5 tips to avoid meal disasters abroad

Tackling comic and not-so-comic menu language barriers…

In most countries, where English is not the primary language, deciding on a meal venue can become a chore, or even an embarrassing experience. In good humour, my uncle recently narrated a tale of how he once sheepishly pecked at his eggplant dish in Israel, having mistaken it for an egg dish. I could relate to it very well…we have had our share of several such incidents too.

In Geneva, I remember us staring disappointedly at a pair of pint-sized bitter-black caffeine espresso shots…we had expected cups of vintage Indian style frothy goodness. That was probably our first wake-up call. Never take any word for granted while travelling…the word may not mind, but you may!

food disaster1
Not the espresso we had in our mind…

The coffee fiasco experience repeated itself in Madrid many years later, with a macabre twist. After ordering cold coffees and seeing cappuccinos on the counter, when we pointed out the server’s mistake, she deposited a glass filled with ice cubes in front of us. What is that? How does that even pass off as a possible solution to rectify the error? I discovered much later that the Spanish actually have a name for this strange concoction (Café con Hielo). You actually take a cup of coffee (black or white) and a glass filled with ice cubes, add the sugar in the hot coffee, let it melt, pour the cup over the glass of ice and drink it fast! Ooops! My bad.

Somewhere in Split, Croatia, I almost jumped out of my chair when I saw a whole fish for the first time (complete with rude, staring eyes, scaly fins and tail dangling from the plate). Till then, only neat fish fillets were acceptable to me. Well, there’s always a first time. You learn and you adapt. Food is a big part of one’s educative expedition. Thankfully, no exams, no scores and certainly no report card.

bistros
Hmm??

Like most Indian non-vegetarians, our palate is adjusted to accept largely chicken, mutton, lamb, some pork and limited seafood. It is certainly important for us to seek out a dining place that offer at least two dishes of these, if not more. And that’s why we end up scanning more than a dozen restaurants for each meal, whenever we vacation abroad. Now we know that veal is not seafood and steak is always beef, never chicken…but guesswork is not comic when you’re starving or exhausted from walking the streets.

Many trials and tribulations later, we have realised that authentic meals are rarely to be found in restaurants with translated menus…the more the number pages for each language, the farther you need to run from this tourist trap. If you see pictures of the dishes on the menu, don’t even bother to try reading. If you’re looking to savour true flavours, local dishes and typical ambience, pick a place hidden away in a quiet back alley, away from the thronging squares and the busy shopping streets. Go where the locals go, not the tourists. Not easy. But you want a fabulous meal, don’t you?

food disaster2-1
Looking full, must be good? Not necessarily. Pretty standard fare…

Here’s where basic knowledge of the local language comes in handy. While planning our third trip to France, I devoted half an hour a day (not too much, but good enough) to learning French on Duolingo app, which came in highly recommended by my nephew Sarthak. We even tracked our scores and in a playful sort of one-upmanship, to spur each other’s progress. My motive was not so much to prepare for tete-a-tete with handsome French guys, but to decipher foreign gibberish on cafe menus! It was empowering to be equipped with basic translations of common ingredients, different kinds of meat and seafood, even egg, vegetables and popular dishes. A strangely feeling of elevation accompanied me whenever I declared proudly, “Cafe Noire means black coffee” or “That’s French onion soup…see, Soupe A l’Oignon”.

I’m not going to lie. I don’t go to such lengths to equip myself linguistically before every trip. Not that its tough…usually, I’m just plain lazy. For those times, here’s a list of tips we use to side-step food disasters. It is in descending order of difficulty level.

  1. Before you go, scour the web for a list of local specialties and dishes. Depending on how experimental you are, sample as many as you can. If nothing else, just concentrate on the desserts…completely safe to bite into (no chance of tentacled sea-creatures floating in there)!
  2. While in the host country, use the internet to translate menus in your spare time. Strong recommendation: take pictures of restaurant menus for your primary data. Yeah, I know, hard work. It pays…specially if you’re too shy to ask another human. (Though, you won’t be breaking any law or tradition, if you do ask)
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask the maitre d’hotel for recommendations. You’re not local so there’s no need to pretend to be! And when he explains, for God’s sake, LISTEN, and ask for clarifications. You won’t have the opportunity to raise your hand in the class a second time. Trials are not sanctioned in restaurants anywhere across the world, not even in food courts.
  4. Stick with familiar dishes…can’t go wrong with staples like grilled fish or chicken, and pasta is always a fallback.
  5. When nothing else is an option, and you’re desperate for a decent meal, chant the foolproof magic mantra… “An English menu, please!” Always works. Like…well, magic.
food disaster4-1
Happy meals, everyone!
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32 thoughts on “5 tips to avoid meal disasters abroad

  1. Fully agree about the menu with multiple languages and cuisines. It’s really difficult to find good local food, and yes, a search on the internet does help a lot. Leave alone abroad, even in places like Goa, it’s so damn difficult to find a good authentic local taste.

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  2. It’s not easy when there is a language barrier. I know in some places in Asia like Japan it is rare to find an English menu, you have to just go off the pictures. I got tricked by this a couple times. My fallback would be to go to McDonalds!

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  3. I’ve been living in Chengdu, China for the past couple of weeks and my first few days I lived almost exclusively off noodles because of the communication problems. Totally agree that sussing out the names of a few of the local dishes before hand is a really important step and once I did so, my diet became infinitely more varied. Even if I can’t be bothered learning too much of the language, I always equip myself with the translation of something like “Whatever you recommend” and, with only a few exceptions, I’ve never been disappointed.

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  4. Totally agree with you, Punita 🙂 Happened to me a number of times too. Right now, I’m based in Korea. That happens every day. I downloaded this app (Speak & Translate) — works quite well so far. And I learn basis stuffs from another app called Memrise.

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  5. oh I can relate to this so much; I am not peaky with food generally but with everything that is meat or fish related.. and depending on where you are, grease, knobs, bones .. that’s just normal; for me more a reason to not to be able to eat at all.. I usually order something vegetarian or as you mentioned something “bullet proof” .. you can’t do much wrong with fried rice until you’re getting more confident with local food

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  6. I have another tip! I suffer from stupid food allergies and having an allergic reaction abroad is THE WORST. Make a list of all the foods you are allergic to, then translate that into the language of where you’re traveling so you can 1) spot them on the menu faster, or 2) tell the server to avoid those foods. Happy travels!

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  7. Interesting post! I don’t have any funny stories regarding ordering food that happened to me at my travels, or I don’t remember them. But I have to say, that there has been few disappointments when I ordered something I thought I knew what it was, but it was different from what I imagined in my head. When there is no common language, it always helps if the menu has pictures in it.

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  8. A lot of the time, if there is nothing written in English and no one speaks it, we point to something else someone is eating and hold up 1 or 2 fingers depending on how much of the food we want…. if there is no food available to look at we will just gesture that we would like to purchase a meal and wait to see what we get. It is actually a lot of fun!

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      1. We are lucky to be able to eat anything, although by body doesn’t like MSG. Hubby eats everything even the disgusting insides yuk! I draw the line at heart and brains etc!

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  9. Food does become an issue to be tackled and surmounted when traveling abroad. This is heightened specially if you happen to be a vegetarian, which was the case when were in Europe. We survived on veg pizzas and french fries in Italy .

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  10. Some great tips there. I have so far been lucky when it comes to meal disasters because I tend to follow some of the rules you mentioned especially asking what is it that I am ordering. Many places now, to help tourists, have started keeping photos of the food or mock-dishes. However as you pointed out, the “real” places are those that have their menu in the regional language and are more about being authentic and local than to just attract the tourists.

    As for the espresso story, my parents went through that when they first started travelling in the 70s and thats primarily because espresso in India till recently was what Cappuccino is in the West.

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  11. Learn the local names for dishes or ingredients you DON’T want to try. Then leave everything else as an option. I’ve tried amazing foods I would never try otherwise. I also have gotten dishes that scared the hell out of me…but left me with some great stories. Win-win either way.

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