I’ve said a million times that food is arguably the most important aspect of the travel experience, and I think with good reason. It’s the one thing we all do – eat – and what we eat many times flavors (pun intended) our impression of the destination. It’s also the fastest way to learn more about the local culture and her people; the traditions evident through every bite we take. The memories formed around food are also amongst the strongest and most vivid. Years after we forget the museums or statues, we still remember the smells and flavors of what we eat. That being said, there are certain countries around the world that have a horrible reputation when it comes to food. I’ve found this to be unfair though, a factor more of the food decisions we make rather than something endemic to entire nations. So I thought I’d take a closer look at a few much maligned foodie stereotypes and try to debunk their unsavory reputations. (See what I did there?)
Note: I asked my social media followers for their thoughts, so the counties represented below come directly as a result of a public poll. A thoroughly unscientific one of course.
It shouldn’t surprise me to see my own country at the top of this list, but it does. Those who call the US home understand best our complex and delicious culinary history, but visitors to our fair land don’t see the same landscape. Instead they opt to believe often-repeated stereotypes, many of which are completely baseless. That’s a recurring theme actually and something I’ve found throughout my travels. We all have stereotypes about every place we visit, and this extends to the food culture as well. So most times we seek out those dishes that are the most iconic, even though they may not be the best bites.
Portion control is something I hear a lot about, complaints from all over the world about how big our plates are. While you can certainly find large portions around the country, we aren’t alone in this phenomenon. I’ve been amazed at the size of many dishes around the world, proving that a large meal is not an American invention. In addition to complaints about quantity is the quality and I blame the visitors for this. Instead of seeking out beautifully prepared regional specialties made with local ingredients, they seek out the stereotypes. Hamburgers and doughnuts and any number of heavy, bad for you meals. Sure, we make the best burgers in the world, but American food is about much more than “heaven on earth with an onion slice.”
Instead when you visit the US, be sure to match the regions you visit. It may be heavy, but in the South please do try BBQ obtained from a small shack, preferably one without a sign. Aside from that stereotype, the South is also home to some of the most innovative chefs in the nation, preparing intricately prepared meals with an expert touch. Portion size isn’t a concern at these fine establishments. But more than anything, when you visit the US please look at the country with a fresh set of eyes. If all you expect is heavy foods served in huge quantities, then that is all you will find. Instead look beyond those misconceptions and you’ll find the real heart and soul of modern American cuisine.
I actually think that the UK received slightly more votes than the US when all was said and done, clearly the world doesn’t think food is a British strength. Where does this misconception come from? Once again, it’s rooted in the cultural stereotypes that have been shared time and time again throughout the years. Fish and chips, mushy peas, fried anything and an oddly high percentage of ingredients folded into pies all create the illusion of a cuisine that is bland, unhealthy and slightly disgusting. You know what? If you travel to the UK and seek out these dishes, you will find them. They are definitely popular but I don’t think demonstrate the full width and breadth of English cuisine. One only has to look at what that most popular food in the country is – curry. Yes, the spicy curry has beat out fish and chips and SpagBol as the go-to meal for British subjects and it’s an exemplar of the rest of their cuisine. Robust immigration over the decades has had all kinds of repercussions in Britain, but especially in the food world. Spices and flavors unheard of not too long ago are now an important aspect of the food culture.
To learn more about both classic and modern British food tastes, take the Eating London food tour. This 4-hour walking tour around London’s eclectic East End will show you the best places to find a fish and chips, but also the best curries, sandwiches and more contemporary food. It’s a great way to understand the history that has in turn influenced the food and will give you a much greater appreciation for both.
Hang on a second
At this point I think I’m going to stop with the country list. Originally I was going to write about a few countries, describe why they have a bad reputation and then refute that reputation. But I think I’ve stumbled on to the reason why so many people have bad food experiences overseas. For the most part, there are exceptions to this and every rule, we travel to fulfill our stereotypical vision of what a country should look like. In Germany I want to see lederhosen, pretzels and giant steins of beer and in France I have to scale the Eiffel Tower while wearing a beret and eating a chocolate croissant. For the most part travel stereotypes are fine, and I’ve argued in the past that we need them, but not necessarily when it comes to food.
Like the culture it reflects, a country’s culinary landscape is always changing and while there are certain staples to be found everywhere, dishes synonymous with a culture or nation, they are not reflective of the width and breadth of what is offered. So if you go to London for 24 hours and all you eat are fish and chips and pasties then yes, you will have a bad impression of English food. But that’s your fault, not London’s. You’re the one who didn’t take the time to research food options or to even look around once you were there. You wanted to fulfill a stereotype and then you complained about it once you were done.
So the next time you travel be sure to look beyond the cliche. Sure, grab that pretzel in Bavaria (they’re so good) but also hop up to Berlin and experiment with the vibrant food scene or train over to Hamburg for fish prepared with an expert hand. No matter where you go be sure to seek out unique aspects of the food culture with the same fervor you would a new museum or famous landmark.
For the record, the other countries nominated for having the worst food were: Germany, Russia, Chile, Australia, China and the Netherlands.