Note from Leo: Jodi Ettenberg, author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook: How to Find Cheap, Safe and Delicious Food Anywhere in the World is a friend of mine, an amazing person, an accomplished world traveler. A former lawyer, she writes about the stories behind the foods we eat on her site, Legal Nomads. She gets the shakes if she goes too long without sticky rice.
And now I’ll turn it over to Jodi!
In the middle of a visit to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, I found myself sitting on the floor of a temple kitchen, chopsticks in hand. The others in my group, a haphazard mix of people from my tiny guesthouse, were long gone. I wondered if they would realize I was missing, but I didn’t really care. I was too busy staring at the woman in front of me, an older lady with cropped gray hair and very few teeth. On our visit to this temple, a woman’s shelter in the middle of Cai Rang, we took a shortcut through the kitchen to get to the next section of the building. Everyone walked through without stopping. I took one look at the bubbling pots of vegetarian food, the bustle of women chopping and moving and stirring, and I crouched down to ask what was going on.
Lunch, it turned out, was going on. And the women making it, ranging from 15 to 75 years old, were beside themselves with mirth that I wanted to get in on the fun.
The idea of quiet is one Leo has addressed thoughtfully on this site, and a concept that differs depending on where we are in this world. When not at home, how do we remain mindful and carve out a quiet space even as noise and newness whir around us? For me, the answer is through food.
In a guest post in 2010, Jules Clancy discussed mindfulness while eating, talking about routines and awareness during mealtimes. From a different angle, I wanted to address food as a tool to connect to a place and its people, grounding us all in the process.
1. During pre-trip research, learn not just about the history of a place but also about the stories behind the foods you will eat. I often use the example of ketchup, formerly a Fujianese fermented fish sauce that has morphed into the sweet condiment we know (and some of us love) today. Each of the table condiments, spices and dishes has taken form over the years. What better way to learn and be present in what is “now” than by examining how we got here? It is also a really effective way to get kids interested in food. Other examples include how tomatoes came to Italy and how the chili came to India. In each of these cases, we can all deepen appreciation of a place, its customs and its foods in tracing the roots of one specific food.
- Food and Think blog from Smithsonian Magazine
- Edible Geography by Nicola Twilley
- Politics of the Plate by Barry Eastabrook
- Food Politics by Marion Nestle
- Grist Food
2. Use food etiquette rules as a springboard for understanding culture. Reading about a place is no substitute for being there and watching life unfold, and table manners are no exception. The resources below are starting points but the real fun comes in observing from the ground level. I’ve found myself truly appreciating all the little things that go into mealtimes by paying close attention to the traditions each country abides by as it eats. In Thailand, for example, I learned that one should eat off a plate that has been stacked on another, as that ritual is reserved for memorializing the dead. In Indonesia, I was reminded to eat with my right hand (tough for a lefty!), stemming from traditions of bathroom ablutions and which hand is cleaner for use during mealtimes. While not required when visiting a new place, adhering to some of these traditions indicates some prior research, and often has resulted in an impromptu invite to join a family table or two.
- International Dining Etiquette, divided by country
- Cultural etiquette around the world from eDiplomat
3. Go to markets at dawn with a pen, a paper and no camera. I love Instagram and memorializing my meals through photos, but one of the first things I do in a new country is head to the dawn food markets with a pen and a paper, and nothing more. The first thoughts that come to you as you explore that initial sensory overload are the ones that stay with you, and having them scribbled down on paper entrenches them into your mind that much more. With kids, I often suggest crayons and a notebook too – it has been fascinating to watch their colorful take on a morning market scene. A bonus to return to later on, once you are more accustomed to your destination, these initial thoughts and notes serve to remind you of the simple pleasures of watchfulness.
4. Pick the street stalls with women and children in line. Observation is part of what makes travel fun, and mealtimes are an ideal opportunity to look around and learn. When choosing your street stalls, I suggest picking ones with women and children in line, as those will often be the safer options from a food poisoning angle. Families eating at a crowded stall > just taxi drivers eating at a crowded stall, especially for a foreign (visiting) stomach. I would also caution against eating at a stall where the person preparing the food is also touching money – picking a stall with two people (one for payment, one for preparation) might be better for your stomach.
5. Appreciate the foods you eat and the condiments that flavor them. This is a simple but important point. Travel helps us keep our lives in perspective, both by showing us what we are lucky to have and by juxtaposing different histories and customs over our own. Those of us who can afford to travel usually do take time to appreciate it (I hope!). Food has become the prism for that appreciation in my travels. In observing at how communities supplement ingredients with condiments, make use of whatever they have available, and bring families to the table; we can practice thankfulness in our own routines, even when returning home.
6. Stop to ask questions about why people use food ingredients and how. While not directly contributing to mindful eating, stopping to talk to people about the ingredients they use is a natural extension of the other advice in this post. In most countries around the world, taking that extra step to offer your curiosity can lead to a shared meal, a wedding invite or a chance to try home cooking in a family setting. By showing that you care about the food that binds, you not only connect yourself to your setting but you connect people to you.
In the case of that Mekong meal, I learned that some Vietnamese people practice vegetarianism that is linked to the lunar calendar, eating vegetarian food on the 1st and 15th days of each lunar month. They usually visit a temple first, and as a result many temples will prepare vegetarian feasts on those days. Sitting on the floor of the kitchen, I watched the women mix tapioca flour with tofu, frying the wisps until crispy, and preside over a huge cauldron bubbling with herbs and spices.
And then, I was asked to join in for lunch.
When people ask me how I use food as a tool when I travel, I cite stories like these, examples where stopping to appreciate an ingredient, a method or a tradition has snowballed into a wonderful learning experience. It takes only a few extra minutes of your time but the rewards are internalized and magnified on an infinite scale.
Find more from Jodi Ettenberg at her blog, Legal Nomads, and in her book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook: How to Find Cheap, Safe and Delicious Food Anywhere in the World.