This is a guest post from Annika Ziehen, who I first met on the Maharajas Express in India. Although born in Germany, she’s traveled and lived all over the world. You can find her at The Midnight Blue Elephant.
I have always loved food and not just in a ‘give me all the gummi bears and pizza’ kind of way. Though I am really partial to good gummi bears and pizza.
Even as a child I instinctively knew that food and travel went well together. I knew that an 8-hour car trip to the Netherlands was worth it because the French Fries with mayonnaise we would eat on the beach, holding single fries into the wind to cool them down, were simply better than any fries I could ever eat at home.
As was the sepia-tinted paella in Mallorca and the Wiener Schnitzel in Austria while England lived up to its cliche of being a culinary wasteland, scaring me and scarring me for life by serving salt and vinegar chips with dinner.
My childhood games evolved around other cultures. I was not simply a princess, I was an Indian princess, and I didn’t build regular forts I build African huts because one of my games was called, very politically incorrect yet enthusiastic – A woman in Africa.
Of course, this woman in Africa had to make African food aka mud cakes which I made and pretend devoured with relish. Saturday mornings I would sneak into the kitchen and microwave tiny pieces of salami and cheese for my Barbies as they were on a trip through Italy and needed a great pizza.
Needless to say, my love for food and my love for travel ultimately came together, sometimes colliding, sometimes collaborating. I eat to travel since food takes me around the world on the tip of my tongue and of course, I travel to eat as well.
I dare say I am no Anthony Bourdain but I approach my trips and where I eat with an open mind and a sometimes truffle pig like determination. I will try anything once. Except for snake and shark. Snakes scare me too much, even dead on a plate, and I like sharks too much.
Over the years I have eaten delicacies such as cow brain, lamb’s tongue, crickets, durian, jellyfish, a thousand-year-old egg, tripe, blood tofu, a tarantula leg and probably a lot more unidentifiable ingredients I am glad to not know or remember.
Luckily there were a few real truffles as well. I didn’t like all of these things but didn’t terribly mind them either. I like culinary adventures but ultimately taste tops the dare. If it’s not yummy I won’t eat it again and I definitely won’t pay a fortune for it.
Over time I have come to realize that I do pick travel destinations based on their cuisine. Or rather – there are certain countries that don’t interest me one bit because I don’t care for their flavor profile. I will admit that is a slippery slope because so often places surprise me and I might miss out on something truly great.
Not to mention, there is always some reader who gets very offended when I state I don’t want to go THERE because I don’t care for the food. THERE always has actually great food and how dare I am to insult food I have never tasted?! And if I end up going THERE and dare to mention that I was right and the food wasn’t impressive, the comments get even worse.
To those people I just want to say: I don’t even like the food in my home country, Germany, and if it wasn’t my home country I probably wouldn’t want to travel here and also – I am sorry, you are probably right, I am an idiot and will miss out on some great dishes but one needs to start prioritizing somehow where to go next and so I have to judge the pizza by its pizzabox at times.
Mind you, this I can deal with as I appreciate a passion for food. What I don’t get is a complete disinterest in what you eat. These people who view food as just sustenance baffle me. Yes, I am looking at you, dear ex-boyfriend who wanted to have breakfast at McDonald’s when we went to Rome! And he is not the only one.
Sure everybody has to eat, everybody has a few favorite dishes but generally, a lot of people travel through life and this world without planning their day or their itinerary based around meal times. This confuses me to no end. I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying I can’t be friends with people like this but the notion that food isn’t more than sustenance is utterly weird to me. What kind of person are you?
Chances are if you are one of those people you won’t be reading this in any case. After all, this blog is all about food. But maybe you are a person in transition, in foodie limbo so to speak. Maybe food and pushing culinary borders hasn’t played a big part in your life so far, depending on your upbringing or the cuisine you were surrounded with growing up.
Maybe you have allergies or intolerances or anything that will throw a real spanner in the delicious debauchery. Maybe the food you have known and eaten so far just wasn’t all that exciting.
Believe me, I hear you. Thanks to my parents I was always interested in different kinds of food and they spared me from an eternal knuckle of pork hell but I get that not everyone is so lucky.
But maybe now you are traveling or planning a trip and just maybe you are curious about what to eat in this foreign place. Whether you want to or not this might be the time to not only push the borders of your general comfort zone but also your culinary one. I hope you do.
Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, India, Greece (the list is quite endless, to be honest) will truly reveal themselves to the open-minded traveler and eater on a plate. Food is culture and since you need to eat in any case you may as well do it right.
While most people are happy to try something new when traveling, it seems to be a whole different ballgame when traveling alone. This dinner for one seems to be a dealbreaker when it comes to solo travel for many, something that came as quite a surprise to me.
When preparing to write my first book about solo travel I did a little unofficial survey amongst friends, family, and anybody who crossed my path at the right time: do you travel alone and if not, why? What is keeping you and what are your concerns? An overwhelming amount answered that they didn’t want to eat on their own.
This answer was quite surprising to me. I never really minded eating on my own whether it was a cozy TV dinner on my couch, a dinner at a fancy restaurant or at a local market in a foreign city.
Eating to me is always a pleasure and one I cannot imagine foregoing just because I am on my own. In order to help especially first-time solo travelers, I put together some tips to make a dinner for one on the road not only bearable but enjoyable.
1. Nobody puts Baby in a corner!
You can and should practice your self-confidence when you travel solo and that also applies to eating out on your own. Don’t let a waiter or a host put you at a crappy table close to the toilet or the kitchen just because you are dining alone.
Have a clear idea of where you want to sit: a quiet corner so you can read your book, by the window so you can people watch or maybe at a communal table that makes it easy to start a conversation with another diner. Whatever you are in the mood for, ask for it and turn the waiter into your confidant rather than an intimidating opponent.
Be friendly and confident and make the staff your friend for the night and you will have the time of your life.
2. When in doubt…
When in doubt sit at the bar. Bars are great for solo travelers because they are the easiest place in the house to get in touch with other guests. Mostly solo diners sit at the bar so making friends over starters is easy. If you happen to be the only one there is always the bartender for a friendly chat.
3. Come prepared
In this day and age, most restaurants offer wifi – hurrah! Unlike dining with someone, you can have free reign over your phone during a solo dinner. Alternatively bring a book, a magazine or practice your time improving your language skills. The latter is especially great because you can put it straight to the test when ordering your food.
4. Alternate Dining
If the idea of sitting at a restaurant is too intimidating, start with some alternate dining options in your destinations. Food markets are a great opportunity to gain an inside into a country’s culture and of course, to eat. The great thing about markets and street food in general – it is fast and you will never eat alone. You either eat standing up or sharing tables with other diners, either way, you won’t really be tempted to linger.
Another great way to eat and make friends at the same time are cooking classes or food tours. You will not only get some insider knowledge about a country’s cuisine but also make friends amongst locals and other travelers.
Keen for more stories and tips about why I eat and more importantly why I travel by myself? My book Solo Trip – Me, Myself & The World is now available for Kindle on Amazon or for other e-readers in my shop here.