Food Afar: On Pictureless Menus, The Grunt, and How to Eat

Banh Mi + Kebab

I’ll have one tasty, please. To go.

One of my greatest joys when travelling is the local food. Tracking down the good eats comes just behind getting into the country and finding a place to sleep. With time I’ve even come to grow more selective in my travel partners, based purely on ingestion-based criteria : exactly how much can they eat? How adventurous with taste and texture and varieties of animals? Are they open to eating more than one dinner, or inventing wholly different meals throughout the day when hunger or something delicious-smelling strikes us? Of course, the dinner companion is not the only concern: we need to actually get the food, first, in order to eat it. And making that happen while abroad is sometimes not so easy.

Living in Korea, of course, has given me some basic strategies. When I first arrived and I knew little of the language beyond the alphabet, I needed to find ways to regularly feed myself, certainly, but also to root out the good stuff. I needed a repertoire, and I needed to figure out how to get one.

The basic strategies: asking, “What is delicious?” or consulting a dictionary. With these weapons I could walk into nearly any restaurant and be fairly certain to be confronted with something tasty and cheap and unlikely to scorch my tongue or rend my guts from my abdomen. It would, of course, require some finesse and training. The first night we were left to our own devices in Korea, I wandered aimlessly with Thanh and Pierre, desperately and hungry, before settling on whichever restaurant most obviously served pork. The waitress stood before us while we sat dumbly, mumbling the half-remembered Korean, searching desperately in our phrase books for some hallowed combination of “pig” “meat” “beer” and “eat” that would cause her to bring us a meal. 10 shaky minutes later, we were eating.

Sushi platter

Which button do I press for “something really really good”?

With time, the words came easier and the dishes became more familiar; I studied diagrams for cuts of meat, so I could understand the pieces I was ordering; I came to know what side dishes were due to me, and to complain bitterly if they were not produced quickly enough, or in great abundance. I grew full, and confident, and I could survive in most any Korean restaurant. Getting back up to food-fluency in the local tongue, though, left me unprepared for the challenges further afield.

The halcyon days of me and travel food came, of course, in Europe. With English and a smattering of French, mixed with a lazy, free-wheeling sort of familiarity with the Roman alphabet, I could reasonably decipher menus and signs and extract crucial delicious components to order. It was only of minor inconvenience, those few foreign characters in German: I had a German friend with me, and the rest I could parse myself. Why, so long as I could read, I could eat!

And thus is why it is fairly plausible that I might have starved to death in China. First I would enter buildings positive I would find a restaurant: the awning outside, the lacquer of the wood, the uniforms of those workers all seemed to scream food. Of course, I would then discover that I was in a travel agency or a dental office, and everyone would stare at my uncomfortably, and desperately hope that I would soon leave.

When I would finally find a restaurant, horror gripped me: there were no pictures in the menu. Worse yet, there were no pictures or visuals anywhere: the walls were a scrubbed, pallid blue or grey, featureless, to the point that all of the customers may well have been blindfolded without any great difference. The menus themselves were absolutely cacophonous, enormous, terrifying lists of every single dish one could ever hope to ever order in China in harsh, spartan font sizes, with dozens of combinations and numbers and possible assortments. It looked very nearly alchemical, a laminated spell sheet ripped from the pages of some musty old tome on the subject of conjuring hellspawn. I would look around at the tables, and see people covetously covering their food, cutting off my next available strategy of simply pointing at another person’s half-eaten plate and miming my desire.

The only other strategy available to me was the roulette: to simply draw my finger down the page blindly and stop at something. Maybe something priced to feasibly be the size of a main dish, or at least something to sate my growing and angering stomach. Of course, having lived in China for a while now, my friend Greg warned me off of this. After his first encounter with what he described to be, “A big plate of pigs’ assholes,” he had forsworn trusting his dinner to fate, and so would I. Fate, in China, loves irony. And also animal rectums.

Cambodian market food

Pour me one bowl with everything that’s going on back there.

Being in South Asia allowed me to return to my roots, to the simple and indelicate strategies I first developed in Korea. In street stalls and small restaurants throughout Cambodia and Vietnam, the variety of selection was brutal and beautiful in its minimalism. With so few options, it proved easy to simply approach a vendor and ask, “One food, please.”

And beyond that, there is little that can’t be accomplished with anguished noise. If I look at the food and point at the food and grunt at the food and start fumbling with local currency, eventually the person operating the food-generating devices will gather my meaning. That, or they will become so bored and unimpressed with my barbaric communications that they will give me food to go away. In other places, if I felt confident enough in my tongue and teeth, I could maybe learn and spit the word “recommendation” in the local tongue and hope that the proprietor decides to take pity and give me something tasty, rather than enjoy my folly-ridden attempt at their language and punish me with something robustly horrific.

Japan, in its beautiful, robotic mastermindedness, has managed to circumvent the need for Japanese language skills, or really any communication at all. Many a noodle shop has a ticket vending machine out front: a large array of buttons, each with a picture or a number and a price. Press the button, spend all of your jangling Yen, and receive a ticket. Bring this ticket to someone behind a counter. Wait around forlornly, until the restaurateur, knowing the level of your pitiful Japanese, beckons you forward to accept your plate of delicious udon ‘n’ things.

It is lucky, then, that most people in the world want to share the tasty. Very seldom have I encountered people so steadfastly opposed to ignorance of their language that they would refuse money, or would not tolerate some degree of awkwardness before food meets face. Ultimately, people know you want to eat, and so long as you try, so long as you put out the effort or at least prove humorous in your desperation, you will be fed. And chances are, you will be fed well.

5 thoughts on “Food Afar: On Pictureless Menus, The Grunt, and How to Eat

  1. “Very seldom have I encountered people so steadfastly opposed to ignorance of their language that they would refuse money, or would not tolerate some degree of awkwardness before food meets face.”

    I know a certain spot in Paris…

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