50 Things I Learned Abroad (#50-46 Food)

This post is the first part of a larger collection of the 50 Things I Learned Abroad after a year spent in Europe. Stay tuned for more.

Food is one of the most important and exciting things for me to learn about when I travel so it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that my first edition of Things I Learned Abroad is dedicated to eating:

breadandwine

#50 – I love a long and leisurely lunch, sometimes.  

One of my favorite things (and actually least favorite but I’ll get to that in a minute) about eating in Europe is the eating style, especially when it comes to lunch. Its not uncommon to sit down for an hour or two, drink wine and have a three course meal in the middle of the day which is the opposite of how things are generally done in the US.  Here, we’re usually found scarfing down a PB&J in front of the computer in the time it takes for the next webpage to load. In Spain, Italy and Germany we sat down every day, ate real food and chatted before getting back to work and it helped to make the day, even when when the work was exhausting, much more pleasant. The downside of the luxurious lunch break is when you’re stuck at your workplace across town, just waiting around, because it would take too long to get home and paying to eat out for lunch every day would start to negate the point of working at all.

torrijas

#49 – The quality of eggs in the United States is a national tragedy. 

I’m back the US now and cracked open an egg yesterday to reveal a sad reminder. Something that I never thought of growing up, but have now discovered… egg yolks shouldn’t be pale yellow! Its a symptom of our messed up food system and our out-of-touch-edness with what’s natural but up until living in Spain, I don’t think I ever saw a beautiful bright orange egg yolk, nor did I ever taste an egg at its best. Its not that you can’t find good eggs in the US but you have to be mindful of where they came from and what they ate there (but shouldn’t we always be?). I’ll definitely be buying my eggs from the farmers market until I can raise my own chickens someday.

#48 – The best food isn’t always where you think it is.

We’ve all heard about the amazing food in Spain but I’m here to give you the cold hard truth. The food, in Madrid especially, is usually nothing to write home about. Though I did have some delicious tortillas and a decent paella, nine times out of ten, the tortilla was old and rubbery and the paella, lukewarm and oily. Not the food mecca I’d been promised. Throughout my travels, I found that the best food wasn’t where I expected it to be. In Spain, Salamanca, Mallorca and Sevilla were great spots for food and in Europe in general, Budapest and Krakow were surprisingly delicious. My advice: if you’re a food-obsessed traveler,  a) don’t park it in Madrid and b) don’t listen to anyone’s food advice.

rosquilla

#47 – Tapas are a game that only rarely get you satisfactorily fed.

I’ve written about it before and almost a year later, I still stand by my original sentiment: tapas aint all that. Usually, you’ll get stale bread with something on it (pork, cheese, potato) and even if you get something edible, do not show up for tapas starving or you will leave drunk and still starving if you have any food restrictions/preferences at all since you can rarely choose what you want. I can count on my right hand the number of times I’ve been impressed by a free tapa and sometimes I’m downright flabbergasted at how bad it is. I kid you not: at a very trendy, well-regarded restaurant, the tapa was Wonder Bread with plain cream cheese and the crust cut off. #TapaFail

#46 – There will be foods you’ll miss from home.

Coming from Portland, I’m used to a wide variety of amazing food unmatched in many cities though I’ll admit Berlin is definitely an exception to this. Southern brunch in the morning. Korean tacos for lunch. Deep dish cornmeal pizza for dinner. You usually won’t find this kind of selection abroad (unimportant when travelling but sometimes frustrating as an expat when you simply must have some Pad See Ew). Some ingredients are hard/impossible to find too so if you know you will just die without your almond butter (I’m looking at myself here), bring some for when you get desperate. If your cravings are more of the perishable variety, ask around for substitutes (hint: in Spain, requesón can sometimes resemble cottage cheese, though often its more like ricotta).

DSCF3322

Highlights…

  • Best Meal – Tagine in Marrakesh, Morocco (Perfection on our first night in the country. We could never duplicate that again, even at the same restaurant the following night).
  • Worst Meal – [Tie] Smoked “Turkey Ham” Cutlets in Madrid, Spain (inedible) and Chicken Bastilla in Tangier, Morocco (Why someone decided to wrap chicken, nuts and cinnamon in a pastry shell and cover it with powdered sugar, I’ll never know).
  • Cheapest Food – Poland (A decent meal in a nice restaurant will set you back less than $5).
  • Most Expensive Food – Amsterdam (A crappy snack in a take away shop will set you back about $8).
  • Food Moment that Warmed My Icy Heart – When two nice older ladies next to us at a restaurant in Marrakesh asked if we wanted to try their Croque Monsier sandwich when they caught us eyeing it while trying to decide what to order. When we declined they insisted and cut off a huge piece for us. After having been scammed and hustled in the souks, it was wonderful to have a genuine human interaction without an ulterior motive.
  • Most Amazing View While Eating the Most Amazing Food – [Tie] Rooftop Brunch listening to prayer calls in Meknes, Morocco and Thai Curry in Italy overlooking the Dolomite mountains.

What are your tips for eating abroad? Have you learned anything that surprised you?

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11 responses to “50 Things I Learned Abroad (#50-46 Food)

  1. Wonderful lessons learned and I agree with you about the things you’ll miss from home. Adapting takes time, but there can still be just a little something at meal time that’s missing :-(
    I love the idea of long meals in the company of family/friends. It’s an ancient communal ‘ritual’ that’s dying in so many places. But, I get your point about time constraints.
    I’m headed back to Spain this fall and really, really, really hoping our tapas experiences are good ones. Our first tapas ‘meals’ were great and we were able to choose what we wanted, but, they weren’t free. Maybe that’s the reason…

    • Oh yes, you can definitely get great tapas and raciones if you pay for them! Its the free tapas that come with drinks that are always disappointing. I came to Spain thinking I could get a free dinner with purchase of a few drinks but that is rarely the case.

  2. Hey Alexis,
    You brought back quite a few memories from my sojourn in Europe 15 or so years ago!!
    One of the best meals I ever had was a Whopper in the Oslo train station. I normally never eat fast food, but I think I was sent over the edge by the ubiquity of salmon and seafood. Again, I like salmon and seafood alright, but salmon paste from a tube on your toast every morning?! Aaaagh!!! :-)
    Chris and I got GREAT free food with drinks in Greece. You just sit down and immediately a tray with olives, feta, and pistachios appears… Although, now that I think about it, there was a standard $5 “hospitality” fee tacked onto every bar tab. Didn’t bother us, I guess, ’cause we were too tipsy (watch out for that ouzo!!) and full of those snacks to care!
    Maybe one key to getting decent local food is to go where the locals go — those kiosks on the main shopping streets, the underground hallways of food vendors that line the way into/out of subways, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants in a business districct that cater to the lower-paid employees, and of course any train station will have relatively decent/cheap food. At least, that was my experience…
    And, of course, you could try to ASK a local where to eat! ;-)
    I guess it’s all just part of the excitement of travel, huh?
    Can’t wait to read about your other 45 things you learned!

    • I’ve had that “hospitality fee” get added to the bill too haha. And I thought that bread and cheese was included out of the kindness of their hearts! I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      • OMG! You just reminded of this (in retrospect) hilarious event where, in Vienna, I ended up arguing heatedly (in some decent German, I might add!) about being charged for the rolls that (I thought) “came with” dinner. The waiter asked me if I wanted rolls at the beginning of the meal, and I said yes, but of course he didn’t mention the fee!! When I visited German relatives that had lived in Vienna, I found out that this is a standard thing in Austria — rolls are extra. Who knew?! ;-)
        Live and learn!

      • I had something like that happen too! On our first night in Lisbon, we went to a restaurant where they told us the kitchen was not open yet but asked if we wanted some bread and olives while we waited, we said yes and were totally shocked that it showed up on our bill later haha

  3. You are SO right about tapas being a gamble to whether they´ll fulfill an appetite… and yup, considering that wine is cheaper than food there´s definitely been a few swervey after-lunch adventures. Cool blog!

    • Thanks for reading! I definitely had to “practice” a lot ordering tapas and wine haha. By the end of the night, you get a little less picky about the tapas!

  4. Pingback: 50 Things I Learned Abroad (#45-41 Drinking) | never leave here·

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