Eating around the world

Eating Around the World

During our six and a half year circumnavigation in Dolphin Spirit we visited 56 countries and ate in 50 of them. The only time we were ever sick was after eating at a McDonalds in Egypt – that exotic food will get you every time.

In fact that bit about exotic food is totally untrue. After having lived and worked in more than 100 countries over more than 30 years, I have had food poisoning just three times, the above incident being the second. The third was in France where I dined one night on fish soup followed by fish in puff pastry.

I attribute my survival to one simple rule – eat the food of the country you are in. In Sudan I ate lamb tartare (minced raw lamb) regularly, with occasional side dishes of sheep eyes and testicles, and suffered no ill effects. When in Brazil, I ate lamb tartare at an Arab restaurant, and spent the next two days unable to leave a bathroom. That was the first food poisoning, and the one from which I developed the “eat local” rule.

In the south of Columbia we stopped for lunch at a roadside “restaurant.” An open drain ran through the middle of the dirt floor under the open-sided thatch roof. Chickens, dogs and children chased around the few tables, which had the beneficial effect of keeping the clouds of flies in constant motion. We ate steak, well done, with boiled yams, washed down by beer directly from the can, with no problems.

Which brings me to the first codicil to the rule – grilled meat, well done, and boiled, skin-on vegetables, can be eaten anywhere. Unless you have seen the steak cut off the just killed beast and placed on the grill, then rare is an invitation to disaster, outside of the better restaurants in the cities. If refrigeration is rare, then the meat should not be.

During a visit to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, by good fortune we stumbled into a room reserved for locals. It had weapons and game heads on the walls, low tables, stools and couches each covered with an individual baby goat skin – a wonderful ambience. Dinner was a four foot diameter platter, lined with pancake like sour bread, and covered with heaps of various local dishes, all meat, mostly goat. Correct procedure was to tear off a piece of bread and scoop up some food with it, all with the right hand of course, as the left is reserved for more intimate cleaning functions. Left-handed me had some etiquette problems.

That introduces the second codicil – learn the local customs in advance. In Taiwan, when you are asked to pick the snake you want to eat from out of a slithering heap, just go ahead and pick one. After cooking and smothering in delicious sauces, it will taste just like the delicious sauces, and you know it is fresh. It is perfectly okay to decline to drink the warm snake blood you will be offered, but very bad form to not select the snake.

I have eaten almost every type of meat there is from rat to elephant and turned down only a few. Raw monkey brains is not something I even like to be in the same room as, particularly when they are still attached to the monkey. For some reason, I cannot stand rabbit – yes, I comfortably eat rat, snake and flying fox, but won’t eat rabbit.

Travel is about broadening knowledge and gaining new experiences and this includes experimenting with new foods. In other countries there are hundreds of fruits and vegetables with tastes that range from bland to delicious and which are never seen in the US. So, even if the thought of eating meat that may not have come out of a US supermarket is revolting, try a new fruit a day. Do remember to eat only fruit you have peeled yourself, never pre-cut, pre-peeled or un-peeled.

Oh, yes, I was poisoned a fourth time, through eating an already cut watermelon I bought at an Indonesian market to quench my thirst. Break the rules and you will be punished, even if they are your own rules.

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