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May 25, 2009 06:59 AM

Tourist food

Been in SE Asia the last three weeks, and food has been uniformly good EXCEPT when on tours or at some hotels that think whities are too scared to eat the local food. This irritates me in a significant way, and I gotta rant.

Are people really so unadventurous? Doesn't bad food diminish anyone else's holiday? Is a continental breakfast anyone's idea of a satisfying start to the day? The hotel who was out of chicken and subbed duck in my morning noodle soup gets an A+, while the places that claim 'breakfast included' but offer an airy white roll (might as well be wonder, but with a crisp crust) and your choice of AN egg, OR jam, OR 16 grams of processed cheese are really starting to p!ss me off. That's not breakfast!

People seem so amazed that I'd rather go to the market and get plate of pork or chicken and rice than enjoy their free prison breakfast, or that I can eat with chopsticks, or that I want the chilies and lime that come with the dish (unless you look foreign, then you have to ask).

To me, eating the local food is such a significant part of travel. Sure, on occasion I want something familiar, but for the other 20 meals a week I want something interesting and authentic. Who are the people giving travelers a bad culinary name and how can I knock some sense in to them? Are people really so scared of getting sick, or is it fear of the unknown, or fear that there might be something 'weird' like fish sauce or cilantro or innards? I've been sick, it wasn't pleasant, and it did put me off street food for a bit, but in the end, that is not too high a price to pay every few years for all of the wonderful dishes and snacks to be found.

You people who eat only pizza and hamburgers and make the rest of the world think we are all like you - STOP RUINING IT FOR THE REST OF US!!!!

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    1. Lots of people who have enough money to travel for fun are older - and many of these are set in their food ways. "Better" hotels the world over have to cater to them. In such cases, just get out of the hotel and to the market or sidewalk. Nice hotels in places like Bangkok, however, often have both "European/American" and Asian/Thai offerings. The situation varies within SE Asia - where have you had the worst (and most fun to talk about) experiences?

      1. Very good rant. Very good, indeed. I don't even have to travel overseas to experience this. I live in a big city with plenty of ethnic diversity, which in turn, means plenty of ethnic dining options. A few months ago, I went to a little Pakistani lunch counter type joint, ordered a chicken naan roll with everything. The lady at the counter handed the gentleman manning the grill the order. As the sammich was being assembled, the gentleman started choppoing up a serrano chile. The lady then stopped him, and told him no chile for this order as she pointed to me. I didn't understand the language they were speaking, but it was 150% obvious what she was saying. After the order was done and handed to me. I opened the bag, unrolled the sammich, and questioned why there was no hot chile on the sandwich since I specifically asked for "everything" that the menu listed. The grillman, and the counterlady exchanged some words, with the grillman givin her some "I told you so" kinda glances, and the counterlady pointed at me and shrugged her shoulders. In my hood, I can usually get decent Thai food, but the Indian places still err on the side of caution with authenticity.

        Also, you're simply in the minority when it comes to being adventurous. It will always be ruined for the rest of us. When travellling abroad, I always try to ask a few ppl, usually a taxi driver, or a hotel restaurant worker, where THEY eat, and make it painfully clear that I don't want tourist food. I also learn a few phrases like "I like chile," or "same way as you like it."

        Very good rant, indeed.

        8 Replies
        1. re: gordeaux

          The "chile problem" is universal. Everyone who uses chiles - even if just a bit - thinks that they are the only ones who do so and are the only ones who can tolerate them. VERY frustrating.

          And, babette, you'll appreciate this: my friend Kinlay Dorjii's (I know, which one?) mother gave me lots of sun dried pig fat - just knowing that "everyone" loves the stuff, while refusing to give me enough chiles to make the stuff palatable.

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Once I went to an Indian restaurant in Honolulu and ordered a curry dish. The waiter asked me how hot I wanted it on a scale of one to ten. Being from the southwest USA I am very used to hot chiles ( in fact, boastful of my tolerance among my less tolerant friends who I dazzle by taking Tabsco sauce etc neat by the spoonfuls). Therefore I ordered the ten level hotness. The waiter replied that they would not serve level ten to Occidentals! I drew myself up and began to recite my credentials as a chile afficionado but the waiter was unimpressed and adamant. Therefore, I settled on a nine. When the dish came it was so hot I could not finish it. I have always wondered whether the restaurant staff decided to show me up as a rank amateur chile buff or whether that was really their normal level nine.

            1. re: LRunkle

              If you ever make it out that way again, solicit a "local" to go in and do the ordering on your behalf. Implore him or her not to let on to the staff that the meal is for you, wait outside and buy an extra beverage or two while you wait, in order to handle the level 10 inferno blast. If it's hotter than your 9-rated molten experience, you'll know they were honest about their rating system. If it's as hot or less hot, you can chuckle in knowing they tried to get the better of you ... and did.

              1. re: 1sweetpea

                I don't think Tabasco is very hot either, however I would not expect to be served a dish that was several times hotter than Tabasco and have it be only a nine out of ten!

              2. re: LRunkle

                If tobasco sauce is a measure of heat tolerance among you and your friends, then you are an amateur. Tobasco isn't hot at all.

                I know what you meant tho. Just giving you a little grief. ;-)

                1. re: LRunkle

                  Fortunately, I have few problems in Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. They all / often think I'm Tibetan.

                  1. re: LRunkle

                    I had an unfortunate experience at a Singaporean restaurant in San Francisco a while back. I'm also a lover of very spicy food, so I informed the waiter that I wanted my order "Singaporean hot," not "American hot." He was dubious, but I was adamant. Well, the seafood dish was delicious, but by the third mouthful the top of my head was exploding and I was sweating like a pig. The laughter from the staff watching from the kitchen didn't I manfully completed my meal with the help of much cold beer, wondering if heart failure was a possible result, and spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from the experience. I've been more cautious since, and am usually disappointed that my orders are not spicy enough.

                  2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Ap Kinlay or Aum Kinlay? You got me Sam, I'm a hypocrite, I couldn't stomach the pork fat either, especially if it still had stubble on the skin. Creepy. If there were any meaty streaks I'd carve those out, otherwise, just another reminder to ask if the pork is 'red' or 'white'.

                    I realize that there is an element of people genuinely trying to be hospitable. And some things are not going to be universally liked, it's true. I was all excited for sticky rice at the market one morning until I realized that custardy stuff the lady had spooned on top must be durian. But still, I'm glad she gave it to me and didn't edit the experience for me.

                    Maybe that's what it comes down to (after a hearty breakfast): I want to make my own choices about where to draw the line of what is too stinky or spicy or whatever.

                2. You may be unnecessarily harsh. Not everyone travels for the same reasons that you do, particularly those you encounter in international hotels.
                  Many, if not most, are there on business, and even if they might love the chance to explore and experience the culture, their focus is elsewhere. They're scheduled into meetings from dawn until late at night and even their meals are often programmed.
                  They can't afford to suffer upset stomachs from unusual food, even if it's perfectly safe and sanitary, that would cause them to miss the activities that they are there to participate in.
                  It's often bad enough when they have "official meals" of foods that they are wary of because they might have a hard time digesting them. I've been there. You learn to pick carefully at what is set before you so that you'll be ready for the next day's events.

                  Even less adventurous pleasure travelers have to be ready to catch that next bus, train, boat, or plane, else they encounter heavy financial penalties. Tours are tightly scheduled to squeeze in as much as possible and keep groups together.
                  I've done trade tours both in the US and abroad and it's a nightmare when we have people missing meetings and events because they've gone off somewhere. It holds up all of the other people who depend on the cooperation of their fellow tour participants.

                  This is CH and we care about food. Others often have to prioritize differently. If they were on their own time, the food might be their first concern. But sometimes, the work of the State Department or other foreign service, their companies, the UN, an NGO, their tour group, or other organization might take precedence.
                  I know lots of adventurous eaters who travel internationally for business who sadly end up eating hotel and "business" food. They're not happy about that, but it's life on the road.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: MakingSense

                    You make very salient points, but it saddens me when I meet some backpacker travelling abroad purely for pleasure, who is surviving on the jar of peanut butter he or she brought from home, plus store bought crackers, cookies and coca cola. Where's the spirit of adventure? Ditto for UK folks and their Marmite or Aussies and their Vegemite.

                    For what it's worth, my rant was directed at travellers who are on vacations, not business folk with tight work agendas. When work comes first, restaurants and food choices are often way down in the list of priorities. When I'm on vacation, the food experiences are secondary only to the sightseeing. Sometimes the sightseeing is a food excursion, which doubles my pleasure.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      On the other hand, I have a friend who was, until recently, working for a large US semiconductor firm. While much of the R&D was done in the US, most of the fabrication work was done in Asia. He had to visit there often. Whenever he came in to town, as the visiting "big wig", he was taken out night after night for dinner, and everyone wanted to provide him with a lavish Asian dinner, featuring the specialties. He's not the most adventurous eater, but he tried everything. However, he admitted to me, that at the end of two weeks, all he really wanted was a cheeseburger and fries.

                      One night in China, one of the locals asked him where he wanted to go. When my friend said he was easy, the local said "How about TGI Fridays?". My pal jumped at the chance! All day long, he told me later, he was waiting for that cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and (hopefully!) an American beer. When he got there, he was aghast to find that this was an Asian copycat, and that the big deal here was, instead of ordering for the table family style as most Chinese places do, each person ordered their own specific meal. Told me later he was so disappointed after having his sights set so high.

                      I remember a trip to Asia some years ago, where we hunted down stores before leaving to find one that sold single serving packs of peanut butter and jelly so that we would have something to serve our then incredibly picky 4-year old. (She's grown up by the way; on our last trip to Chicago, she insisted we go to either Alinea or Charlie Trotter's.)

                      So, I see it from both points of view. I generally love to experiment with local foods and customs, but after three weeks, I can see the attraction of something familiar.

                      1. re: KevinB

                        It's not only Americans. It cuts both ways.
                        Years ago, I had accompanied a trade delegation of high-ranking Asians on a tour of US medical facilities, primarily in the Mid-West, and for days we were treated to wonderful meals. On Sunday evening in a large city, they surrounded me in the hotel lobby and threatened that they would refuse to follow the agenda the next day unless I found them - NOODLES! They wanted comfort food.

                        I finally found the only Chinese place open late that evening in the downtown area. Nothing on the menu quite suited them and finally the ranking delegate got up from the table and marched right into the kitchen.
                        When he didn't return after a few minutes, I found him without his suit jacket, wearing an apron, laughing merrily, helping to chop vegetables as he directed the staff in Chinese as they prepared a special meal for the delegation.
                        He was a cabinet-level Minister of Health for an Asian country, but he helped serve one of the best "down-home" Chinese meals I've ever had. I have no idea what it was, but everyone was as happy as clams and they were all smiles for the meetings the next morning.

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          For a few years, I traveled back and forth from Japan to the states to attend conventions with a group of internationally known Microbiologists. They always brought along instant ramen, even in LA.

                          1. re: bkhuna

                            Then I had to help one visitor from Asia find a CASE of fortune cookies to take back to his kids. They had lived in the US for a couple of years and loved the things, which as you know, ain't Chinese! Put him on the plane with the cardboard box full of them.

                            1. re: bkhuna

                              I teach at an international school with a large Asian population. On the class camping trip this year, most of the kids brought 10-15 packages of ramen, which they ate for snacks or instead of whatever camp-type food we were serving

                      2. Another comment (!) My work has always been my pleasure; and that has most often involved long stays way out in the remote rural areas of south and SE Asia, Latin America, and eastern Africa. Food was always of equal interest to me as the intertwined issues of people and their food production (agriculture). But I never expected all of my colleagues to concur. I've told these before: once some filipino colleagues and I were in one of the Indian ag research institutes. The Institute food was GREAT!!! The filipinos brought along their supplies of canned Vienna sausages and the like. They were good people, but liked their own food. One of my colleagues and I were often in Laos just as Laos was opening up a bit. Even in Vientiane I went nuts - kao niyao and laab; died and went to heaven. My buddy would go with me to eat; and then off to the french restaurant for his turn.

                        But you are right! When the outsiders overwhealm the locals with requests for garbage, it does ruin it for all of us.