A Picky Eater Abroad
My squeamishness about food made guilt and hunger a huge part of traveling. So when I went to Bali, I vowed to eat it all.
On my first trip to Asia, I'm sitting at a long table with new friends in Bali, each of us eyeing a single white ceramic cup of black coffee, waiting for someone to take the first sip. Getting to try the coffee, kopi luwak is a big deal, since it's made from the world's most expensive beans and has been a local delicacy since Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch. I'd made a promise to myself to stretch out of my comfort zone, to try foods and drinks I wouldn't experience at home. Reminding myself of that, I reached my hand out for the cup.
Yes, there's coffee at home—especially in my home, the artisanal-roaster mecca of Portland, Oregon—though I find it bitter and only drink it on extremely tired mornings, disguised in gallons of cream and sugar. The more pressing hangup for me, here, is not that this cup is sans those usual palate-easers, but that this coffee is, well, literally poop coffee.
Kopi luwak uses beans that are eaten and then pooped out by civets, which are basically jungle raccoons; this farm has one on display in a cage, reminding us that this slinky, furry beast already enjoyed the stuff we’re about to consume. The claim is that the civet's semi-digestion of the beans before it expels them supposedly lends the resulting coffee a richer flavor. Possibly a poop flavor. In my mouth. My stomach is in knots from even thinking about it, but I remind myself of the promise I made to try everything, reach for it, and take a sip. It tastes like ... coffee, but because to me it's also proof of bravery, it tastes pretty damn good.
The reason I made this resolution before going to Indonesia is that I've ruined far too many trips by being a picky eater. A few years ago, a friend and I went to New Orleans. Both fiends for sweets, our first stop was Cafe du Monde, where we ate two (2) orders of beignets each and staggered out. I didn't know then that I would eat pretty much nothing other than beignets for the rest of the trip, leaving the city with a vow to avoid anything in the donut family for months. That's because I quickly realized I don't eat much other classic New Orleans fare: no jambalaya, gumbo, or étouffée (I don't do seafood), no muffuletta or po boy sandwiches (no meat), no okra (meaty-squeaky texture). When I got home and people asked if I ate my way through New Orleans, known as such a food city, I was too embarrassed to say I'd been hungry the whole time and mostly dined on Kind bars from my purse.
I've been finicky all my life, but not the obvious “white foods” type who won't venture beyond Wonder Bread or McNuggets. Growing up, my mom prepared all kinds of vegetables from our CSA, plus matzo ball soup, falafel with tahini, tikka masala, and tabbouleh salads. I was definitely exposed to a variety of flavors and actually considered myself an adventurous, open-minded eater who loved food. I became a vegetarian in elementary school and kept it up for 15 years, but my food avoidances grew to include anything with a meaty texture: mushrooms, eggplant, cooked peppers, faux-meat products. And then there are the things that just taste bad to me: beets, truffles, IPAs, spicy foods, red wine, Swiss cheese, chili, rice pudding, pistachios, bell peppers, sour cream, fennel, rye bread, cooked carrots, black beans, runny egg yolks, and mayonnaise.
You can see why chef's menus give me hives.
Are you rolling your eyes at me yet? You wouldn’t be the first. I try not to make a big deal about my food dislikes, but a friend once pointed out that I silently make a “no pile” in the corner of my plate to quarantine the offending ingredients. I love traveling to new places, and sometimes I love eating there—I've never been happier than eating every tart, croissant, crêpe, and crisp-soft baguette in France, or downing chunks of stinky feta and creamy tzatziki in Greece. But when a host offers me food that panics me, like octopus in Santorini, I feel terrible for passing, because even if I do so politely, I always feel like the dreaded Rude American. Despite my guilt, I've never been able to mind-over-matter pep talk myself into just eating the stuff. Also, it's even more annoying to waiters abroad than at home when I try to place an amendment-filled, When Harry Met Sally-style order when I don't speak the language.
I spend my dinners in a new place beating myself up because I know I'm missing out on such an important part of experiencing that place. I studied abroad in France and disappointed my professor when I passed on his favorite foie gras. I went to one of Hawaii's best restaurants and sat there with one serving of miso soup and another of self-loathing. I spent a long weekend in Nashville with girlfriends and ate my hundredth biscuit while they chowed down on piles of fried chicken and pulled pork. I spent two weeks in Argentina and when I got back, a coworker asked me about how delicious the famous steaks and red wine were. “Amazing,” I lied. I hadn't tried either.
By the time I booked my trip to Bali, I was fed up with my eating-while-traveling history, and I made a vow: as long as it wasn't meat, I would make myself try it. Yes, some of what I ate will forever be relegated to the “no” pile: bland congee, slimy-crunchy passionfruit, and a traditional dessert made of longan beans and black rice. But some of it I actually loved: gado gado, a peanut-dressed salad; sayur asem, a tamarind and veggie soup; new-to-me fruits like mangosteen, durian, jackfruit, pitaya, and dragonfruit, whose exterior does resemble something from Game of Thrones.
No, I didn't like everything. For example, the poop coffee was not something I will ever drink again. But I was glad I tried to connect more to the culture with food and to push myself beyond, and sometimes way beyond, what I was comfortable with. Plus, I was doing it for myself—leaping off the diving board when I decided to jump, rather than because someone else was yelling at me to go.
I may not eat Anthony Bourdain-level local delicacies when I travel, but with the confidence from surviving, and even enjoying, some new foods in Indonesia, you can bet on my next upcoming trip—to Belgium—I'll at least try dipping my frites in mayo. After all, I can eat Heinz at home.