Entertaining, insightful and ever-inquisitive, Peter Cox writes about his experiences during 40 years of travel around the world, personally and professionally and at the end of a fruitful career with The Yachts of Seabourn. In place of my voice here this week on Deck Plans, please enjoy Peter’s look back as he charts a new course ahead. Congratulations Peter!
Travel, especially the exploration type that I prefer, is undeniably one of the best and most exciting ways to learn about the ever changing world and the diverse people that populate it. Being open to sharing food with the locals may not always be comfortable or to the liking of one’s taste buds – or occasionally one’s stomach – but it is always interesting and, more importantly, it facilitates bonding with one’s hosts and inevitably deepens the relationship as it is effective in bridging any cultural divide.
My mother taught me from childhood in Holland that we kids had to taste everything, even if the appearance or smell was unfamiliar or unappealing, and that discipline has stayed with me till today. During more than 40 years of traveling the world, professionally and privately, from the bush in Africa to the outback of Australia, from Antarctica to the high Arctic and from Japan to Indonesia I have been privileged to “break bread” with a great many local people whose custom to extend hospitality to “strangers” far outshines that of our “western world” and routinely involved sharing their meals.
When I’m on a research trip for the Yachts of Seabourn or other companies I worked at before or when traveling for pleasure I routinely seek or ask to experience local foods rather than be taken to “western-style” restaurants or eat in hotels.
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People, certainly in tribal lands that have not yet been affected by the global spread of fast food tend to get their proteins from what their surroundings provide. In West Africa I have been treated to grubs that thrived under tree bark, grasshoppers that tend to destroy their crops or equally plentiful termites. Amazingly, the taste of such foods, boiled or fried is generally rather bland and could do with some spicing up. Of course, they generally don’t have access to spices either.
Whether in appearance or texture it would have been hard to guess the origins of a snake or dog dish in China from a more familiar stewed eel or chicken dish. A local bear-paw delicacy served in Kamchatka could have been some other kind of game.
It’s a little different with roasted seahorses on a stick, along with a variety of less recognizable delicacies, available nightly from food stalls near fashionable Wangfujing Street in downtown Beijing. It is not so much their flavor as the cooking smell that one has to overcome.
Whether taste, smell and appearance are considered delicious or unpleasant is highly subjective and mostly based on experience. Leaving origin and cultural prejudice aside – after all food in all its variety shares the same organic building blocks – I can’t think of any of my “exotic” experiences that top for “weird” appearance, taste or smell some of the cherished foods in our own western world. What with the texture and taste of lutefisk – so popular during the year-end holidays in Norway or the sight and texture of oysters, deliciously fresh from their banks, or the smell of a ripe Limburger from Belgium or a Morbier cheese from France?
My most recent memorable food experience, and arguably the most peculiar one was last year on an inspection trip for Seabourn in South Korea where I was taken to a restaurant in Mokpo where live long-legged octopus are the specialty. With the thin metal chop sticks used in Korea I had fought before with live but chopped-up octopus tentacles that seem to desperately cling to one’s plate, struggling to let go. Here we each had a whole live octopus, freshly harvested from the muddy banks in the bay, swimming in a basin. A sturdy waitress put a wooden stick in the basin, an octopus wraps its arms around it while, like a hungry bird chick the diner throws back his head and opens wide. She then strips the whole octopus body to the end of the stick and pops it into one’s mouth. The sensation is more remarkable than the taste. Without a thought one starts chewing frantically to swallow the octopus whose natural tendency it is to cling to palate and cheeks. Definitely a memorable experience, but not sufficiently tasty to be repeated. Needless to say, few, if any of such experiences find their way on an excursion menu for our guests.
Apart from the food experience it often is equally interesting to learn about the ways people eat and the “rules of engagement.” My early experiences go back to the 60s while hitchhiking across North Africa. Invited to share a huge platter of couscous at a rich man’s home outside Marrakech with a group of other men – women and children eat separately – my fingers, too sensitive to dig into hot food and too inexperienced to pry off a piece of the roasted chickens that topped the couscous – one eats strictly with the right hand only – my elderly host noticed my problem and, without hesitation, pried off a choice piece of chicken and popped it with his bony hand straight into my mouth. This was repeated a number of times. Often tribal meals are taken together with others and everyone eats from the same dishes with fingers, spoon, chopsticks or whatever utensils are customary. Of course I’ve had my share of upset stomachs but they were generally caused by pre-cooked and then insufficiently re-heated meals in urban settings rather than simple but freshly prepared food served up by local people in a family setting.
It goes without saying that I’ve had many other, non food-related travel experiences, many of which I would not or simply could not be repeated as the world changes as fast as McDonalds can open new fast food restaurants and isolated tribes jump straight from the “tam tam” age into the digital world of satellite-fed internet and phone communication. Sailing around the world in the 1970s when sending cables was the only available form of communication, and the radio officer used Morse code to sign his messages inevitably caused occasional surprises upon arrival at the destination.
Traveling in Indonesia in the 1970s, using local transportation and staying with families before rural areas had electricity, visiting remote islands in the Banda Sea with rich shamanistic rituals, receiving an “honorary member” necklace from stone-jumping warriors in Nias off the Coast of Sumatra, singing drinking songs with Russians in Leningrad at the height of the cold war or traversing China by train in the late 70s soon after Mao’s death, in search of suitable ports and interesting experiences for the first year-round Far East cruise operation have all left cherished memories. — Peter Cox.
From Ralph Grizzle: I couldn’t agree more with Peter. Nearly two decades ago, I had the pleasure of dining with the locals while in Australia’s Outback. Things that I never would have imagined went into my mouth and into the stomach. See Australian Outback Buffet: Garnish The Grubs, Pass The Maggots Please