Bun and Beards

Hairy waiters and other global food experiences

Words: Lee Tulloch

It’s easy to spot a food trend when you travel the world.

Currently it’s  ‘farm to table.’ I have no problems with this. I think it’s a very good practice. But I am so sick of being told about it by perky waiters introducing the menu or in manifestos you need to wade through before you get to the food choices. I understand the restaurants are proud of this and work hard to bring their customers ethically sourced food, but I’m looking forward to the day when this doesn’t need to be trumpeted, so prevalent is it.

I don’t think I’ve eaten in a restaurant lately that isn’t farm to table, unless I consider New York’s bagel carts (rabbi to table?) or the International House of Pancakes in Harlem (heart attack to table?)  In the past few weeks, I’ve eaten farm to table in Hawaii and Rhode Island and in Brooklyn, New York, where, it seems, your meal is always delivered to the table by young men sporting beards and buns (the hair type). We have these same waiters in the inner city of Sydney, where I live. Which only goes to show what a small place the world is.

Global trends aside, the food of other nations is a major reason why many of us travel, because it’s our taste in food that defines the differences in our cultures. This statement may seem blindingly obvious, but consider this complaint to the travel agency Thomas Cook from one of its American customers: “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

In a less sophisticated age, Australian travellers may have been suspicious of foreign food and opted for the fried eggs rather than the gado gado. But these days, as a travelling nation, most of us are veritable Anthony Bourdains, willing to get down, if not-quite-dirty, with street food and other local delicacies. You become aware of this if you’re ever in a group with other nationalities, many of whom tend to cling to their homegrown comfort foods, even in the face of scrumptious tagines, phos or ceviches.

 “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

It’s irksome to be constantly directed to tourist restaurants where food is served in bain marie, the logic being that the local food may be upsetting to delicate Western stomachs. This happened to me in India, where I happily snuck away from the group, ate street food and wasn’t sick. But the moment I partook of the dreaded bain marie I came down with dysentery, along with my fellow travellers.

That was a memorable food experience for all the wrong reasons. But I’ve had hundreds of good ones.  Most recently, I was a guest at a 27-course banquet at the Acqua Panna estate in Tuscany. Every dish was a mouth-watering sensation, but I have to say there are probably only so many 27-course meals you need in your life. Apart from that, my most memorable meal has been the fresh fish sandwich I devoured last year at a little waterside shack called The Moorings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  There are lots of reasons to go back to the Cook Islands and that sandwich is one of them.

Many of my friends plan their restaurant meals and make their bookings before they travel. I’m a bit more laissez-faire. In fact, I’m less interested in restaurants than in food markets and supermarkets. There, you brush shoulders with the locals going about everyday things. And what is stocked on supermarket shelves can tell you a lot about a culture.

Earlier in the year I was in Stockholm and fascinated by the shelves stacked with huge rounds of crispbreads, of many different kinds. Do you think I can find a single Swedish-style crispbread in my local Coles? Similarly, I am always amazed by how many kinds of decorative sugar they have in Tokyo and how many types of sugary cereal they have in New York. The way New Yorkers require several bags, paper and plastic, and a wad of napkins for every sandwich sold is telling about their priorities, as is the way the Japanese wrap even perishable food with phenomenal artistry.

What I like most, in the end, is that you can’t get this at home. There’d be little need to travel otherwise.




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