on June 14, 2015
The mixture of tomatoes and potatoes and spices from Amrita’s metal tin filled the kitchen with an exotic scent, so different from the one that wafted through the house whenever I cooked my simple soups and sauces. She removed the pot from the stove and announced that the curry – our first meal together in our brief time as housemates in Dublin – was ready, before spooning heaps of it onto plates along with sticky basmati rice.
I can’t recall who got the forks and knives, but regardless, Amrita refused. Back home in India, we usually eat with our hands, she told us with a smile, clearly accustomed to the surprise that was written on our faces. I began to eat, forkful by forkful, all the while watching in awe as my new housemate gracefully gathered the curry in her right hand fingers and fed herself, bite by bite, until her plate was entirely clean.
I had frequented Indian restaurants in the U.S. before, but I had never sat down for a meal with anyone from India, I realized. Still, that evening, Amrita shared much more than just food; she gave me a glimpse into her culture, showing me first-hand what Indian chef Julie Sahni explained to The New York Times in 2012: “Eating with the hands evokes great emotion. It kindles something very warm and gentle and caressing. Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon.”
Even in the most ordinary occurrences, food and the experiences we have with it can teach us about the world around us, just like Amrita’s dinner did for me. During my time living in Ireland, the “Love Irish Food” banners that hung in supermarkets helped me understand the public’s desire to support the local economy and their belief that local food equals quality food. And on a trip to Sicily last year, plates of fresh seafood served as a reminder of the region’s fishing traditions, while bowls of couscous were a culinary history lesson, a nod to the North African and Arab inhabitants who left their mark on the island centuries ago.
For travelers in particular, eating can be educational; yet, a recent article published by Yahoo encourages people to stay away from unfamiliar – and in some cases, familiar – tastes, all because of what the author deems as risky. Titled “Beware of Traveler’s Belly: What Not to Eat Around the World if You Want to Stay Healthy,” the article preys on people’s fear of the unknown. It makes wide-sweeping generalizations with few distinctions among places, despite the fact that there are nearly 200 countries in the world, and no doubt many more regional cultures and cuisines.
For example, the author declares lettuce and strawberries off limits because they’re served raw and “[grow] at ground level.” While these may pose risks in certain regions, climates or situations, the rule probably shouldn’t apply in Wépion, Belgium, which was recently featured in The New York Times for its production of top-quality strawberries. And personally, I always advise friends traveling to Ireland in the summer to look out for Wexford strawberries. The ruby red fruit is juicy and sweet, a dessert made by Mother Nature rather than a pastry chef.
Fresh berries, from Ireland, Belgium or elsewhere, pair beautifully with a scoop of ice cream – but unfortunately, that’s also on Yahoo’s do-not-eat list. Sorbet is a safer alternative, says one doctor quoted in the article, because it’s acidic and thus less likely to house bacteria. While this may be true, I have no plans of visiting Ireland in the future and walking by Murphy’s without stopping in for a couple scoops of brown bread or sea salt or gin-infused ice cream, which captures the country’s traditions and landscape as if it were wine or olive oil.
While Yahoo’s writer advises against ice cream abroad, she makes no mention of the domestic risk or the fact that food poisoning happens at home too; earlier this year two American brands recalled their mass-produced ice cream products because of listeria contamination. Maybe the writer’s left this out simply because the focus is on how unpleasant it is to be sick when you’re miles away from home and can’t curl up in your own bed. But, I think the extreme caution advised of overseas travelers suggests in some way that foreign health care is not up to par and should be avoided.
So, let me tell you about that time I had awful, head-in-the-toilet-for-hours food poisoning as a student in Madrid. The culprit was a seemingly innocuous chicken sandwich served at a tourist trap disguised as a restaurant. It was unpleasant, yes, but I survived. I went to the local hospital, where, free of charge, qualified and competent doctors administered fluids before sending me home to take it easy and stay off the jamón for a few days.
Imagine, though, how much I would have missed out on – and how much less I would have learned about Spain and its traditions – if the fear and judgment expressed in Yahoo’s article had been my guiding principles during those four months. I probably wouldn’t have eaten slices of the tasty cured ham leg that sat on my host family’s kitchen counter, and I certainly wouldn’t have tasted traditional seafood paella, almost always presented with whole prawns, eyes included. But I’m glad I did.
I’m also glad I didn’t rush to judge Amrita’s manner of eating as unhygienic or impolite, but rather watched and listened and learned. That is what travel publications should really encourage us to do: ask questions and arm ourselves with information before dismissing something as too different or too risky or too whatever; when it comes to food, find out about ingredients and preparation methods; try new things; be curious and open-minded and unafraid to take a step out of your comfort zone, physical or mental, even if it’s just a baby step.
After all, as a teacher once told me, you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone, and in my opinion there’s really no point in traveling the world if, through food or other experiences, you aren’t willing to learn a thing or two along the way.