Like many Canadians, I filled up the fridge before Family Day, a bank holiday in Ontario. In my basket, bananas, bok choy, oatmeal, tapioca pudding, Siracha sauce, a can of bamboo shoots, butternut squash soup, hummus, cream cheese and tofu.
As I was waiting at the cash register, I realized that these products I had adopted at one point or another in my life were fairly new to me—I didn’t grow up with any of them.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Nantes wasn’t exactly at the forefront of world cuisine. At home, we ate “modern” French food—pasta-, rice- or semolina-based dishes with plenty of veggies, seafood, the occasional frozen pizza, croque-monsieurs, crêpes, tartines, salads, etc. The basic condiments were salt, pepper, basil, tomato sauce and olive oil.
I was eight or nine the first time I had foreign food: a spring roll my friend’s mother bought at a stall during a summer festival. I love it. In my teens, I often had Chinese food, even more so when I first started to study Mandarin. However, it wasn’t the same food as you would find in China—it was more like French food with a Chinese twist.
My culinary journey started when I left Nantes. In Asia, Latin America or North America, I discovered staple food and dishes that were completely new to me.
Here is my advice to start a culinary adventure, at home or abroad.
Be prepared for locals to give you strange looks
“¿Qué es natilla?” I asked the convenience store clerk one evening, in Tulum, Mexico. I usually bought “flan” as my daily dairy fix, but I was curious about this other… something, sold in jar, like yogurts and lácteos. “Es… natilla,” he replied, clearly puzzled. I was confused, because I remembered that in Costa Rica, “natilla” is sour cream, served with eggs at breakfast. Turned out that in Mexico, “natilla” is a dessert like crème anglaise or custard.
I had a similar moment recently in Buenos Aires, at a pizza joint. I noticed many customers eating buying fainá, a kind of flatbread displayed in the window. So, naturally, I asked the dreaded question: “¿Qué es fainá?” This time, I was simply handed a piece of it. I tasted it, liked it. Later, I looked it up and discovered that it’s a peppery flatbread made with garbanzo bean (chickpea) flour.
In Uruguay and Argentina, waiters also seemed surprised when I asked what parisienne or Caruso sauce was—I later realized these were pretty standard pasta sauce, much like Bolognese in North America or carbonara in Europe.
Locals may find your questions strange or puzzling—don’t worry about it. After all, how would you react if someone asked you what French fries were?
Ask simple questions
Since I realized the point above, I try to ask simple questions to help me figure out what the mystery food is. “Is it sweet or savoury?” “Is it ready to eat or do I have to cook it?” “Is it eaten hot or cold?” “Is it cooked or raw?” “Spicy or not?”
You can also ask what the food is made of. Generally, people will give you a straightforward answer, they know you aren’t interested (yet) in the complete recipe but want to know whether it’s meat (and which one), fish or veggies, etc.
Learn and express your likes and dislikes
There are very few things I really don’t want to eat, but insects are one of them. I’m also not a big fan of offal, so I learned to spot and avoid these foods in meals. For instance, in Argentina, I never ordered morcilla, and in China I screened menus for the character虫 and its variants (meaning “insect”).
If you are vegetarian or don’t eat something for religious or personal reasons, say it. I don’t usually crave meat and I had many great dishes without it, just by asking.
Explore supermarkets and markets
Grocery stores are a great way to solve translation issues and enjoy these “ah-AH!” moments. There may be foods or words you see all the time on menus, now is your chance to see the packages, pictures and maybe the actual product.
Bonus: you may be able to taste new stuff!
Do taste the local specialty or national dish
Every country has a signature food, informal or official. Gallo pinto in Nicaragua and Costa Rica; burritos, tacos or fajitas in Mexico; parrilla in Argentina; chivito in Uruguay; fish and chips in the UK; a good burger in the US; pastries in France (and crêpes in Brittany!); nasi goreng in Malaysia; curries or pad thai in Thailand; jiaozi in Northern China; dim sum in Hong Kong…
These common local foods are worth trying because they are usually done very well. I found food pretty “meh” in Australia in general, but I have a great memory of a traditional Aussie BBQ on Christmas Day. And even if I’m not a carnivore, I must admit the occasional parrilla was a treat. Hell, even Feng eats some cheese in France!
Enjoy local international cuisine
I discovered Indian food in Perth, Australia—the many Indian immigrants brought their flavourful cuisine with them and eating curry or poppadum in this part of the country is pretty standard. In Beijing and in North China, you can have awesome Korean food, including burning-hot bulgogi and Bibimbap. In Quebec, French food is fairly easy to find, while in Chile locals respect Peruvian fares. In Ottawa, people are addicted to Phở —I don’t think I would have gotten to know Vietnamese cuisine if half of Chinatown wasn’t in fact “Little Saigon”!
Feels like drooling in front of your computer? Check out the articles tagged “food” for snapshots!