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#218 Making the best of Local Food

May 26, 2014

Pretending to love fried bugs is so ’90s backpacker. And anyway, no matter how good you think you are, local people can usually tell when you’re faking it.

Fortunately today’s well-adjusted Expat Aid Worker has made peace with the reality that some local food will really only ever appeal to, you know, local people. Old fish. Sorghum with green, mucus-like sauce. Gristly goat swimming in oil. And for those late-adopter EAWs with something to prove, the search for culinary authenticity ends, more often than not, with the realization that pre-packaged, mass-produced food isn’t so bad after all. As Chris Rock once said, it’s not red meat that kills you; it’s green meat. 
As a corollary – local, more authentic food (defined as what everyone else is eating) isn’t necessarily better, much less more healthy, especially if everyone else tends to be incredibly poor. 
That said, sometimes it’s necessary to eat avec les autres, as it were. Perhaps the EAW is on the road, and don’t have any other options. Perhaps she or he has been offered a meal in circumstances that make it impossible to say no. (For instance, when there’s an audience). Or, worst of all, the EAW needs to establish/consolidate field cred to someone visiting from HQ, whose expectations of life in the field were shaped primarily by the blogs or Facebook posts of other EAW’s. 
Yes, pretty much anyone can claim to love local food. The real skill lies in surviving where what few options there are leave a lot to be desired by discerning EAW standards. 
[As a quick rule of thumb for those considering the leap to ‘the field’: if you’re in an area where different cultures have been interacting, fighting, and generally sloshing around for centuries, chances are the food is relatively decent. Which generally means the coasts. The further inland you go, the greater the chance that the local culture has been spent centuries perfecting various ways to eat sorghum. (Thus the tendency to facipulate those life-saving workshops in places like Bali, Istanbul, or Rome: amazing coffee breaks and team dinners.)]
For those intrepid EAWs who make it out of the well-lit conference rooms in the humanitarian capitals, a few survival tips:
1.     If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything. 
2.     Assuming that you’re eating by choice as opposed to necessity, the key is to consume as little as possible while being as polite as possible. The same rules apply as when you were eight – eat slowly, take small bites, and keep moving the food around your plate.
3.     Cheap gin or whiskey is an excellent way to cut the taste, and also erase all memories of the experience.
4.     If neither cheap gin nor whiskey is available, a Coke chaser will do in a pinch. Pepsi, Sprite, or other soft drinks also work, but they are never as readily accessible as Coke, whose billboards you will see in every country you’ll ever visit.
5.     Hot sauce – added liberally – makes almost anything more palatable. Or at least obscures any unpleasant (albeit authentic) tastes and flavors.
6.     You will get sick drinking local water. You will never get sick drinking bottled water, soda or beer. That said, it’s up to you to judge the short-term benefits and long term costs of a subsisting on soda and beer. (That expat fifteen-pound gain being, on the whole, quite similar to the fifteen pounds you gained your first term in university.)
7.     Biscuits in their original package might taste like a mixture of chemicals and sawdust, but they’ll never make you sick.
8.     Only eat fish if there’s actually an ocean, sea, river or lake somewhere nearby.
9.     Amateurs, after a few bites, plead a stomachache or other digestive distress. Seasoned EAWs smile bravely and plead a pre-existing stomachache before taking a few bites, thereby excusing the need to eat more while also gaining valuable martyr-points. All in all, this leaves the door open for a win-win situation.
10.     Of course, as we all know, eat with your right hand. Do not, under any circumstances, eat with the left. The left is for other things. Bathroom things. 

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This guest post comes from @MichaelKleinman and is part of his recent book, co-authored with Liz Good, Expat Etiquette: How To Look Good In Bad Places.

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