Food is a big part of our daily lives, or as chef/author Anthony Bourdain puts it: “I think food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.” So yes, travelling is going to be a bit more challenging when you have certain dietary restrictions, food allergies OR when you are simply a picky eater. While it might be difficult — and sometimes even impossible(!) — to stick to your diet while away, it doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t visit countries where people have eating habits vastly different from yours. As a seasoned traveller (currently a workaway host), our blog contributor Jane is here to share experience and advice on how you can respect both your dietary requirements and the local customs without going hungry. Over to Jane!
“Travelling is all about reinventing and change of routine and lifestyle. […] As a traveller and a workaway host, you become more aware of and sensitive to issues in differences in food preferences and cultural customs. Seeing how others eat gives you a greater insight into your own eating habits, which you may even reconsider or change as a result.”
Being a picky eater abroad…
I am a diabetic who chooses to be vegetarian and prefers to buy organic products. At certain times in my life I have avoided dairy. So yes, I suppose you could say that whilst I try not to be a picky eater per se, I have certain dietary requirements or limitations. Of course, from my point of view, there is no problem: if a meal is meaty, I just have more of the side dishes. However, I can tell that my dietary limitations have sometimes made family, friends and hosts feel uncomfortable, especially if they are carnivores with a sweet tooth! One Christmas, a relative proudly presented me with a big ‘bouquet’ of celery. “I thought of you when I did the groceries!,” he beamed. I was grateful, and kept the fact that I don’t really like celery to myself…
It’s important to remember that most of us come from countries where we have a ridiculous amount of choice. Consumerism trains us to be fussy. Many of us end up convincing ourselves that we should only eat organic, low fat, additive-free products that contain little or no salt and sugar. We may even tell ourselves that food that doesn’t conform to our specific requirements is slowly but surely is going to destroy us. In Western society we have a complex relationship with food: we try to control what we eat and how much, overwhelmed with conflicting information on what is good for us. Our appetite and enjoyment of food is often tainted with guilt of eating the ‘wrong’ kind of food or too much of it. When we travel, we have to lose some of these hang-ups and high expectations, otherwise we’re not going to be able to make the most of our time away. Simply speaking, the good fortune of having food on the table is better and healthier than not having it. I have abstained from eating whilst travelling because I didn’t like the food, and have become ill as a result!
Trying new food is part of the adventure!
Travelling is all about reinventing and change of routine and lifestyle: whether it is how much you sleep and where, how long you have to wait for transport, doing without home comforts or trying new things. However, if food is a big issue for you, choosing a destination that can ‘feed’ you and could even help you expand your culinary horizons may be a priority to you.
Certain countries and societies are, for example, more suitable for vegetarians and vegans, because these particular diets are already part of the culture or religious beliefs; think Hindu and Buddhist societies. In other countries, people might feel that a meal without meat is not a ‘proper’ meal, or will even try to persuade you that chicken, chorizo and pâté aren’t really meat! In some parts of the world, vegetable-based meals may considered to be food for the poor, whereas in others there may be a lack of freshly grown greens. In third world and developing countries, there is a limited supply of imported goods, so you’ll have to try to get an idea of which ingredients or local dishes would suit your diet prior to planning your trip.
Is there a right way to refuse food?
Of course, food allergies are a greater concern. If certain foods give you a reaction severe enough to require medical attention, then you really need to do your homework as far as food preparation and ingredients go. It’s also very important to let your hosts and fellow travellers know about your medical condition and tell them what they should do if you are taken ill.
The more exotic the destination, the more likely you are going to be faced with food you may or may not recognise as food! If you really can’t stomach something, know how to refuse politely in accordance with local custom. I once hosted a lovely workawayer from Japan who had the habit of saying that she couldn’t eat certain foods. When I eventually asked her if she had any food allergies, she explained that she just didn’t like dairy products, but considered it bad manners to say so. However, over time she began to experiment by tasting yoghurt and milk, even though she hated the smell. When we offered her to try blue cheese one day, she asked us what the blue was. When she used her translator to find out what the streaks of mould were, her eyes almost popped out of her head, and on this occasion she was certain that she didn’t want to try it!
Food that is considered ‘appetising’ or ‘exquisite’ in one part of the world, can be seen as challenging or even unacceptable to people from another part of the world. As a traveller and a workaway host, you become more aware of and sensitive to these issues. Seeing how others eat gives you a greater insight into your own eating habits, which you may even reconsider or change as a result.
Knead your own bread – and share it with friends!
What you may lose in choice you could gain in quality of experience. There is nothing more satisfying than being able to pick — or even grow! — your own food or to try fresh seasonal products from a local farmer’s market. Fortunately, in most parts of the world you can find rice and veggies can be found, food that can be eaten by almost anyone.
If you do find that preparing your own food is the most practical option, offer to cook for your hosts as well. It’s a gesture which would surely be appreciated! If you can take part in the mealtime ritual by trying some of their home-cooking it would be a very rewarding experience, even if it means modifying what you would normally eat.
People are often proud of their cuisine and to offer a meal to someone is a way of introducing them to their culture and welcoming them, so refusing to take part in a culinary exchange would be a shame. Sharing a meal with someone implies more than just feeding your faces: it is no coincidence that the word ‘companion’ means ‘the one you share your bread with’, or cake for that matter! Being diabetic, for example, doesn’t exclude me from tasting sweet food. I just can’t overdo it, so I make exceptions for birthday cakes and home-made specialities.
However, I have found that sometimes it is useful to have a dietary restriction to fall back on! I have travelled with non-vegetarians who have wished that they had the same ‘excuse’ as I had to refuse certain foods. Instead, they were obliged to eat every last mouthful of the delicacy — bulls testicles, goat’s eyes, snails, chunks of pig fat in a stew — in question! But who knows, I might have missed out on discovering a whole new way of living and eating… they do say that insects are to become the food of the future!
Thanks very much to Jane for the useful insight and tips! Want to read more about food and travelling? Take a look at our Workaway Foodie session that features local recipes and workawayers’ food adventures abroad! Do you have any additional tips and experiences to share? Please let us know in the comments below! 🍴♥️