Of course when traveling, you have to eat. In fact, eating can be one of the most fun parts of traveling. Or sometimes, it is one of the challenges. Food may be scarce, the food you would like to have is not available, or your body is not up to receiving the particular food you have in front of your nose.
After spending five years in a country with only a handful of supermarkets – and relying on diet-improving activities such as keeping a vegetable garden and a weekly tofu distribution scheme – the superabundance of food we encountered in some countries (especially the USA and Canada) was striking. This does not necessarily mean that all this food is “good food”. Definitions of the latter differ, but a personal favorite of mine is the definition by the journalist Michael Pollan: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Following this rule is easier to do in countries that are less modern, and where natural products are consumed as opposed to the highly processed ‘food’ you find in your average supermarket. The rule also disqualifies about 99% of the food you find in a present day 7/11, say, or a mini market at a gas station (these places are also known as food deserts. For a great explanation on the more technical food related terms such as this, have a look at this video from the American Public Broadcasting Service’s Sustainability Lexicon).
So as we realized, highly urbanized spaces tend to favor processed food, with the in-your-face presentation you find at supermarkets and convenience stores. Restaurants are an exception, as these tend to make it a point to serve real and natural food (fortunately: imagine all restaurants serving cup noodles with snickers bar for dessert…). Obviously, this comes at a cost and is not available to anyone. It is a sad reality that in cities, people with less resources tend to have less access to good food. We have seen this in many big cities, among them Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Calgary. In the Asian countries we visited (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand), the divide is not as clear as there is plentiful and fresh street food available at low prices. The Philippines is a mixed case, as good local street food is there but risks being pushed out of the market by the proliferation of fast food restaurants – even in unlikely places, courtesy of unrestricted market access for American companies. More on food in Asia in part II of this post.
Food is interesting for most travelers because it lies at the crossroads between nature and culture, both major aspects underlying the variety between countries. What is subsequently done with a particular ingredient and how (and when) it is consumed, is a matter of culture. The consumption of food ranges from a quick snack to elaborate religiously inspired procedures and rituals. Many ways of preserving a food (pickling, salting, drying, roasting) while originally meant to increase ‘shelf life’ and make transport easier, actually create all new and fascinating foods. During our trip we have been lucky to encounter many types of food and ways of food consumption. Here are some personal highlights of the first part of our trip:
- Italian food almost needs no introduction. We loved the porchetta we ate in Ostea.
- Some home cooked, healthy food was what we craved after traveling for a couple of months. We were served some great food at our host’s place in Sofia. The banitsa was awesome.
- In Turkey, our Istanbul street was full of street vendors with the best cheap snacks and meals, as well as small restaurants we enjoyed a lot.
- Street food in Brazil made us feel at home as there are plenty of West African influences. The black eyed pea-based dish acarajé for example was excellent (see photo). Also, the real açaí na tigela (açai in a bowl) was irresistible.
- Argentina actually has a great though somewhat one-sided food culture, and even as aspiring vegetarians we had to taste the steak. Butcher shops abound in the streets of Buenos Aires.
- What we enjoyed in Bolivia where the many great local markets. If you’re able to cook where you stay or even when just preparing a sandwich, they allow you to eat cheaply and healthy. And very great-grandmother proof too!
- In Peru we went all-out with a great cooking class and a visit to Central Restaurant, a worldwide restaurant top 50 that serves many amazing dishes. Interestingly, its menu is organized according to the geography of Peru.
- In the States and Canada, as mentioned we were forced to consume some ‘authentic’ food desert food, like peanut butter (which I swore never to eat again after subsisting on it for a year in Australia, way back in the day…). Fortunately this time it was only a temporary diet item.
Stay tuned for the next post on food, which will tell you more about our Asia food experience.