I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my trips. It’s really a shame, but I am so not adventurous when it comes to the palate. If left to my own devices, I will seek out the nearest McDonald’s or other chain fastfood outlet instead of trying something new.
It started with my family’s trip to Hong Kong. We got around by commuting on the MTR, went to the night markets, and even got lost in dark side alleys, but we never ate Hong Kong cuisine. No noodles, duck feet, dimsum, nothing. We were too scared to set foot inside those innumerable restaurants that supposedly offered huge discounts during the offpeak hours, simply because we couldn’t understand the language the menus were in. Instead, we lived on McDonald’s salads and Fish McDippers (nuggets, only made of fish). The only other restaurants we ate at were the Marco Polo Prince coffee shop because we had free breakfasts there, and the Star Cafe at a mall because we were too tired to hunt down a McDonald’s. Oy.
The embarrassing thing is the same thing almost happened during our trip to Macau. Our first meal at the Venetian Hotel was at the McDonald’s there. Our first meal at Senado Square (which is peppered with food stalls and restaurants) was at a McDonald’s.
McDonald’s: cuisine of the cautious
I’m glad though that we summoned up the courage to try the local cuisine there. Egg tarts from Cafe e Nata, noodle soup from Wong Chi Kei at Senado Square… It helped that Macau presented a more fusion-oriented cuisine and the restaurants that served Macanese food in the tourist areas had English menus.
One thing to be careful of is unknown ingredients, if you have food allergies. I had a beef brisket noodle soup at Wong Chi Kei and noticed that the soup was ladled out onto the other ingredients. It turns out that the soup is made separately, and that it was broth from shrimp (which I am allergic to).
In my experience it’s always better trying new food with both eyes open (meaning having enough knowledge about the food about to be sampled). If you have a friend or guide who is familiar with the territory, allow them to take you food-tripping. But still, be cautious what you eat; always ask if it’s from something poisonous or if people are prone to allergic reactions to it. Then weigh your risks, and take your chances only if you think it’s really going to be worth it. You’re far from home, so it always pays to be careful.
I experienced both the good and bad side of taking my chances with local cuisine when I traveled to Laoag with LAC, I ate some really delicious crispy dinuguan when the owner of Cromwell’s Grill (one of our food sponsors) decided to take us to breakfast at a small carinderia which was one of Laoag City’s hidden food gems. (Oh, damn, now I’m salivating.) Later that day I tried some ant eggs at Balay da Blas without heeding the warning that some people are allergic to it. I wound up in a hospital emergency room getting corticosteroid shots to fend off my massive reaction.
Looking back on Macau and Laoag, it was fun, but it was dangerous. That’s probably it, why I’m so wary of food I’m not familiar with. I mean, you can walk in a dark alley and you still have your hands, fists, pepper spray and what-have-you to defend yourself from marauders. But once you put food into your mouth, you have no defenses against what it can do to your body.
That’s why, if I’m traveling just to see the sights, I might take a packed lunch.