One of the joys, if not the ultimate joy, of travel is food. Eating on your travels offers an insight into the culture, the history and the social constructs of the country or city that you are visiting. The cuisine or the types of food that are eaten in a country is often influenced by previous conquests by foreign invaders (think baguettes in Vietnam), or by historical events that have seen mass emigration to that country (think Greek food in Australia after the second world war).
For many of us, our experience of food on our travels is as simple as a way to refuel after a big night of drinking in Munich or an over-priced and underdone paella at a tourist trap in Valencia. For those who are willing to look below the surface, or in many cases a street or two back from the local port or bus terminal, there are food experiences that will change your life and reshape your perceptions of a country and those who inhabit it.
Munich: The German Pretzel is the perfect accompaniment for beer!
Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks eating my way from the northern mountainous region of Vietnam all the way down to the tropical south. My time in Vietnam saw me eating everything from high-end Asian Fusion to cheap and cheerful streetfood. For those of you who have visited my site before, you will not be at all surprised that my love and passion for streetfood meant that the vast majority of my meals were spent crouching on footpaths or sitting on undersized plastic stools, slurping my way through noodle soup or crunching into hot spring rolls.
While Vietnam is not a large country (remember I am from Australia where an eight-hour drive is considered a short trip up the road), it covers a number of different climates. On my last trip, I saw snow in the northern mountains in and around Sapa, experienced the dry, cool weather of Hanoi in the winter and sweated my way through a week in Saigon and the islands off the southern coast. With these changes in climate come vast differences in the cuisine and food.
The food in the northern parts of the country are influenced by the Chinese who are just over the border. As I was there in the winter, the food that I gravitated towards was warming with a meal often consisting of soup and grilled meat. One of my all-time favourites is Cha Ca (sliced fish grilled over coals) of which there is a street named in its honour in Hanoi. Of an evening, I would wander the streets of Hanoi in search of new street treats with each night introducing me to new and exciting dishes or snacks.
Hanoi, Vietnam: Pork Skewers.
In the south, I would often slurp down a bowl of Pho (traditional noodle soup and Vietnam’s national dish) in the mornings, dive face first into a bowl of Bun Cha (sweet vermicelli noodle soup with pork, pickled vegetables and fish sauce) for lunch and then hunt down some grilled meat and spring rolls of an evening (usually accompanied with a Saigon beer…or three).
Hanoi, Vietnam: Cafe culture Asian Style!
A lot of my friends and family often question my willingness to eat streetfood in South-East Asia and are only too quick to turn around and say “I told you so” on the odd occasion that I do get sick. But for me, the reward of discovering new and exciting dishes and eating with the local people as you watch the world pass you by is second to none. The occasional sore stomach, or worse, is worth it!
After years of traveling to South East Asia, I have come up with a set of guidelines that I live and die by when it comes to eating streetfood. Obviously these guidelines are not guaranteed to save you from the occasional internal eruption or from setting a new 100 metre record as you sprint for the nearest hole in the ground, but they will go a long way to minimising your chances of falling ill.
Rule #1: If the locals are lining up to eat, you should do the same
If you find yourself walking the streets of Bangkok and come upon two restaurants, one empty with a smiling waiter encouraging you to enter, the other full to the brim with noisy locals and more lining up to get in, I strongly recommend that you resist the temptation to sit down at the empty table. Join the back of the que and discover what all the fuss is about! The benefit of a busy restaurant or eatery is that no doubt the food is good but also the turnover of produce is high, minimising the time that fresh meat and other food is sitting out in the open.
Rule #2: Carry wet-wipes
As I do not have children of my own (and therefore do not have wet wipes on hand), this rule was one that I was forced to learn over my years of eating on the road. Wet-wipes are great for wiping down suspect looking utensils, cleaning your hands after eating curry in India or for having a “poor man’s shower” on those overnight bus rides where the chances of a hot shower are as remote as an uncrowded train in India. Side note – a bottle of hand sanitiser is also a must.
Rule #3: Carry your own chopsticks
For hygiene reasons, nothing is more satisfying that eating off your own clean chopsticks. What is not as obvious is that each year in China, over 20 million large trees are cut down for the sole purpose of the production of disposable chopsticks. While this is an industry in itself, it is estimated that one-tenth of this timber is sourced illegally from protected forests. So save the trees man and carry your own chopsticks.
Rule 4#: If a location is known for a particular dish, try it!
Whether it be Cha Ca in Hanoi, Amok in Cambodia, Dim Sum in Hong Kong, Pizza in Naples or a Po’ Boy in New Orleans, I strongly suggest that you order it and take the time to enjoy the food and cuisine for which that country or city is famous. There is nothing more annoying that returning home and someone asks whether you tried the Pho in Saigon, only for you to sheepishly shake your head and change the topic of conversation.
Rule #5: Eat Street
Maybe this should be sitting at the top of my list but nonetheless, streetfood is a must in any location you visit. From grilled pork skewers in Hoi An to Gyros in Athens, you will not find better, or cheaper for that fact, than streetfood! Not only is the food tasty and cheap but you often find yourself with a view and an ability to people watch that 5-star restaurants would kill for.
If I could, I would spend the rest of my days traveling, eating streetfood and writing about it. Nothing excites me more than flying to new locations with the anticipation of gastronomic discovery ahead of me. I encourage you to travel often and eat well. For me, these two things go a long way to finding my ultimate happiness.
Athens, Greece: Gyros (3 a day keeps the doctor away!)
Barcelona, Spain: Jamon.
Tulum, Mexico: Tamale from a street vendor.
Basque Country, Spain: Pintxos bar.
Cliche eating: Bagels and Coffee in NYC.
Paris, France: Pastry heaven!
Basque Country, Spain: Chewing the fat of a Txuleta (Chuleta) with my brother from a Mexican mother.