Anyone who?s travelled has assorted stories of culinary misadventure, from unexpected feasts, to food that suggests a chef brimming with homicidal intent. I?ve had both, and highlights abound.
Beef and Guinness pie in a Belfast pub is one of the simplest, most wholesome dishes on the planet (washed down with several more pints of black Irish gold, just to be polite). A Georgia breakfast, complete with cheese grits, hash browns, and Southern hospitality, is as good a way to start a day? besides waking up between Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson. And there?s a little restaurant in Paris, ?Le Petit Canard?, a Gallic temple to all things duck that blows that big tower thing, and the painting with the cross woman with no eyebrows, out the water as the French capital?s chief attraction.
Backstreet Chinese restaurants in Port Louis in Mauritius, fresh seafood at Sydney?s astonishing fish market, genuine fondue at a Swiss restaurant in the Alps after a hard morning?s skiing ? half the fun of travelling is discovering new food.
Discovering the perfect dish or the hidden gem of a cafe makes for a grand travelling tale ? but it?s the horror stories that are always far more entertaining, even if you don?t appreciate them at the time?
I was on an Air Malawi flight many years ago, where the food tray appeared to have been chewed by a previous passenger. And having tasted the meal, I could fully understand why. Any meal served in a small, disposable box is almost certainly made from exactly the same material as the packaging.
Several airlines I?ve travelled on appear to use dishes as storage facilities for the aircraft?s oil reserves. And there?s something singularly uninspiring about an air hostess beaming at you, and enquiring as to whether you?d prefer the chicken or the beef. Not that telling the difference is always possible.
But of all the eating experiences I?ve had while travelling, two stand out by way of warning to those of you who might be headed in the direction of the destinations in question.
Firstly, never order sushi at Zurich airport late on a Wednesday night. Granted, ordering sushi at an airport is hardly wise in the first place, but jetlag inspires strange decisions, and that was one of them. 10.30pm, in dim light, and accompanied by the warm and slightly flat beer airports around the world specialise in, Zurich International?s take on Japanese cuisine produced a rubbery bit of octopus with the taste and appeal (I?m taking an educated guess here) of a common prophylactic, and a smattering of sashimi boasting the fragrance of three-day old tuna left out in the sun. Tokyo should call off diplomatic relations with the Swiss immediately.
The worst, though, entails a ferry trip from Bintan Island in Indonesia, back to Singapore, after a week of high-end indulgence at Club Med. Tired, slightly hung-over, and wanting to seal my trip with something local and exotic, I wandered off to the ferry canteen, and asked for a recommendation: ?Satay chicken dog?, came the beaming response, which I belatedly realised was the hopeful smile of a man desperate to get rid of his toxic fare.
Fundamental rule of travelling? Never order anything with the word ?dog? in, unless it?s preceded by hot, and you?re in New York. Never order anything when the guy selling it to you recommends a full-strength beer to help wash it down. And never, ever accept a chicken satay dog on an Indonesian ferry that has a greenish tinge, and smells slightly of fish.
I broke all three, choked down my Indonesian delicacy (which had almost certainly been barking a few days earlier), and could still taste it on the flight back to Johannesburg 12 hours later.