Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least, eat their food.
Experience a culture through the one ceremony every human on the planet partakes in: dinner. In five years of doing so, I’ve brought home one simple fact; we are all the same. Currently, there are seven billion humans living on this planet. Regardless of location or culture, we all do one thing every, single day. We eat.
Food is our common link.
Abroad, next door and down the street, we simply cannot function without sustenance. To blatantly ignore this fact is infantile. We all eat. We all connect over food. Think about the most recent holiday. During what time does everyone come together and truly talk, look at each other and reconnect? The meal.
This is the basis of many conversations about travel, oftentimes the first question from my friends at home is “what’s the food like?” or “what did you eat?”. Many opinions form over a meal in a different country, ranging from “I can’t believe they eat this” to WHYHAVEINEVERHADTHIS?!
In the first few years of my travels, I hadn’t done much exploring off my longitudinal up-bringing (read: I had only flown South, not East or West). However, 2014 brought me to the archipelago of Indonesia in Southeast Asia, the farthest possible place from my home.
Aside from a small bit of jet-lag, culture shock, and calculating the exchange rate, it is overwhelming deciding what to eat, where to eat and how to eat it. Luckily, I had over six months to figure it out.
My first decision? Stay away from the meat.
I know this will raise a few eyebrows, but I saw a lot in Indonesia, from how the meat was treated, to how it was killed, to the way it was stored, and then finally presented to the consumer. I would wager that it saved me a lot of grief and indigestion avoiding the carnivorous route on this one. Indonesia began the vegetarianism that is still the reigning factor of each meal to this day.
HOW can you travel and eat vegetarian?
This was easy: a majority of the meals, plates and delicacies were already vegetarian friendly, occasionally all you had to do was ask for something without the meat. On the whole, you will find tempeh, tofu and a variety of nutrient rich vegetables and grains in traditional Indonesian fare.
[Side note: to be exact, I still eat wild-caught and local fish, when presented with the opportunity. To avoid getting a vegetarians panties in a bunch, this is my full on disclosure: I’m a pescetarian, if you must label my eating trend. You will see pictures of grilled, smoked and dried fish in this post.]
Let’s begin with the beginning, shall we? Fruit.
Fruit is always the easiest and most enjoyable bit of foreign food. Here we have Rambutan, the red spiked fruit, a bit like a Lychee. Gelatinous and sweet like apples and grapes with a large pit. Bananas are an obvious one. Mangosteen is the fruit on the right. Mangosteen is one of my favorite treats, with the sweetness closer to that of black cherries, but with smooth white flesh, it was impossible to ignore their presence at the market.
Markets are where the real food shoppers go to find their goods. From spices to fish, roots to fruits, everything that was in season was at the market. Here, a woman sells dried hot chilies, garlic, tomatoes and shallots.
Food photography is not my strong point, and as a general rule of thumb, I do not have my Nikon with me when perusing markets and local warungs. Most of the photographs of food I have are with my iPhone, so bear with me.
Dragon fruit is something to behold, ranging from the size of an orange to a small melon, it is a neon magenta pink fruit with watery and sweet flesh. I ate around thirty kilo of Dragon fruit during my time in Indonesia. They were the perfect snack, desert, or breakfast.
In the outer lying islands, (i.e. not Bali or Java) dried fish and meat are the only way to preserve and keep food for long periods of time. Refrigerators and temperature control are something of the First World, not the Entire World. While I did not sample the smoked Octopus, I did try smoked fish offered by our local host family and it was damn good.
Cap Cay, pronounced “Chap Chay”, was one of my go-to meals if I didn’t know what anything else was. This happened about 100% of the time in the first month, so I’ve eaten my fair share of Cap Cay. It’s essentially a massive vegetable stir-fry, but without the soy sauce, draped over rice or noodles.
Cabbage and beans are major players in Cap Cay, although the ingredients and thickness of the sauce varies cook to cook. You are hard pressed to find one dish prepared the same way by two different people.
Another high quality photo. This is Nasi Campur, which means “mixed rice” in English. The usual course of action: you step into the warung (small local restaurant), choose your type of rice, and then decide what sides to go with it. From the spoon, clockwise: fried tempeh, curried tofu, a large corn fritter, sweet soy tempeh, stewed cassava leaves, a chunky veggie salsa and sautéed spinach greens. This plate cost around 1$ USD.
My most successful iPhone picture of food of the entire year: a massive Snapper grill lunch. The soup to the left is a vegetable Laksa, a spicy curry soup often served with rice or noodles, and the bowl of sprouts and other goods in the middle is a Gado-Gado interpretation. Gado-Gado is a plate of steamed vegetables, usually beans, sprouts, zucchini, potatoes, carrots and anything else in season with a peanut sauce. This lunch contained all of my favorite Indonesian trimmings, fresh vegetables and homemade sambal.
The holy grail of WTF meals: Green Worm Curry. The story is a long one and meant for another time, but the short of it is this: I harvested the worm at a national festival and this was the gift for my labor. While I did not eat the actual worms, the sauce itself was coconutty, spicy and flavorful.
My two favorite meals from an inventive café in Canggu, Bali. Betelnut Cafe served up healthy and creative spins on local fare, like a dragonfruit puree topped with granola, strawberries and cashews. Massive salads included local ingredients with a new age flare.
Although exploration of the taste buds and daring to try something new at a mealtime in a new country can be exciting, there is a caveat. Eating abroad can be a difficult experience. We’ve all had our share of ill-timed ill feelings. However, doing a bit of research and checking out some well written Travel&Food blogs can truly save you some time and misery. Check out Jodi’s extensive guides to eating abroad, she’s practically the official word on where to eat and how.
If you’re living or traveling somewhere for a stretch of time, it is worth acclimatizing your stomach to the local fare and water (if the situation applies). I met many a traveler who were traversing the islands and did not touch a speck of local food and therefore missed out on an entire cultural experience and an opportunity to grow. Not to mention, eating Western food is usually more expensive and sometimes not as fresh, since acquiring the ingredients is more time-consuming.
In short: be bold, be daring, and share with your new local friends.
Trying something new doesn’t always mean it will be the best tasting meal you’ve ever had, but you will never forget the people you met, especially those who laugh at you when your face explodes from the seemingly innocent spice on your plate.
For more on Markets in Indonesia, see my post on Village Markets.