Travels with your taste buds
I WAS sitting in a restaurant in Urumqi, in northern China, enjoying the spicy food smells from the kitchen, when a plaintive Australian voice quavered across the room, "I want steak, eggs and chips."
A fellow Australia explained gently that, this being a fairly remote part of China where there aren't a lot of westerners, the food tended to be Chinese, and that didn't usually include steak, eggs and chips.
"But I'm sick of eating Chinese," the poor fellow said. "I want real food."
"If you don't like Chinese food," someone else asked, "why did you come here?"
"But I do like Chinese food," he replied. "I like Australian Chinese."
I mention this incident because I'm constantly amazed at how many people go to foreign places but want to eat the same food they have at home.
Personally, I've always thought the chance to experience different foods is one of the best reasons to travel.
Sure, you can get some unpleasant surprises. I still feel disappointment at the memory of tracking down a great steaming bowl of picoroco - otherwise known as the giant southern barnacle - at Santiago's amazing Central Fish Market, only to find it was like eating sandy rubber.
I smiled happily, chewed with determination, and decided I wouldn't be ordering it again.
But if you try the local food, you'll also get some fantastic taste experiences.
I still drool at the memory of curried fish in Agra, goose liver in Budapest, chilli chicken in Kashgar, borsch on the trans-Siberian, hot dumplings on a cold day on the shores of Tian Chi lake, lamb kebabs with vodka at Ala-Archa National Park, pork pies in Yorkshire, crayfish mornay in Tonga, duck liver slice stuffed with apricots and garnished with red onion jam, red wine jelly, green beans, hazelnuts and whipped cream in Autun ... I could go on and on.
If you can't bring yourself to eat the local food, you probably shouldn't travel outside those places where western food - or local food sanitised for western palates - is available. Otherwise you're liable to make yourself, and any companions, very unhappy.
After a few weeks travelling through China the poor chap who craved steak, eggs and chips was getting quite miserable at the absence of what he regarded as a decent meal and made it clear that "I can't wait to get home and have a decent feed".
Unfortunately, to make matters worse, quite a few others in our group seemingly couldn't tolerate anything the faintest bit spicy either - this in a region where spice is the soul of cooking - and so, as we moved north, our food got more and more insipid as our guide responded to their complaints by telling the cooks to hold the chilli.
By the end - even though I enjoyed their company - I couldn't help thinking it would have been better for everyone if the bland brigade had stayed at home, holidayed on the Gold Coast or stuck to places that have hotels from one of those American chains which serve steak, eggs and chips the world over.