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What to Do When You Hate the Food
December 31, 1969
It only took one trip to my neighborhood foodstalls to know that I was a complete and total failure of a traveler. After all, hadn't I spent months learning about how Thai food was one of the greatest cuisines on the planet and that anyone with even a minute sense of adventure loved it?
I had prepared myself, almost obsessively, to eat spicy things, to know what ingredients made what dish, and had sampled the fare at any pseudo-Thai restaurants within a fifty mile radius. Yet, here I was, in Thailand, desperately hungry and hating the food.
But...How Can You Hate Thai Food?
How is it possible, you might wonder, that anyone could hate Thai food? Let me give a little explanation. First of all, while I am not a vegetarian, I eat mostly vegetables and have great difficulty eating pork at all after spending simply too much time raising piglets.
Secondly, I committed the obvious failure of thinking that American Thai food would bear some semblance to the 90 baht street fare that I would eventually end up eating every single night. So, while I expected Thailand to be full of beautiful, steaming piles of noodles and vegetables with subtle seasoning and crushed peanuts on top, I found spicy pork balls. Lots of spicy pork balls.
My first week in Thailand was rough. I went from a diet of local garden fare to an attempted diet of squid and pork balls, extremely fishy soup, very spicy everything, and lots of fried eggs. By the end of the week, I wanted to give up, move to the American food court an hour's bus ride away, and eat Lays potato chips whenever I could.
Thankfully, I did no such thing. Although I could still give you a pretty good idea of how to make macaroni and cheese in a wok, I have a few tips that can make hating the food more of an adventure than a continual state of traveler self-hate.
Tips for Enjoying Any Cuisine Anywhere
1. Find your gateway food.
For me, it was the supreme ambrosia that is somtam. Who knew, that in a land of pork balls and peppers, there could be such a perfect harmony of papaya, tomatoes, and fish sauce? I'm betting that it's like this everywhere. Remember that even if cuisines seem to be very homogenous at a first glance, each one has a complex and beautiful culinary history that has allowed for a great variety of dishes.
2. Don't let other travelers make you feel guilty.
Being comfortable with the food is a major part of enjoying a long-term stay in a country and if you spend all of your time trying to eat what you simply can't stand, you'll make yourself miserable. While I think that you should always keep trying, give yourself a break. In between my Thai meals, I often snacked on microwave popcorn and still don't regret it.
3. Learn how to order things in a way that you might like them.
I was a much happier person when I figured out how to ask for a meal to be made without meat or even without cilantro. My Thai friends were super happy to teach me how to say such small phrases, and I never had a problem with a Thai cook being enraged or confused. Meals in Thailand, and many other places, are reasons for enjoyment, not just stress.
4. Give yourself a break.
Totally sick of trying new food? Seek out some familiar food and sate yourself! If you have access to it, eat something familiar. If you don't have access to your local food, try the fruit! Often, cuisines that are difficult to get a taste for happen to be in areas with amazing fruit selections. It's much easier to try and like a new cuisine if you aren't starving yourself silly for it. Living somewhere abroad is stressful enough without forcing yourself to assimilate completely within a matter of weeks.
5. It will get better.
By the end of my stay in Thailand, I was happily eating anything that they could throw at me. I was not, finally, a failed traveler and am rather proud of sticking through it all. Hey, I even learned to enjoy the grubs off of those lovely little insect carts that go around.
Finally, being a traveler is not always natural. This is the beauty of it. Which says more about learning about a culture- loving it immediately or else learning to make yourself a part of it as you go? Somewhere, everybody hates the food or language or any other part of a culture and it's the attempt to get past this that speaks to the true meaning of travel.
Photo courtesy of the author