Picky Eater in a Strange Land

For as long as I can remember, I’ve only eaten simple foods. If you ask me what I don’t like… well, it’s probably easier for me to tell you what I do like. I explain to people that I eat like a four-year old, so whatever your little niece or nephew likes, I probably do too. People laugh and think I’m joking, but then I list the foods I don’t eat and they stop laughing. “Huh, you were serious…”.  I mostly eat a lot of bread and cheese, in various forms. When I tried to ask my Spanish teacher what the right word would be, she just said difficult. I guess it’s appropriate but doesn’t feel great. :p

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. I can cook, and my boyfriend is a good cook, and we eat a lot of meals at home with the ingredients I like. He makes food for me and then adds extra stuff for himself like hot sauce or mushrooms. In Canadian restaurants, I can always find something I like. When I’m travelling, or living in another country… that’s a different story!

Ghana was the first time I had lived in a “non-western” country for an extended period of time. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is on the coast in western Africa. This means that the food is spicy, fermented, and there’s lots of fish – not exactly my favourites! While my colleagues were ripping of pieces of fermented dough like fufu to dip in their spicy peanut sauce or grab a hunk of tilapia (a white fish), I was learning how to eat with my hands. I had to emphasize to restaurants that “No, I don’t want any of that extremely spicy black sauce. No, not even a little. Yes, I know it’s boring without it.” They would laugh at me for eating “baby food” but serve me plain rice with chicken anyway. I ended up eating a plastic bag of plain rice with a hard-boiled egg, and maybe a small piece of chicken every day for lunch. Fortunately, I had my own kitchen so I could eat anything I wanted at home. Unfortunately, there were constant power outages and I had a major ant problem in my house so I ate a lot of staples – like pasta. I had to keep all my food on a table in the kitchen so the ants couldn’t find it. One time, I tried to eat some leftover vegetables and chicken that had been in the fridge during the daily black-outs – it was my first time getting food poisoning, and I gave it to myself. How embarrassing!

In Bangladesh, there are different types of people in society. For example, if you’re a widow, you’re basically not allowed any pleasure (yes, this is a major problem, but I won’t get into it right now…). You have to shave your head, wear white forever, and basically mourn for your entire life. Part of these restrictions involves not eating anything too flavourful, including meat, onion, garlic, and other spices. When I first arrived, I quickly learned the phrase for “no spicy food, no onions” in Bengali. Unfortunately, the cook at my work decided this meant I was also vegetarian. I was thus relegated to plain rice and lentil soup for four months worth of lunches, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg. Thankfully, I also had my own kitchen again, but no oven or microwave. However, we were also on something like house arrest for much of my time there, which made getting food difficult. I quickly learned how to order groceries online, and learned how to use my privilege to get them to deliver take-out food to my area (even though it wasn’t normally covered by their delivery zone). I even learned how to reheat pizza on a pan by alternating it between above and below our tiny stove burner. Did I mention that pork and alcohol are also banned since it’s a Muslim country? No bacon for 4 months made me really sad, and my roommate and I took tiny sips of our one bottle of wine to make it last!

In Nepal, the diet is pretty similar to Bangladesh, and the problems were pretty similar to Ghana. The national dish is something called dhal bhatt, which is basically rice and a whole bunch of tiny side dishes like pickled vegetables, lentils, something like a tortilla, and various sauces. Again, this means I normally end up eating rice. Although I did have a kitchen in my house, I lived with about 5 other girls! On top of that, the power was off more than half the time, and when the water went out, we couldn’t clean dishes. This made it quite difficult to cook at home. When we first arrived, it was winter, so we could leave items in the refrigerator, even if it was off, without problems. As spring came, this got less and less possible. I therefore needed to buy groceries every day or two if I wanted something like meat, and ended up eating a lot of carbs again like bread, oatmeal, and pasta. Thankfully, there were a lot of delicious western-style restaurants with decent prices nearby. Unfortunately, I got food poisoning once again by eating a pizza with garlic as the only topping… One nice thing is that there’s a lot of vegetarian options there (if that’s your thing), and you can go out for food (for 2 people) at a delicious (if not super sanitary) local place for under $5!

I’m currently living in Bolivia, and it’s pretty decent. I mean the food isn’t very exciting, there’s a lot of meat and potatoes. Sometimes we have empanadas or saltenas in the office, but otherwise I just eat at home or western style restaurants. Thankfully, the food normally isn’t spicy, but there is a spicy sauce on the table called ya-hua which you can add to your own plate. Since Steve isn’t working, he cooks most of our meals, which I’m really grateful for. This is also my first time away for almost a year, and my snack stash from Canada only lasted a few months. Thankfully, my sister met up with me in Colombia over Christmas and was able to replenish my dwindling stocks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and goldfish crackers! One thing I do love about Bolivia is that it’s really easy to get fresh fruit and veg from the local market. There’s also a plethora of snacks on every corner, like peanuts, fresh-squeezed orange juice, or sweet cake balls. My favourite is the popcorn/chip lady who pops the kernels right outside my work window. Whenever the smell comes wafting in, my colleagues and I just can’t resist the urge for a large bag of popcorn for only 2 Bs ($0.40). Did I mention you can also get a good bottle of wine from any corner tienda for only 20-25 Bs ($4-5)? Not too shabby!

In just a few months, I’ll be back in Canada. Although I enjoyed learning all about Bolivia, I’m also excited for Canadian food! One of the things I miss most is a sesame seed bagel, toasted with cream cheese and bacon, from Tim Hortons, of course! I’m drooling just thinking about it! Thankfully, carbs can be found in every country, so I’ll never starve, but I can’t say that I don’t miss the food from home when I’m away.

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