Asia / Europe / Food / Travel

A Global Gumbo: Ethnic Food Adventures

Helsinki Cook

It was a cool day in Helsinki, and the atmosphere was casual at the open-air market. But this food vendor was intensely serious. Her restaurant may have canvas walls, but obviously, she understands the best way to sell food. There was nothing on her carefully arranged grill that wasn’t eye candy, and the fresh, grilled salmon proved to taste as excellent as it looked.

For most international travelers, a primary motivation for globe trotting is to experience new cultures. And unique foods are the cultural spice that make travel fun.

But, it’s not just the food … it’s the adventure as well.

Bali Sate

A small restaurant near our hotel in Ubud, Bali served this wonderful meal of chicken satay, curried vegetables, steamed rice, and prawn crackers. The food was tasty, but it was only part of the experience. Covered by a deep thatch-roof porch, our table sat inches above a lush green rice paddy. During lunch, a drenching, violent rainstorm blew across the paddy. On this day we ate with all five senses.

Stringhoppers

Our B&B in Ella, Sri Lanka introduced us to tea plantations and string hoppers. These oddly named, crepe-like bread bowls are filled with yummy vegetarian concoctions. This day’s breakfast menu was curried lentils, coconut sambal, and onion chutney, which provided a great kick-start to the day. We sat on a large outdoor terrace overlooking a gravel road into the village and the town recreation field. This breakfast view provided an endless stream of workmen, crisply-uniformed school children, wandering cows, and a marvelous tuk-tuk lesson.

Falafel in Amman, Jordan

And the Hashem Restaurant in Amman, Jordan demonstrated that food doesn’t have to be complex to be delicious. This internationally famous hole-in-the-wall serves some of the finest falafel and hummus that we’ve had. Restaurant staff hustle through like well-oiled machines, as food pops out of the kitchen at an amazing pace. The people watching is top-notch, as well-dressed businessmen rub elbows with workmen, college students, young families, and a few intrepid travelers. Rumor has it that the Jordanian Royal Family drops by periodically.

Stuffed Lemongrass

Deep fried, chicken-stuffed lemongrass was a speciality at a small, riverside cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos. The traffic-free street, peaceful river view, and parade of aspiring Buddhist Monks kept us entertained between courses.

Cappuccino

These McDonald’s Cappuccinos from Sarajevo, Bosnia hardly qualify as “ethnic food,” but they bring to mind an interesting and sometimes funny food discussion in the RTW travel community. Namely, is it OK, or definitely NOT OK to eat American fast food while overseas. The forum discussions are humorous because some respondents get quite passionate, and opinions are a pendulum swing.

As for us, McDonalds serves two primary functions abroad: a clean, reliable place to pee … and free wifi. Both of these benefits are a traveler’s friend, and for this, we don’t mind the periodic cappo.

Happy Trails,
James

42 thoughts on “A Global Gumbo: Ethnic Food Adventures

  1. My study abroad classmates and I were always told not to eat the food sold on the street- but that was often the very best stuff! What I wouldn’t do now to get my hands on the sopaipillas (fried dough rounds) sold at the university metro stop…the best after school snack ever!
    And regarding McDonald’s- my host dad always told me to find a McDonald’s if I ever got lost. I could use the WiFi and play my gringa card to get help!

    • As you know Gaby, like most things when traveling abroad, common sense goes a long way. There are places where the street food is wonderful and safe (Bangkok comes to mind), and there are places where you’re taking a risk. On our last RTW, we ate street food for 6 months, and neither of us had any problems. Our rule is: if a place doesn’t look sanitary, it probably isn’t. And the other thing to look for is a long queue of locals. If the locals think the food is good, it probably is. And I agree about the sopaipillas. I haven’t had one in ages, but I could certainly go for one right now. Thanks for the comment. ~James

  2. McDonalds is a global curse. I am always disappointed when I come across the golden arches. One time in Bodrum in Turkey I saw a group of young people going crazy trying to get directions to McDonalds – they must have needed an urgent hamburger fix, but on the way they bypassed all of that traditional kebab restaurants where the food was several thousand times better!

    • I’m with you Andrew. I’d never trade a good kebab for a Big Mac. And not only is the local food better, it’s considerably cheaper as well. But from the crowds of locals that I see in McDonalds, I’d say it’s here to stay. ~James

    • This restaurant was in the middle of the old part of Amman, just down the street from our hotel. We don’t remember seeing a hotel Peggy, but you know how it is in these old areas. Hotels are down alleyways, up stairs, etc. Anyway, we always like hearing a good travel story. ~James

      • The Hashem Hotel I’m thinking of had its restaurant in the basement. I arrived at the hotel with a German shepherd dog and a Burmese cat (another story) and the chef insisted that I bring the dog to the restaurant. What?! A dog in a restaurant?! But the fellow insisted so I went upstairs and fetched Bella. By the time I returned, there was a platter of meat and rice on the floor for her. That dog was a real star in the Middle East—even had her own chair in a long-gone bar in Beirut.

      • Peggy, that doesn’t sound like the same restaurant we went to. It could be that Hashem is the Jordanian equivalent of Smith. And your dog tale is interesting and it makes me curious. When we lived in Sudan, the Muslims there absolutely despised dogs. They would go out of their way to be cruel to them. Maybe it was just a Sudanese thing, and I never really got a good answer as to why they felt that way. Have you seen this type of cruelty in your travels? ~James

      • I’ve not often seen outright cruelty to dogs in my travels. But rabies is such a widespread problem in so many countries that I can understand why dogs would be looked at with suspicion.

    • It’s funny how food memories are linked to travel. There are many countries that I’ve visited and have zero food memories. And then there are some countries which are nothing but food memories. BTW, I absolutely love your business concept, and the titles on your posts are wonderful. ~James

      • We do our best to make sure we have good food memories of all countries we visit but sometimes it’s hard. You’re right that some meals at odd places along the way can be the most memorable – one of ours was on a cargo ship with Turkish sailors – so simple and fresh and delicious. Thanks for your compliments 😉

  3. What a delicious post! Most of my travels have been in the USA. While the foods aren’t as exotic as it is in other countries, I always like to try some local favorites. I would never have known that I like fried okra, crawfish or Boston baked beans if I hadn’t been willing to try local foods.

    • I must admit that these photos do look very appetizing Laura. When we travel and have a good meal, we always try and get a photo (for a future post of course). But the people around us always look at us a bit strangely. They’re probably thinking: “You came half-way around the world, and you’re taking photos of a plate of noodles?” ~James

  4. Sounds as if you were in good company — a mix of locals — and finding lots of exciting food adventures along the way. We, too, focus on food whenever we travel — after all, you might as well make an adventure out of everything. You might not get back. (And McDonald’s IS a good place to relieve yourself!!)

    • Yep Rusha, Mickey D’s is strictly utilitarian for us, but any port in a storm I always say. I still dream about the wonderful food we had in Sri Lanka. We found a tiny roadside stall that made roti. There were two picnic tables with benches, and the kitchen was a grill about 5 feet away. I really enjoyed watching the cook, and I think he enjoyed the attention, because he gave us a few free samples of other wonderful dishes. Just talking about it makes me glad dinner time will be here soon. ~James

  5. James one of the things I love best about going to other countries is the rich experience of learning about the food and enjoying the same. As much as possible we like to eat locally but as someone seems to be frequently waving my tablet in search of the magical Wifi goddess, I can see the attraction to the big M. 🙂

    • Sue, we always search out the best, inexpensive local restaurants, and try some street food as well. And because we usually rent apartments, we try and cook some local dishes. It’s great fun to go to the supermarket and find some pre-packaged sauces, and add meat and veg. On our recent trip to Budapest we found a goulash sauce concentrate that came in a tube, and it was delicious. If we could have gotten it through security, I would have brought at least 10 tubes home. ~James

      • James it sounds like through your years of traveling you and Terri really have the eating figured out. I love the idea of the tubes of goulash sauce strapped to your arms and legs. Now there would have been a story! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment Jessie, and for dropping by the blog. The stuffed lemon grass tasted as delicious as it looked. The chef at this small restaurant in Luang Prabang had some creative items on an unusual menu. It was tasty and inexpensive as well – the perfect combination for budget travelers. BTW, you have a very impressive resume of travel posts on your blog. I look forward to checking some of them out. ~James

  6. I didn’t finish reading because I got hungry and went to the kitchen…

    …that grill on the top photo is epic.

    I agree about what you say about the simple food in Amman. I love Middle Eastern cuisine because it is simple yet filling, spicy and memorable. Thanks for taking us in this food journey.

    • You’re so right Suzanne. Local cooks use local ingredients, and this is what makes so many ethnic foods interesting. For instance: I love coconut, and in Sri Lanka they use it in so many of their dishes. And most are savory rather than sweet, which is wonderful. ~James

  7. James, I love that line about “eating with all 5 senses.” Perhaps eating forces me to stop & reflect, or perhaps it’s just by virtue of being in a new environment, but so many of my international meals seem to have this feeling… eating with all the senses! Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks Miranda. Sorry for the long delay in answering your comment. We try to answer all comments, but as you know from your blog, sometimes things just slip through the cracks. Anyway, this meal in Ubud was incredible. It was one of those “sum of the parts” moments. Great food, wonderful surroundings, the thunderstorm, and as always having a private, special experience with my love. Meals don’t get much better than this. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We’ve been to Bali twice, and loved it each time. In fact, when we get back to that part of the world, I’m sure that we’ll return. ~James

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