As a frequent traveler, one of the biggest issues I deal with is what I eat. I am a very picky eater; a confirmed carnivore, my love of vegetables is weak at best and most notably, I don’t eat any fish or seafood. My fellow Americans may wonder why I phrase it that way and the reason is simple. I was on a trip once and I had sent along my dietary requirement of No Seafood. Now, to an American that usually includes anything that was ever in the water, ever. Possible exceptions would include ducks or if a cow fell into a lake or something. But when translated, seafood in most other languages means fruits de mer, or delicacies like oysters, clams and so on. Fish is actually an entirely different category for them, as I have sadly realized over the years. This post though isn’t to debate why I don’t like waterborne foods, I just don’t. No, the point of this post is to share how even I, a very picky eater has managed to travel to some of the most seafood-centric spots on the planet and not only survive, but thrive.
This was my greatest challenge, one that I didn’t expect either. I spent nearly two weeks exploring Taiwan, starting in the high-energy capital city of Taipei. Like any other world capital, Taipei has everything on offer and eating there was a highlight of my time in the country. As soon as I left the city to venture out into the countryside though, everything suddenly got a lot harder for me. As it turns out, a large percentage of the average diet is based on fish, seafood and vegetables – the three things I don’t eat. Each meal was a challenge honestly and I found myself relying on 7-11s for snacks and even sustenance. Hotel dinners were my only reprieve and while I was out exploring during the day, it was very hard to find anything I could eat. There were special culinary moments though, most notably when I found what would become one of my favorite meals, Peking duck. I was a little apprehensive at first, but almost immediately I realized that this would be a meal I wouldn’t soon forget. No one was as surprised as I was that in a country known for vegetables and seafood that I would find one of my favorite meals of all time, but that’s exactly what happened. I let go my misconceptions about the meal and decided to try it anyway and that is perhaps one of the best food-related decisions I’ve ever made.
The countries of Scandinavia are amongst my most favorite in the world, and I find myself planning personal vacations there whenever I can. The combination of incredible natural landscapes, nice but not overly effusive people and the unique cultures all mesh with my own personality perfectly, making each trip fun and memorable. There is one aspect though that never excites me, the food. Logically, fish plays a central role in the culinary side of visiting Scandinavia, whether in obvious ways like herring, or less obvious as in the many seafood-oriented ingredients piled high on Smørrebrød. In theory, this sounds like a dish I would like. It’s usually just a piece of buttered rye bread on which toppings are layered. Cheeses are fine, cold cuts are ok and I can pick around the vegetables, but most of the time those toppings are hiding something much more nefarious – pieces of fish or seafood. Because of this I almost always skip them, but to my surprise I discovered many other foods to love while on a food tour in Stockholm.
Of the several tours offered, I opted for the Nordic Experience walk so that I could learn more about the very traditional side to Swedish cuisine. I’d traveled in Sweden before, but my foodie knowledge of the country was very limited, a deficiency in my education that was quickly corrected. From meats and cheeses to traditional Swedish meatballs, we tried a little bit of everything that afternoon. Of course my favorite Swedish food custom is Fika, that time in the afternoon when you sit down with coffee, some cake or sweets and catch up with friends. It’s a tradition that I wish more countries would adopt and is yet another reason to fall in love not just with Stockholm, but Sweden itself.
I honestly expected to have a harder time in Japan than I did. Famous for their love of anything plucked from the sea, the land-based delicacies of Japan I don’t think get enough attention. Chicken is found in any number of dishes, as is their famous steak too of course. No, the biggest challenge wasn’t the food per se, it was how to get the food that was at times difficult. The Japanese language is daunting for most Westerners. Everything, from the sounds to the characters used is completely and utterly foreign. I may not speak Italian, but when confronted with a menu in Rome I can generally figure out what I want. Even in Croatia it really wasn’t an issue. But I had no point of reference in Japan and was at first completely and utterly lost; until I found the restaurant display windows. Taking fake food to an art form, these picture windows were my savior. Once I found something that looked decent, I took a photo of it and then went inside where I showed it to my waitress. It wasn’t the ideal way to order food, but it worked and I enjoyed every meal.
For most people the idea of spending a week on a tropical island sounds like paradise. For me, it’s with a little dread thrown in due entirely to the food and in Tahiti that means poisson cru. Common throughout Polynesia, poisson cru at its base is raw fish that is briefly marinated in lemon or lime juice. It’s then mixed with coconut milk and diced vegetables and, no offense to anyone, sounds terrible in every way possible. I knew that there would be alternatives, but I hate visiting places where the iconic meals are seafood because I feel like I’m missing out on something. Luckily, my first experience in the South Pacific was with the cruise company Windstar, and I couldn’t have been in more capable hands. The ship was small and the crew so focused on customer care that it felt like my own private charter around the islands. Staff quickly realized my non-pescatarian ways and did everything they could to make sure every meal was special, from daily meals to the big beach party near the end of the trip.
Any Coastal Spot
I politely interrupted my server and quietly mentioned the fact that I don’t eat fish or seafood and immediately her eyes went wide as she said, “Oh, no need to run through the specials then.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in this situation, which always happen when I visit a new coastal destination. Part of me feels bad, locals are always so excited to share their watery treats with me, but I always disappoint them. The Canadian Maritimes were very disappointed with me, as have been spots in Florida, California and Maine. Ultimately though, it’s never a problem for very long as a recent trip to Myrtle Beach proves. Myrtle Beach is particularly well known for its many great seafood restaurants and this time, instead of avoiding them, I embraced them. Wicked Tuna may not be my normal type of restaurant, but I quickly learned that they excel in all types of food and not just fish. Located in Murrell’s Inlet, they have their own fishing boats and as soon as they’re on the docks, they’re prepared and sent up to the kitchens. You literally can’t get fresher than that, but as it turns out their land based dishes are just as amazing. Whether it was the homemade hummus or the incredible beef filet, I left with a new outlook on how to approach so-called seafood restaurants.
My family is from Maine originally, and I remember spending summers visiting my grandparents where the big event was driving down to the coast for some fresh lobster. Those days were full of dread, as I sat there on the docks eating my cheeseburger while everyone else ravaged their large crustaceans. No, I’ve never been a lover of fish or seafood, although I’ve tried them many times, but that culinary peculiarity has never stopped me from traveling. Far from it, today I’m curious to see what other dishes are popular in seafood-focused destinations, foods and customs that don’t get as much attention as their watery cousins.