Note: Find an update to this post here.
Confession time. I’m a picky eater. A very picky eater. It’s painful to admit because of all my identities I consider myself first and foremost a cultured, adventure-loving traveler. Wanderlust consumes me. And yet, I do not daydream of massaman curry on Koh Samui, or vindaloo in Goa, or haggis in Edinburgh. I might be intrigued by the pizza in Italy, but I really hope it tastes like it does in Brooklyn. While in the pre-trip throes of excitement for a jaunt to Honduras, I swooned upon reading in the usually dreaded food and drink section of a guidebook that “Honduran food is very bland.” What music to my sensitive little tongue!
You would be forgiven for thinking I’m exaggerating. For me, “picky” is not “I prefer not to eat spiders on sticks.” Picky is, spicy things upset my stomach, the smell of cooking fish makes me nauseous, and if I can’t pronounce it, I really don’t want it on my plate. The list of what generally keeps me alive on the road consists of breads, white rice, chicken, eggs, and copious amounts of bananas. Aside from your favorite destination being Disney and wearing a visible fanny pack, it is one of the most shameful things a traveler can admit to.
The worlds of food and travel are deeply intertwined. Anyone who has tried to watch the Travel Channel and then spent ten minutes banging the clicker because they think they were just stuck on the Food Network (oh wait, is that just me?) knows that in the world of TV, foodies are the current target audience, with the destination brushed upon with a two-minute opening montage. Travel magazines too seem to be dedicating more and more ink to various global restaurant scenes. And if I read one more travel blog imploring me to eat street food, my computer may actually turn into a gyro. The message is clear: go forth and eat adventurously.
So what does this mean for me? Lets start with the positives. In the same way that holiday-makers return home with great tans as souvenirs, I usually return to New York with a little post trip emaciation (that sadly fades about as quickly as a tan would). In contrast to my waistline, my wallet stays nice and padded. Foreign food shock means I avoid pricey meals, and in extreme cases, all meals, until I can find a nice bland local dish to subsist on.
But it’s not all sunshine and skinny jeans. To start, being hungry is no fun. But actually, that’s the least of my problems. Hunger has nothing on fear, shame, and humiliation. The fear of being invited to a home cooked meal that could potentially bring you to tears, the shame of not being able to “order family style!” as a restaurant, or the humiliation of being asked to a raw sushi bar by a very attractive scuba diving instructor and being forced to explain that no, you’re not quite a fan of the world’s trendiest food.
Indeed, the largest source of anxiety for me as a choosy eater is missing out on is the camaraderie that comes with sharing a meal. I avoid this by simply never turning down a dining invitation. At most restaurants there is at least one thing I find tolerable on the menu. If not, I’ll have water, the bread basket, and a fabricated story of a previous meal. If all else fails, I have decided it is acceptable to feign food allergy.
Things get dicier when someone shows you the hospitality of bringing you into their home. I learned this during a student exchange program in Costa Rica, where I mastered the fine art of smothering things in rice so that they would slide down my esophagus having never swept across my tongue. For Costa Ricans, black beans are a major staple of the diet and were served at every meal, including breakfast. Being pretty anti-bean myself, I was close to reaching my breaking point two weeks in to the trip. But salvation arrived when I stumbled upon a Pizza Hut after a long night drinking in San Jose. A breathless run to the counter chanting “no mas frijoles!” to the doubled-over laughter of my Tica friends (thankfully, this time we were laughing together) culminated in a breadsticks binge that got me through.
White Rice and Wild Adventures
I might pass hard on exotic foods, but clearly a lack of adventurousness isn’t the problem — that hasn’t held me back from whitewater rafting on the Rio Conrejal, diving with sharks in the Bahamas, or spending a summer solo in Asia when I was barely out of high school. It surely can’t be daintiness or fussiness that keeps me from eating the local cuisine, or I wouldn’t have survived molding bug infested hotel rooms in Kuala Lumpur without a hint of a whimper. I think that I simply have a limited palate, and I can live with that because it does not compute to a limited mind, nor a limited experience.
I like to think that even without food, one can know the soul of a place. By immersing myself into a country’s art, exploring its natural and man made wonders and getting to know the heart of its people I can overcome not sharing what is on their plates. I’m guessing there are quite a few Anthony Bourdain fans who would disagree with me, and that’s okay. More spiders on a stick for them. At least that’s what I tell myself to get over the shame of having to admit, yet again, that I don’t eat slimy sea creatures, most vegetables down the produce aisle, or bread any shade other than A2.
I could let my fear of the unknown keep me safe at home with my Lean Cuisine frozen dinners to keep me warm at night, but I refuse. I refuse to let my finicky tastebuds dictate my destiny. Because I have an undeniable calling to keep exploring this planet, even if my stomach isn’t the one leading the way. There are so many fears that can keep us sidelined at home: fear of a language barrier, of culture shock, of falling ill or falling victim to crime. Of long plane rides, uncomfortable bus trips and so many more excuses that could fill a book. But I have yet to find one fear, food phobia included, that outweighs the rewards to be found when overcoming it. So I will continue to cross borders into lands of unidentified meats and offending spices, and just hope against hope that white rice comes a la carte.
Are you a picky eater too? Let’s commiserate in the comments!
Note: Again, find an update to this post here.
We make a point of going to McDonald’s in every country we visit because its a) clean b) cheap c) consistent and we like to try the regional varieties. Good luck in your eating!
I love that. Have you been to the one on Kho San Road in Thailand, where Ronald McDonald is doing the wai? Its a goody!
This is HILARIOUS and I can totally relate. I’ve gotten less picky over the years but raw meat hanging in open markets still makes my stomach turn over.
There’s a scene early on in The Poisonwood Bible when the family first arrives in Africa and the family have to eat something completely gross or offend the locals. You are going to give Kingsolver a run for her money….
The raw meats doesn’t bother me much (I’m the opposite of a germaphobe) it’s much more the taste of…. things.
I’m a bit halfway but I can totally understand your thinking. I was raised vegetarian, never liked red meat anyway and in a language fail in Japan ended up having to eat (at least a part of) a piece of steak out of sheer politeness (taken by Japanese friends to a very fancy restaurant) – I still remember how difficult that was. I have got braver over time (still hate big pieces of meat) but definitely relate!
I think that is the hardest part- not being able to turn down hospitality. So far, Scotland has been okay. I even tried haggis!
Fantastic writing and a great story. Thanks, you have inspired me!
Keep traveling, and keep eating whatever you darn well please! 🙂
Oh I will! I’m a little more adventurous than you when it comes to food, but I’ll take meat and potatoes any day over spiders on a stick!
I love this post and can totally relate as I am also a bit picky when it comes to food – I won’t eat fish, tomatoes, mushrooms, beans of any kind…the list goes on. I prefer a simple salad (lettuce, cucumber, onion and a bit of red pepper) but don’t want it to be drizzled in oil, drowned in mayonnaise or sprinkled with seeds and walnuts.
So, like you, when travelling I exist on a diet of bread, bananas, pringles and laughing cow cheese if I can’t find an Italian restaurant!! It is a bit embarrassing to admit though 🙂
We basically have the exact same list of acceptable and unacceptable foods! I hope someday we cross paths so we can break bread together (white bread, obviously)
Not a surprising post from the girl who’s New Year’s Resolution of 2009 was “to exercise less and eat more Burger King”…
And how many other people can say their achieved their New Year’s Resolutions? hmmmm?
I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still avoid shellfish (other than scallops) as seeing food in the same form it was when alive freaks me out. And while I now eat fish (a development since moving to California), it freaks me out when in stews or curry. I want my fish on its own, preferably in a delicious sauce. That said, oddly enough I was obsessed with the fish amok in Cambodia!
Oddly this trip to Vietnam has been somewhat of a food success for me- I’m a big fan of pho and I’ve even enjoyed eating curry for the first time ever in my life. But I think I might die without ever having enjoyed fish- and I’m just fine with that.
This has made me feel so much better, heading off for two months to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Borneo. Think I’m gonna be sticking to rice bananas and bread too! As it stands there are probably more foods that i don’t eat that do, beans, veg, cheese, milk- actually most dairy strange meats etc…. so hopefully I don’t waste away! 🙂
Do you know if its easy to order things like plain chicken with plain rice or is that pretty much unheard of?
Hi Emma! Don’t worry, it get better! Just this month I found a curry that I like to eat for the first time. I never thought I would type that sentence. But in the meantime, you can definitely order boiled chicken and rice. If you’re feeling adventurous or want to stay on the menu, look for garlic and soy based dishes, they tend to be the most mild! Good luck to you and enjoy the journey!
Hello Alex! Much like other comments, I too am on a SE Asia trip, and was searching for things to eat for a picky eater! I came across this post and I had to comment! I love love love this post as I completely relate! I love traveling, but it drives me crazy when people think travel love and culinary tastes are the same thing! I too, have lived abroad, and I have navigated undesirable spices, but recently have been struggling a little bit with SE Asia. I will definitely try some of the recommendations on this post! I try to remind myself that food is just fuel to give me the energy to go on that week long jungle trek, climb that volcano, or soak up the booze from the cocktails I drink on the beach! I love travel, and I’m so happy to hear there are more of us globe trekker/’*refined palate* people out there! ;D
Thanks for this!
Cassie, you would not believe how much has changed since I first wrote this post! I’m still considered a picky eater by most — I still don’t eat fish or very spicy food. But after so much time in Southeast Asia my palate has opened considerably and often I marvel at the fact that I’m eating things I wouldn’t have touched a few years ago! That said, I stand by everything I said in this post — I can’t stand food bullies and I don’t think food is the key to unlocking a foreign culture.
While I will try pretty much anything (scorpions on a stick, blood tofu, chicken feet), did read somewhere that there are tasters and non-tasters. Basically, if you can handle extreme flavors and spicy food you’re a non-taster. People who are really picky are usually “tasters”. This means that food flavors are just much stronger to them than the average person. So it’s not your fault! I think I’ve also desensitized my tongue. Mexican food used to be my favorite, but after living in China it tastes bland to me!
I have totally read about this taster theory, and I tote it out when people are giving me a hard time! I think I’m definitely a super taster… 🙂
Had to read this after your Miami post. Always wondered what I would do if I found myself facing an uncomfortable food situation… I’ll be taking some pointers from this post for sure haha!
Ha, I really need to write an update to this. Years later I do eat a bit more than white rice and bread but I still do find myself in uncomfortable situations sometimes 🙂
This post has helped me so much. I feel the same way about food. I love adventure but I feel like my food phobias get in the way. I’m going to Thailand soon and I’ve found myself already researching just to make sure I won’t starve to death. It’s really reassuring knowing that I’m not the only one who avoids these things but still wants to explore the world.
Stay tuned, Madison, I have a post with tips for picky eaters coming up soon 🙂
Until recently I was not able to really travel. My travels were mostly to visit friends or family in the US. But now I have more means to start traveling… really traveling but I will admit, being a picky eater has been in the back of my mind. I have always been a picky eater and if it smells bad, I can’t identify it, or it has something in it I don’t like, I simply will not eat it. But reading this post has soothed my mind a little bit. Everyone I know how loves to travel also loves food. I am hard pressed to find fellow picky eaters who want to see the world. And while I knew it would/will not stop me, there was a definite level of fear with the idea of the food I would encounter. So thank you for this post. I am not alone! 🙂
Hey Kimberly, this comment warmed my heart! I truly know how you feel and I promise it gets better. I hope you read the update to this post too — picky eating travel is possible, and kind of naturally, slowly makes you less picky too. It’s a win win!
Just going to slot myself in here amongst my fellow picky eaters! Unlike others I’m getting worse with age. My don’t eat list comes from a variety of reasons though. Eg, gluten, onions and too much dairy upsets my gut. Some things I just don’t like the taste of: mushrooms, avocado, banana, anything slimy etc. And some things just turn my stomach at the thought like pork, lamb, most seafood. Chicken and beef I can sometimes eat, sometimes not. I wish people understood I would rather not be this way. It’s not a choice. Sigh.
I know the feeling Lynda. I’m sorry — and feel grateful I’ve naturally moved in the other direction, because I agree, it’s not a choice. Who would choose something that makes social situations so difficult! Wishing you good luck.