Of our friends who have travelled to Cuba, every one told us in advance ‘prepare to be disappointed by the food’; it was sage advice. Typical Cuban food is heavy on cheese, oil, sugar, white wheat flour and meat, and low on vegetables and, um, flavour. Many people love it, and we have certainly loved some of it (anticipate a subsequent story of the elements we did love), but much of it is not really possum food. So we thought we’d take the opportunity to write a little tale on resourcefulness when it comes to finding nutrition and taste in places where these things aren’t immediately obvious. Written in Cuba, it is clearly through a tropical lens that we have presented these ideas, but the basic premises can be adapted for other climates and cultures.
One of the first things we do in a new town is seek out the local market. In most countries through which we travel every town seems to have a central market in which we can buy local, seasonal fruit and vegies, as well as other local produce like pulses, grains, nuts and meat. If no central market is apparent there will always be someone selling local produce, if you look around a little. Being super interested in food we are always fascinated to see what is growing in a particular climate, soil type and culture; the local market is also key to resourcefulness as a traveller. One big tip is to embrace local and seasonal produce. You can generally tell the most local and in-season produce because it will be the cheapest and most abundant. Try new things. If you don’t know what something is ask the person selling it – ask them how to prepare it; buy some, take it home and give it a go. It may be your new favourite thing or you may spit it straight back out but that’s all part of the adventure.
Cook for yourself where possible. One doesn’t always have access to a kitchen but it is handy to carry, at the very least, a small, sharp knife, a spoon, and plastic container with a good lid. This way you can take those delicious fruits and vegetables you bought in the market and turn them into a simple fresh salad. I must admit that I am travelling with a small pressure cooker as well, and this has proved endlessly beneficial as I am yet to visit a country where I cannot buy dried beans in a market and make myself a wholesome meal when I have access to fire, but for many people this may seem a little unncessary.
Another thing we always carry is a few small cloth bags for shopping. This means you can visit the market and buy all of the delicious things without having the personal environmental responsibility of plastic bags. Plastic bags also cost a bit for market vendors so most are grateful if you don’t take theirs away.
Sprout – sprout locally found pulses and/or carry seeds like alfalfa from home. This is another use for your container – use it as a sprouting jar and you can just pop it in your backpack during that long bus ride and you’ll have fresh vegies at the end. Sprouting is a really easy way to give yourself some good nutrition and fresh food in far-flung places; we’ve written a whole blog post about sprouting so have a look here for more details.
Rather than looking in local shops for processed, packaged snacks for long travel days, eat lots of fruit. Again, see what’s cheap and abundant in the market and eat heaps of it. Don’t buy apples in the tropics; they don’t grow here. In Cuba right now it is mango season and, for the record, I suspect they’re the best mangos in the entire world. We are buying nine or ten of these enormous treats for the equivalent of a dollar and mangos have become our every occasion snack. In Uganda it was bananas and avocados. In Tasmania in late summer it is apples.
Get creative. Think about a balanced meal and replace known foods with local equivalents – for example if you normally eat bread, rice or pasta and these things are not to be found in any quality look at what local carbohydrate-rich foods are available in the market. You could use plantain, sweet potato, maize or cassava instead. If you don’t know how to prepare these foods ask the person selling them, ask the internet if you have access to it or ask us, we might know!
A final tip that is related less to resourcefulness and more to simply food and travelling… carry with you enough muesli for at least one breakfast when arriving in a new land. Often we arrive at some strange hour after days of long flights and waiting in airports. We wake up jetlagged and confused and really just need breakfast before anything else happens. Muesli and water is an excellent start and it makes good use of that plastic container and spoon. Then we can enter the world and figure out how to find the next meal. If you don’t eat muesli there will be something you can carry so that you don’t have to stumble into the morning in a new country with nothing in your belly. We tend to carry chocolate as well, but that goes without saying. Speaking of muesli and water, it’s really great travelling with a small water filter. Again, it saves the personal environmental responsibility of squillions of plastic bottles and you’ve always got drinking water. Ask us for water filter tips, if you’re not sure what to get.
These are some ways in which we approach the challenge of finding good food in different places while still embracing the culinary uniqueness a new land has to offer. Everyone has different ways of navigating this and we’d love to hear your ideas, so please leave us a comment!