food glorious food

I mentioned briefly in the previous update that I found myself in the rather embarrassing position of ordering a local dish for lunch, only to find within the space of a couple of mouthfuls that I had chose something that wasn’t particularly favourable to my palate. Sat there, with one uneaten plate full of bland egg fried rice and another plate featuring a ridiculously disgusting attempt at stir fried beef (that tasted what I imagine dog food to taste like) I thought to myself why is food such a big talking point when it comes to visiting new countries.

There is some god like status amongst some travellers who eat only local food. Yet if you actually talk to these people they fully admit that the food doesn’t fill them up and quite often they will speak about a dislike for a local dish that they will eat time and time again because ‘the guidebook tells them too’. On my twelve hour overnight bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang I got talking to a pleasant couple who were overseas on a six month trip. We had stopped off at a standard South East Asia service station at around midnight where they decided to tuck into a plate of rice and something described as chicken. It looked more like the left overs off the Christmas turkey after it had been in the fridge festering for a week after the big day than something freshly plucked that afternoon. As they picked away looking miserable at their chosen dish, I supped away happily on a can of 333 beer and noshed on a couple of cheese spread baguettes. The lad looked particularly glum, having been ill from the previous nights feast at a street vendors stall. Asking him if it was nice, he shrugged and said it just tasted like any other dish he had eaten for the past month. When I asked him why he chose the dish he suspected would give him about as much enjoyment as a kick in the nuts, he said because it was all part of the Vietnam experience.

This was a good answer. The standard answer that all miserable, malnourished travellers give when they are questioned by some smart arse like me who has gone way past that stage of trying to impress the world at just how cultured I am because I eat food that I dislike just because the locals do. I made the point to the pair of them that they should be congratulated for trying the local fare (as everyone should do before they judge) but not feel guilty about reverting back to type, especially when on the road for so long. Not that I mentioned it to them but they both looked ill, no doubt due to the standard of food they had been forcing down their throats. This is not meant as a snobby comment, but some of the food quality in South East Asia is questionable, especially in the local dishes. They are made cheaply, because that is all the locals can afford. Without sounding like Jamie Oliver it’s safe to say that cheap meat is not good meat, as the young lad could now testify thanks to his dodgy stomach that morning and his continued boredom at what he was eating. There is also the body shape factor to consider. Westerners are naturally built differently than the average Asian and as such need more of a certain type of food to stay healthy and feel strong.

Don’t get me wrong, I have eaten locally in every country that I have been too. It is definitely part of visiting any new country, but quite why there should be a pressure to eat local food all the time is beyond me, and always has been. I remember having some fairly decent ‘tagines’ from a street vendor in Morocco with Fred, where we entered quite an in depth discussion in eating the local fodder when in a new environment. My point was that I’m always open to trying new food, but if I don’t like what I’m shoving down my throat then I won’t feel guilty about finding some food elsewhere that doesn’t originate in the country that I find myself in. For the record the tagines were good, but I still wouldn’t eat them every day through choice.

Another thing that came to me while supping that excellent can of 333 was the sheer volume of Chinese and Indian takeaways that you can find in any town or city anywhere in the world. Now OK, we all love a cheeky curry on the way home from a night out on the town, but the majority of these are set up to serve the large overseas population of people with Chinese and Indian descent who only eat their own food. How many big cities around the world have areas of a town labelled as ‘Little India’ or ‘China Town’ where a huge percentage who go to eat the food there are of Asian descent? Obviously I don’t know the statistics, but I’m sure more people of a ‘western’ background pop in for a bit of Asian cuisine than people of an Asian background pop into Toby Cavery for a quick roast dinner.

What I’m trying to get across here (without generalising) is that people the world over like to revert back to type. Why should I, as a British traveller who is away from my home country for over half a year, not want to enjoy a steak and chips for tea or beans on toast for breakfast? I was sat next to the staff who run my small hotel in Nha Trang this morning who were all tucking in to noodles, bamboo shoots and plain rice for breakfast at 7am. I simply could not stomach something like that because my body would tell me to stop eating such a dish for breakfast. I’m sure if I forced it down me day after day my body would adapt, but why would I want it to? I know for a fact that a full english breakfast is a far tastier option. In the words of Alan Partridge, ‘I’d eat that every day of the week if I could, but then I’d be dead’ before having to explain to his Eastern European girlfriend that ‘It’s full of cholesterol, Scottish people eat it. Not many of them see the other side of fifty’

Sorry, but four months in and that’s my first Partridge related scribble. It had to come.

Anyway after getting that off my chest it’s time to report on what else has been going on in ‘The ‘Nam’. Well, after a few days recuperating from the restless night bus in Nha Trang, I have arrived in the rather plush surroundings of a brand new Best Western hotel in Da Lat. It’s a four star effort that goes way against the grain of where I have sleeping for the past few months. Basically we are at the end of the elongated build up to Tet, which is the time of the year that the Vietnamese celebrate new year. It marks the start of spring based upon the lunar calendar, which is quite fitting seeing as the weather on my arrival (which was on the back of a scooter) is spectacular. It’s actually the first time I’ve seen a full blue sky since leaving Australia. What that means is that all the cheaper two star hotels that I’d usually be kipping in are booked months in advance by the locals who tend to all gather back in their home towns to be around family and friends over Tet. Da Lat is short of beds at the best of times so when I stumbled upon an offer where a room here is nearly cheaper than what I paid for a seven bed dorm in Adelaide, it was a no brainer. Besides, this country is so cheap I’ve been miles under budget for the three weeks I have been here. Call it a little treat.

Anyway, not a great deal went on in Nha Trang apart from me hiring another scooter and going on what can only be described as a stunning coastal and mountainous ride through the countryside. It’s a fantastic way to get out of the tourist trappings that do exist here, even if a little hairy on occasions when riding back into town in the rain through rush hour. The views were breathtaking what with the almost volcanic looking islands off the coast that peaked through the cloud plus the little Vietnamese fishing villages I stumbled upon. The road was a little more challenging than the one I took to Danang as this one winded in and out of the mountain sides like some sort of race track. I had to keep reminding myself to concentrate on the road instead of gazing in awe at the views that were before my eyes. This is what travel is all about to me – stumbling upon these marvellous adventures that you have discovered by putting yourself out there. Sure, riding a scooter with no experience or road awareness is pretty irresponsible, but you only live once and I would not have seen such natural beauty if I didn’t take the odd so called risk.

Besides, as the girl in that roadside café said (through gritted teeth from the crap food she was eating) it’s probably better to not have too much awareness of what’s happening on the roads here as you wouldn’t even dare cross them, let alone drive or ride on them!


1 Response to “food glorious food”

  1. 1 donna
    February 1, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Food glorious food, hot sausage and mustard… very funny blog… loved the photo’s too…awareness…its a bugger to live with …ignorance can indeed be bliss…specially on a scooter in Vietnam it seems…delightful read…good for you not quite so just Hereford Rich anymore perhaps…just thoughts …

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