Eating Foreign: Travel and Food

It’s been one week since I arrived in Japan. It’s the furthest from home I’ve ever been. Prior to my arrival, I had what you could call a slight existential crisis: I was feeling so scared to travel to a country so foreign, where I do not know a lick of the language, all by myself.

I love traveling, but I felt like I was finally brushing up against my boundaries. My head filled with “what if”s. My anxiety was feeding off of all the unknowns. I didn’t know what to expect, and it scared me.

Now that I’m here, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m steadily falling in love with this culture and the effect it has had on me. My sheer unfamiliarity has also made me reflect quite a bit, particularly in terms of food. (Culture is food and food is culture, after all.)

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Since living in Brazil, my relationship to food has changed considerably. I became a vegetarian when I was thirteen, and remained so up until last year. After a few years in Brazil, I was struggling with the lack of options available to me. But something else shifted, too. I realized how much my vegetarianism was perceived as a sort of privilege, too.

Religion, ethics, dietary restrictions, allergies, and so on intersect heavily with cultural expectations and country resources. Adhering to religious dietary needs is not a privilege, but having access to a plethora of options may seem like one to other cultures. It’s a sensitive, layered idea that cannot be simplified. But in my case, my choice to be vegetarian – while acknowledging my deep, deep ethical commitment to it – was a privilege as an American in a developing country.

Based on my own needs, the resources I had available, and the ways in which my perception was changed by living in Brazil, I decided to adapt. Today, that means I’m willing to eat fish when I’m in a place where other options don’t exist. That’s the line I drew for myself that kept me feeling close to my ethical commitments, while still adapting to the cultural norms in which I found myself.

I hadn’t much noticed this change of perspective until I came to Japan. In the past, I would get very stressed (and hangry) about eating in a foreign culture. Over time, I noticed that something a friend said to me when I was considering eating fish sunk in: “Morality isn’t about purity, it’s about making good choices as much as possible.” (Elizabeth is always right.)

As I explore Japan, and my own limitations around travel and nutrition, here are a few things I’ve learned.

Evaluate how flexible you’re willing to be.

If you have restrictions, for whatever reason that may be, it’s important to take note of how flexible you want to or can be when approaching food in a different culture. If you’re vegetarian by preference, are you okay with having chicken or beef stock as an ingredient in soup? Or is your requirement for religious or allergen reasons?

For a more strict dietary need, set yourself up for success to maintain your limitations. Ask a friend (or Google) to help write out a card explaining your restrictions. Do your research ahead of time. Bring snacks, literally.

Take your time.

I’m a big fan of exploring grocery stores abroad. It’s both a fascinating look into daily life in different parts of the world, as well as a comforting way to find familiar things.

Nevertheless, culture is everywhere. Even the ways in which grocery stores are organized are cultural. (I spent a long time trying to find peanut butter and jam on opposite sides of the store in Brazil. PB&J is not a thing everywhere!)

It also provides you with the opportunity to take your time when looking for what you’d like. I will spend forever in a grocery store checking my options, deciphering ingredients, and making decisions. It may sound silly, but it helps me build more familiarity.

Find staples early on.

On the same note, I always look for staples to rely on when I’m somewhere new. Here in Japan, I found that the FamilyMart in the hotel carries inari – little pockets of fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice. It’s delicious and, as far as I know, vegetarian. I’ve gone back almost every day to pick one up. It helps me when I’m too tired to make a decision and too hungry to wait.

Google Translate is your friend.

While English is, generally, a universal language, that doesn’t mean everyone speaks it. Taking the time to learn a few keywords is always immensely helpful when traveling. Downloading the Google Translate dictionary for the local language is a lifesaver. Using the Google Translate camera, even more so – especially in countries where you don’t even share a common alphabet.

Here in Kobe, we went to a restaurant and relied completely on Google Translate to place our orders. (Plus pictures on the menu.) While the translations aren’t perfect in many cases, they’re much better than none at all. It helps to get a rough idea of what you’re getting.

Combine the familiar and the unfamiliar.

I love to travel. I also love being home. There’s a balance to be found in everything.

It’s taxing to constantly be in translation mode. Suddenly nothing is automatic. You have to be extra alert to everything around you. Language, mannerisms, behavior, food, transportation, and so on all suddenly becomes a new thing.

I try to balance that by combining staples (whether local or items I brought from home) with the adventure of traveling. At lunch, I might go super American and grab something at Starbucks. At dinner, I’ll go to a tiny restaurant filled only with locals.

It allows me to reap the benefits of being somewhere new, without completely burning myself out on culture shock.

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