Travellers generally come in two types - those for whom a visit to a foreign country necessitates experiencing the local cuisine and those for whom, while enjoying the change in climate, scenery and culture, live in dread of meal times, yearning for foods familiar to their palate. The former group believe firmly in the motto ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ and this includes eating as the Romans eat. They are likely to seek out establishments where the indigenous population goes at mealtimes. They take pride in trying new foods – the more exotic the better and on their return home they regale others with tales about crocodile steaks and insect sweets. The second group spends its time searching out places which serve ‘safe’ familiar foods such as sausage and chips and the smell of local cooking is likely to cause offence rather than salivation. For all of us the enjoyment of food is an essential part of any holiday, so whatever type of traveller we are, we need to be prepared.
For those with a food allergy this preparation is especially vital. It is no good assuming that all the people you meet speak English, so asking ‘Does this food contain nuts?’ may not be understood. That question should be learnt in the language of the country or countries you are planning to visit and it would be a good idea to have a written version in case your accent is not recognised. Even if you are planning to stick to a ‘British’ diet, food may be prepared in a different way, for example, a nut based oil might be used for frying, so you will still need to ask the question. Other preparations should include researching whether the water is safe to drink at your destination and whether there are any other recommendations in terms of a healthy diet there. One of the joys of the twenty-first century is the easy access of information via the internet. An hour or two spent browsing the local diet, the restaurants and cafes, the health precautions in your destination will be time well spent.
Japan & sushi
It is worth taking a quick look at specific travel destinations and some of the issues relating to each, starting with Japan. The life expectancy of the natives of this beautiful country is the highest in the world which would suggest that their diet is very healthy. However, is this the case for the temporary visitor? The most famous Japanese food has to be sushi which consists of cooked vinegared rice combined with other ingredients such as seafood, vegetables and seaweed. Generally this is healthy fare but dipping in soy sauce can result in a salty snack and when raw fish is used there can be some health concerns. For someone who is immune compromised or pregnant it is best to avoid this as, without cooking, raw fish may carry some parasites or bacteria. Another consideration to take into account when in Japan is sake, the rice based alcohol drink. The alcohol content of this varies across the country so can be quite strong and also full of calories. It is generally recommended to stick to just one or two glasses at a time.
Whilst in Asia it is worth looking at Indian cuisine. For Indians their diet is relatively healthy but travellers are often stricken with the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ i.e. diarrhoea with or without accompanying sickness. Ways to reduce the likelihood of this condition include only drinking bottled water rather than tap water, decline ice in drinks as this may be made from tap water, wash hands before eating – anti-bacterial wipes are particularly useful for this, eat food which you know has been prepared in a reliable way and avoid street vendors. India is a country of contrast – some areas are quite affluent, especially those which cater for tourists or business visitors, whilst others are very poor with terrible sanitation. Travellers to these places need to be very careful. As for the cuisine – curries are the food most closely associated with India. This term covers a wide variety of dishes which vary considerably throughout the regions. Generally they are made from vegetables, meat, fish or lentils etc with the three basic spices of cumin, coriander and turmeric. Other spices such as chilli, ginger, caraway seeds, saffron and mace are added according to the required taste. It is these spices which seem to carry health benefits e.g. at Cork university they have discovered that turmeric destroys oesophageal cancer cells. Chillies, which add the heat to the dish, contain capsaicin which has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Generally vegetables form a safer base than meat for the novice visitor and, if weight is a problem, avoid those with thick fatty sauces.
China is a huge country with many different national dishes. Again the same care should be taken in poorer rural areas but the food is generally healthy as it is cooked very quickly retaining all the nutrients. The main ingredients for most meals are vegetables, rice and noodles. Small amounts of meat and fish are used but are not generally the central part of the meal. Food is either fried or steamed and some of the fried dishes can contain high levels of cholesterol and, if soy sauce is used, high levels of sodium. It is sensible to avoid eating all fried food and being restrained with the soy sauce.
Our European partners
European cuisine is more familiar to the British traveller and they are less likely to suffer stomach upsets as hygiene and sanitation are generally good. France is our closest neighbour and, in some ways, it is surprising that there are such great differences in our cooking. French cuisine is world renowned for its flavour and presentation. It relies heavily on white flour products in the form of bread, croissants etc., meat and fish and dairy products such as cheeses and cream. White flour is not one of the healthiest derivatives of wheat but the French are perceived as being slim and fit people. It seems that it is the addition of the vegetables and herbs and fruit to their diet which keeps them healthy. In comparison to the United Kingdom their fruits tend to be bigger and sweeter due to more sunshine. Garlic, which is used freely in many dishes, has many beneficial properties including the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure, the reduction of cholesterol and the prevention of cancer.
Italians are famous for eating pasta and pizza. When we Brits eat this diet we put on weight but this is because we do not prepare it in the correct Italian way. They use many fresh ingredients with vegetables, herbs and spices forming the basis for the sauces that accompany the pasta. Virgin olive oil is the main fat used which is much healthier that fats such as lard or other oils and helps keep the cholesterol levels down. It is also an essential ingredient of the so called Mediterranean diet which is found in southern Italy, Greece and Spain. This diet is high in vegetables, fruit, legumes, grains and some white meat and fish. Red wine is also important. The combination has been shown to reduce heart problems, reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease and promote longevity. For the visitor to these shores this diet can be indulged in fully knowing that it is doing good rather than harm.
In conclusion, wherever you intend to travel to, do some research about the local dishes and any associated precautions before you go. Find out if they are places where you can find familiar food if that is what you require and if not, enjoy the local cuisine while looking for the healthier options if possible.