The further you get from a country, the worse its food tastes. Maybe it’s because the further you get, the less likely you are to have your food cooked by a native cook. Possibly the same fresh regional ingredients are impossible to come by in other parts of the world so the meal could never taste the same. The best place to eat sushi is in Japan, cooked by Japanese chefs with Japanese ingredients. The worst place would be in Brazil, cooked by Brazilian chefs with Brazilian ingredients.
No matter how far I get from England though, I always get that urge. That need. For fish and chips, cornish pasties, apple crumble. English food. No matter how bad I know it’ll taste when I buy it.
Once my friend and I – traveling through North Africa – were desperate for bacon. We were driven to delirium by our hunger. We’d only been away from England for a week. In a few more weeks, we would be back home where we could engorge on as many bacon sandwiches as we could manage. Maybe we could have held back our cravings. Sampled the local dishes, tried the tastiest foreign delicacies. Instead we spent hours, shamelessly searching in vain.
Why did we do it? We were in a wonderful, new place filled with exotic spices and intriguing tastes. Yet all we wanted was the same thing we always ate. A bacon sandwich. A cup of tea.
We searched and searched. All we needed was a restaurant, any restaurant that sold bacon. Our quest proved futile though, North Africa is mostly populated by Muslims. Pork is a big no-no, impossible to find.
Eventually we became so desperate that we found ourselves at our lowest point. Walking into an imitation British Pub.
Why is it that wherever you go in the world, there’s an imitation British pub – which always, ALWAYS looks and feels like no British pub ever would? Union Jacks hanging everywhere. Pictures of the Queen on the wall. Every British stereotype is featured.
Inexplicably there’s usually a red telephone box in the corner of the room, along with various other kitsch souvenirs. For those of you who have never visited England, let me spoil something for you. Those red telephone boxes no longer exist! Possibly because they’ve all been shipped abroad to various “British Pubs.”
Naturally (or unnaturally) this British Pub was run by a fine Egyptian gentlemen, who had probably never even mailed a letter to England, let alone lived there. Regardless, we were pulled in by the promise of bacon. Glorious bacon. Every British Pub in the world serves an English breakfast and this was no exception and there, on the cheap plastic menu, was the word “bacon.” What Englishman could resist?
Anticipation builds. First they bring our tea. English Breakfast tea, of course. But they bring no milk. We have to ask for the milk. What type of so called “British” establishment sells English Breakfast tea but doesn’t hand out milk? It’s not tea without milk, after all. The tea tastes somehow worse, naturally, we’re hundreds of miles away from the motherland. Still, it allows us to momentarily get excited at the prospect of our breakfast.
Soon our plates arrive and we rub our hands together with glee. Yummy. All the key components of a full English breakfast are here. Baked beans. Check. Fried eggs. Check. Mushrooms. Check. Hash browns. Check. Toast. Check. Tomato. Check. Bacon. Ch…Hmmm. Hold on a moment. Is that bacon? It kind of looks like bacon. Streaky, long, crispy.
“Excuse me, sir? Is this bacon?” “Yes, the finest bacon money can buy!” “Phew, for a second there I thought it didn’t look like bacon!” “Oh ho ho. No worries, sir. We serve only the freshest beef bacon to our customers.”
My friend and I looked at each other. Our excitement deflating from us. What type of cruelty is this? Beef bacon? BEEF? Surely bacon can only comes from a pig!? You can’t buy a chicken ham or a lamb gammon. Can you!? With no bacon to soothe us, we swallowed our breakfasts with shame.
Shame. That’s often how I feel when eating Western food in foreign countries. What type of uncultured swine travels half way around the world to eat a hamburger and fries?
Just two days ago, I found myself sneaking into a Korean McDonald’s. In the past year in Korea, I’ve probably been to McDonald’s more often than I had in the 5 years previous. The great thing about a McDonald’s is that no matter where you are in the world it’s exactly the same. A Big Mac is a Big Mac. Bad in any country.
Yet, I still put myself through the torture of eating it, because somewhere deep inside of me I want it. When it all comes down to it, food is only nourishment, but often it can be much more than that. It can open up your mind. Take you back in time, make you feel like you’re in a different place. Like an actual British pub.
Authentic food can be so powerful. Forget the crap on the walls. Focus on the food. Fish and chips doesn’t mean fish and fries. It means fish and CHIPS! Fries are thin cut and crunchy. Chips are thick cut and a little soft. Learn the difference and you’ll make me feel like I’m a child again. Walking over the field next to my house to buy a cone of chips. Slather those chips in vinegar and salt and those smells will transport me back to memories long gone.
Korean food on the other has none of those memories or experiences connected to it. When I am eating Korean food, I may be making new experiences, but I also have to go through the arduous embarrassment of ordering in Korean, finding out what these new foods are and guessing what I might like.
Eating becomes like work. Finding a restaurant that looks inviting. Building up the courage to walk in and speak in another language. The whole process is a challenge. Even choosing what to eat is like Russian roulette. There’s a chance you could find yourself ordering pig rectum without even knowing it.
I’m not saying I dislike Korean food. I eat it every day and enjoy it, but from time to time I give in and all I need is food to comfort me, that is free from challenge or adventure. A hamburger is so easy. So appealing. So boring. You know what you’re getting and there’s nothing more to worry about.
Fail to make it right though. Fail to use the proper ingredients. Give me fries instead of chips. Tea without milk. And you’ll just remind me of who I am, what I’m doing.
Sitting in a cheap restaurant, thousands of miles from home, acting like a stereotypical white person. Eating hamburgers when I could be elsewhere. Eating good, local delicacies that taste better than they would anywhere else in the world.
Photo by Paul Watson.