveler needs to a have a taste from home every now and then. How do you avoid these major lets downs? Do you avoid getting your hopes up? Do you just say, “screw it” when it’s not what you wanted and find another restaurant? Do you make your own food or bring snacks with you from home?
I have tired all of these with mixed results. Trying to keep your hopes down is at best a method of delay. If I keep delaying I will eventually break down and been even more bummed out if I had just let the initial bum out happen. Saying, “screw it” and finding different food should only be left for the most extreme of situation because this option can get pretty expensive. Making your own food is great option if you are stationary for a while. Because, what guesthouses have all the spices, materials or cooking implements that you need to make the foods you want. Also I certainly can’t cook a few things I like to eat regularly.
After a year of trying these different methods I had a slight change of thought. When I go hiking in the desert I need to drink lots of water. If I wait till I am thirsty to drink water it is already too late. What do I mean? By the time someone is already thirsty making them want to drink, their body is already dehydrated therefore not running at top shape and it can takes hours sometimes for a body to become fully hydrated again. To keep running at top shape the hiker needs to drink a little every now therefore making them never feel thirsty.
Therefore I eat food from home before I crave it and keep myself from getting “thirsty.” This way when I hit a cultural cuisine hiccup it doesn’t bum me and can become an interesting story. I was reminded recently of this feeling from an experience that I had the other day after returning to Chicago.
I was in need of lunch I noticed a small Hong Kong Chinese food stall downtown just outside of the loop. I walked in and ordered a bowl of lao mien. In Mainland China lao mien is a soup noodles and that was what I was expecting. Then to my surprised I received a bowl of fried noodles. I wasn’t that upset and ate the noodles anyway, which were pretty good. But it reminded how I used to feel when I was in China trying to get a taste of home because if a Chinese person ordered lao mien here and got fried noodles they would be pretty bummed.