Travelling as a picky eater: a journey through food

Travelling as a picky eater: a journey through food

    Living in Portugal, almost every social event and gathering revolves around food. Regardless of the time of day, if you have someone over, you’ll serve them tapas, lunch, or dinner (or maybe all three!). From tremoços to enchidos, seafood to pastries (pastel de nata included), or olives to bread, there’s always something to munch on.

    Food was an essential part of my childhood, growing up in Porto. At three, my grandmother (a farmer) would take me to the farm and watch me play in the crops. We’d patiently wait for passion fruit vines to ripen and crack them open to stain our clothes and mouths. When I turned six, on my first day of school, my grandmother took me with a bag of fresh produce, a tray of eggs, and a vase of flowers to give to my teacher.

    Sounds pretty typical of many people who grow up in Portugal. Except for one tiny thing: I’m a super picky eater. It all started just after I turned one, when I suddenly stopped eating. Avoiding most soups, saying no to veggies, frowning at fish dishes, setting beans aside… You name it, I’ve probably got a story about refusing it.

    pastel de nata

    Pastéis de Nata

    I had an incredibly patient family behind me, one that never forced me to eat dishes I didn’t like, and that always encouraged me to try new things as I grew up. But they’ve also been frustrated throughout the years. Considering my mother had to share one sardine between herself and 7 siblings, I can understand why she—the best cook I know—would get sad when she cooked food for my lunch and I would opt for a bowl of cereal instead. My siblings would often save me from a scolding by splitting the leftovers between them so that I didn’t have to eat as much.

    So, why am I writing an article about food? Well, I realised over the years that getting outside my comfort zone was the necessary trigger to get me to eat stuff I wouldn’t otherwise even try. When I was younger, that meant I always ate the meals served up at friend’s houses, because no matter how badly I disliked certain dishes, the embarrassment I felt about being a picky-eater was worse. I’ll never forget the taste of the squid rice at a friend’s one Halloween night (the promise of candy pushing me to take another bite), or the daikon radish noodles my aunt lovingly made after her trip to Hong Kong. And I cannot even count all the times I endured mushrooms so that I wouldn’t be picking them off pizza or risotto.

    As I've gotten older, travelling has encouraged me even more to get out of my comfort zone and enjoy more of what the food world has to offer.

    In the first few trips I took as a young adult, the hype was all about fast-food. I had my first Meatball Sub in Edinburgh, while running late to catch a flight back home. A few years later, I’d have my first Domino’s slice in Edinburgh as well, which became the best pizza I’d ever tried up until then. Somewhere in Malta, and even though I’m not a fan of cinnamon, I tried Cinnabon rolls, and I wasn’t disappointed! I visited McDonald’s everywhere I went (and still do) but, as I started to travel more often, I began trusting local restaurants and food stalls more and more.

    So, I want to take you on that journey with me. And if you’re a fellow picky eater, I hope it inspires you to try something new.

    Cancún: tacos, tamales and burritos

    In early 2019, I booked a ticket to Cancún as a first stop on a four-month Central and South American trip. When the departure date was approaching, I started to panic about food. I had very little experience with spicy food (except for our classic francesinha), and no clue about what Mexican dishes tasted like. I went to a local restaurant that served tacos and burritos to try to get a taste (no pun intended) of what was to come, and I liked the Taco Bell-style hard-shell tortillas, filled with a very Portuguese version of pico de gallo. Little did I know that I’d soon be eating food that would put this to shame.

    I was staying in Puerto Morelos for a couple of nights before heading to Playa del Carmen. The first night, having arrived late in the evening, I ordered some tacos, with fries on the side in case they were too spicy.

    I should stop here to tell you that French fries are my all-time favourite food, so you’ll see them appear a few more times! And after many hours of travelling, I was happy to have that little bit of comfort.

    Now, back to the tacos: they were spicy, but small and perfectly filled. Different sauces and salsas were spread around in little plastic containers, and I tried them all as I dipped the tortillas, drizzled with lime on top. I was instantly hooked. This mythical food, that I’d mostly heard of through Kim Possible episodes, was soooo tasty!

    I went to bed feeling happy, full, and glad I’d travelled to this place. The next morning, there were more tacos being served for breakfast in the common area, with all kinds of fillings for the neighbours to pick from. I gladly engaged in some broken-Spanish conversation with the locals, putting my best Portunhol to use, and had a few bites before heading straight to bed again, still jet-lagged and tired.

    pic 1: tacos for breakfast

    Tacos for breakfast in Puerto Morelos

    For dinner on the second night in Puerto Morelos, I went out with Remi and Gabriela, other guests from the Airbnb, for some tamales. They knew a food stall that apparently served the best ones in town, so we headed there, walking through several bars, restaurants, and other street vendors selling local goodies.

    I’d never seen tamales in my life, but my new roomies had assured me they were tasty, and I trusted them to order for me. This would become a habit of mine during my travels—I find that having other people choose what I eat takes the pressure off me choosing.

    When the lady unfolded the wrapping paper to reveal the cooked husk shaped up like corn, I went back to one of my childhood memories. During harvest season, we used to make dolls out of corn husks during the traditional desfolhada. All those times suddenly became part of a bigger thing, and unfolding those tamales felt more meaningful to me. Removing the husk revealed the sweet masa dough, used to wrap shredded meat and cheese for the filling.

    Despite my emotional connection to them, I didn’t have any more tamales, since I was hooked on all those tacos sold by the locals. Burritos were also a game changer for me—back then, I hated beans, but after my first taste of a burrito, I lived off them for the rest of the time I was in the country.

    pic 2: tamales

    Tamales in Puerto Morelos

    The plastic plates with pico de gallo leftovers and squeezed lime became part of my daily routine. I learned to appreciate the spice, gradually increasing in intensity as I got more comfortable with it. At that point, I was trying everything that looked like it shouldn’t be spicy but was, even off the supermarket shelves–sweets, drinks, popcorn. Nowadays, I try to recreate that Mexican chilli at home, and I always try jalapeño-filled recipes.

    pic 3: tacos

    More tacos in Cancún

    Medellín: sal-chi-pa-pas

    Leaving Cancún for Medellín felt like leaving a piece of me, and, to this day, I’m still trying all the Mexican restaurants I come across, looking for the perfect taco al pastor, and not quite finding it.

    My next stop on this journey was on the Colombian streets of Medellín. I was too broke to go to fancy places, so I survived on arepas and salchipapas. Not that I wanted to try much else, anyway. 

    My favourite were those salchipapas, which are servings of French fries, sausages and eggs (no prizes for guessing why I loved them so much!). I went back to the same small restaurant again and again, just a few metres up the road from where I was staying. 

    After the third or fourth visit, I didn’t even have to order—the cook would have a steaming plate ready for me. Sometimes I’d eat outside, drinking a bottle of Fuze Tea, and other times I’d take it back with me, up the lift to the 27th-floor Airbnb. I’d sit outside on the fire-escape stairs, picking at the fries with a plastic fork, while watching the lights go on in the mountains ahead.

    I don’t have many good memories of Medellín. The tourist traps, smuggling stands, and poverty paint a different image from what every guide had tried to pass off. But, I will always remember the comfort of those papas, and the sweet smile of the restaurant owner as he pulled buckets of sliced potatoes into the kitchen to be fried.

    views over medellin

    Views over Medellín from the rooftop

    Lima: ceviche, and a fast food relapse

    After Colombia, I headed to Peru. And, to no one’s surprise, I wasn’t ready to try ceviche. There’s something about fish that I’m suspicious of—I’ve always found sushi very overrated, despite its popularity. It’s not so much the taste, but mostly the slimy texture. I’ve tried it cooked, raw, fried—nothing works. But I do appreciate watching a chef roll the rice with seaweed until it looks like something out of an anime.

    Instead, Lima was the fast-food relapse for me. The Popeye’s French fries were so spicy it felt like I was in Mexico again; Papa John’s pizza overtook Domino’s as the best one I’d had; Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast. It got to a point where I started getting tired of eating fast-food, which I never thought was possible.

    In between everything fried, I would have some homemade pasta with pesto whenever the Airbnb hosts cooked too much. We’d share Coca-Cola bottles, pizza leftovers and cereal. One of the other guests, Rodrigo, had moved from Uruguay to study cookery, and he’d share some mate when we were both up and hanging out in the living room in the early morning.

    Almost two months went by, and then I finally came back to Portugal in October. The air smelled different as I hopped off the plane, and I had a pastel de nata in Lisbon before heading home to Porto. My mum welcomed me back with some of her classic home-cooked dishes: carne à alentejana for lunch (clams to the side), bacalhau com natas for dinner. In the next few weeks, I indulged in all my local favourites: francesinhas, rissóis, and pataniscas.

    Shortly after the homesickness was gone, though, my Mexican-food cravings came back. And, to this day, I’m still hunting down restaurants that can potentially fulfil them. Guess I’ll just have to book a plane ticket, then :-)

    Porto: when I tried to go vegetarian (again)

    A few months before Covid hit, I decided I would try to go vegetarian again after failing when I was 17. This time, I actively tried to complement my lack of meat with vegan ingredients–soy beef, tofu sausages, spinach lasagna. I do know how to cook, but I’m a much better baker. Growing up, I’d spend weekend afternoons in front of the oven, baking cakes and cookies, mixing dough and melting butter. When I moved out, the recipes became a lot simpler, hence the freezer stuffed with ready-meals.

    I started asking for vegan dishes when going out for food, and “only fries for me” was my catchphrase on francesinha nights. I learned to like new things, especially new textures, as I explored a path of alternatives to the classic and traditional recipes I was used to. Around this time, I tried Chinese food for the first time (the crispy spring rolls were a favourite!). The portion of noodles was so generous that I brought half of it home for lunch the next day.

    For almost a year, I didn’t have any meat. I had fish, occasionally, when I visited my parents or at social gatherings. I wasn’t super strict with my diet, and I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. It’s a lesson I learned as a child, in the moments where Grandma would sit me up outside the window, on top of the neighbour’s roof, and convince me to eat. I was so strict back then that I remember her telling me she wouldn’t let me back on the roof ever again if I didn’t finish what was on my plate.

    pic. 4: me and grandma on the roof

    Grandma and me on the roof

    As a picky eater, I’d come a long way from barely eating anything. It felt like an achievement I didn’t want to take for granted. Above all, I want to feel healthy and eat things I enjoy, even if I don’t have a sunny rooftop to eat on anymore.

    I’m not proud to say my downfall was a McDonald’s burger. While I really enjoyed that single vegan option they had, the pull of a double cheeseburger was just too strong one day. For a while, I’d have some McDonald’s every other week, opting for the meat instead of the veggie burger. And I fooled myself, saying the only reason I was coming back to it was because it didn’t actually taste like beef.

    As time went by, though, the vegan options I did like became limited, and I genuinely started missing the old, traditional dishes I’d not cared too much for before.

    It took a long time for me to finally eat proper beef, but I did when the opportunity for some picanha arose. That Brazilian dish of soft beef, rice, beans and farofa (which I leave to the side), topped with grilled pineapple (I’m settling the score once and for all: it does go on pizza, as well as almost anything else) is irresistible. It felt weird, at first. I’d forgotten about the consistency, the juicy bites, the scent of the grilled beef. After a while, I went back to the churrasco. Then the non-vegan francesinha. And finally, mum’s chicken panados (a schnitzel, of sorts).

    During the pandemic, I didn’t travel outside of Portugal. But my relationship with the number of cod dishes I tried when visiting northern towns continued to flourish. Bacalhau à bras never disappoints.

    Glasgow: top-notch Indian

    Summer 2022, I visited Scotland again—this time, it was Glasgow. If you’ve been, you’ve probably heard of Mother India. What a place to try Indian food for the first time! I trusted my fellow JFC friends to order for the table and, a few minutes later, I was sold on it. The naan was so fresh, and a perfect accompaniment to all the curries that soon followed. I can’t name all the things that I tried, but I enjoyed each newfound flavour with curiosity and delight as I tried the Aloo curry, Baby Aubergine, Chicken Daal & the South Indian Garlic Chilli.

    Paris, Strasbourg & Basel: ramen, crêpes and an Ethiopian feast

    When JFC teamed up with Lupine Travel, and we all started to plan our Race Across Europe, the teams discussed goals they had for the trip. Knowing me pretty well at this point, the team suggested I try as many different types of food as I could. And they wanted my feedback—enter: this article. Most of the recent encounters with the unknown had turned out fine, and I knew that in the worst-case scenario, there would always be a side of French fries available. So, I was up for the challenge.

    When we arrived in Paris, the first stop on our journey, it made sense to start working on that goal right away. We walked into a Japanese restaurant, which is a cuisine that I’ve never had a full bowl of before. But hours and hours of Studio Ghibli food scenes couldn’t fail me. Right?

    Unfortunately, their ramen didn’t convince me, and the almost sour taste of the miso was too much. It turns out that, for me, Japanese food looks way better than it tastes. But, I’ll say this: out of everything I’d ended up trying throughout that week, this was the only food I genuinely didn’t like (and you’ll hear me talking it down until I have a chance to try ramen again).

    pic 5: Japanese dinner

    Japanese dinner

    The crêpes we had in Strasbourg for breakfast the morning after were as French as you’d expect. But I want to skip straight to Basel, where we had Ethiopian food for lunch. By now, you probably know I have a bad relationship with beans, lentils, and anything green (except for lettuce, surprisingly). But I promised myself I’d try anything once while on the road, and, reluctantly, I went for the yellow, red and green moist lentils. Let me tell you, I was as shocked as my travel mates when I really enjoyed it! Since most of the ingredients were new to me, I can’t really describe the flavour, but hopefully this picture does this tasty meal justice:

    pic 6: Ethiopian lunch

    Ethiopian lunch in Basel

    Tirano, Bologna & Venice: maybe some spaghetti?

    From Switzerland, we headed to Italy. And if there’s anything I knew I’d enjoy, it was pasta. We went for the pizza first, though, sitting outside a restaurant’s little terrace in Tirano, and ordered three kinds: a classic margherita, a marinara sauce one, and a third with ham and pouched eggs.

    The day after, Bologna would welcome us with, well, a bolognese, prosecco, and some marinara too.

    In Venice, that evening, we would still be too full from the late lunch we’d had, so we just had some traditional gelato to cool off after all the walking we’d been doing around the canals.

    pic 7: Bologna lunch

    Food in Bologna

    During the trip, I gathered a few tips from Danni, our Social Media Manager, about how to choose what to eat. Whenever we popped into a restaurant, she would not only do that basic Google/Trip Advisor search for the names of the dishes, but also look at the Instagram or Facebook pages of the places we were at. Seeing pictures of the recipes that were on the menu helped us figure out what looked best, and took the pressure off ordering. We ended up sharing an amazing cotoletta from Osteria dell'Orsa after seeing these pictures on their Instagram.

    Vienna: the Wurst stop

    On the train from Treviso to Austria, the bar was serving meals, and I went for a classic schnitzel, with a tiny bottle of wine on the side. Once we arrived, we kept the Austrian theme going with an arm-sized würstel from Bitzinger Sausage Stand. The queue was long, but watching the cooks prepare the cheese-bread with sausage and ketchup left our mouths watering. It was as comforting as it sounds, but I didn’t particularly care for the sauerkraut.  

    We had planned to stop somewhere for proper dinner, but a few moments later I’d end up falling off an e-scooter and in the hospital emergency room. So there was only time for a kebab in the hotel room before bed, post chin-stitching.

    pic 8: schnitzel

    Schnitzel on the train

    Serbia: index sandwiches

    Another round of crêpes in a Viennese café for breakfast the morning after (not as good as the French ones, sorry Austria!), and we were set to make our way to Serbia. It took almost the entire day for us to reach Novi Sad and, by then, it was so late that almost all restaurants had stopped serving food. Little did we know that would be a blessing, because we were introduced to the index sandwich. 

    It was a little before midnight when we stopped at Index Sendvič, a little food stand with a big queue. The cook was a sweet lady who moved quickly between the counter and the stove. She gave us a few recommendations, but it was mostly other locals that translated the ingredients list for us, and that helped us make a decision on which sandwiches to pick out. 

    When I describe the sandwich to you, it doesn’t seem very impressive: they’re just baguettes with a mystery filling. What surprised us, though, was how fresh and crispy the bread was, but so warm and soft on the inside. The sauce, a simple mix of Mayo and sour cream, blended perfectly with the ham, pickles, lettuce, and whatever else was thrown in there. That really sent us off to sleep.

    pic 9: Index sandwiches

    Index Sandwiches in Novi Sad

    Istanbul: breakfast for lunch (& for dinner & for supper)

    The day after, we arrived in Istanbul a little earlier than we’d planned. I’d heard wonders about Turkish cuisine—the hundreds of kebabs, the mezzes, the baklava. And the reputation of Breakfast Street was ringing in my ears. In those few days in the city, I was blown away. In fact, there were a few dishes that actually made me re-think my hatred of certain ingredients.

    The first evening, as we waited for the main dish and sipped on wine, and even though I despise cucumber, I tried the cacık. Suddenly, cucumber wasn’t just cucumber, it was transformed into something new with the addition of yogurt and garlic. When the cağ kebab was served, I had a taste of home–the way the meat had been cooked under the fire is very similar to our churrasco. And, the next day, gozleme with ice cream for dessert made the top of the list.

    Now, back to the breakfast. Served in lots of little bowls, you can pick and choose what you want to eat. I would opt for bread with cheese, honey, or mixed with eggs and tomato. And when it’s washed down with a cay, it was the perfect start to send us off into the city. 

    pic 10: turkey dinner

    Dinner in Istanbul

    pic 11: turkey breakfast

    Turkish breakfast

    On the last evening before heading home, we went for falafel, which, again, I’d never tried before. The little joint we sat at was almost closing, but the cook said he could prepare us something. While we were waiting for the food, we looked at the table next to ours, where the family that owned the restaurant was having dinner. And, noticing our curiosity towards what they were eating, they grabbed a plate and handed us some of their own serving. They barely spoke any English, but, at that moment, we were all speaking the same language. 

    pic 12: falafel

    Falafel

    In Turkey, I realised how flexible food can be. Most of the dishes I ate came from ingredients frequently used in Portuguese dishes, they were just cooked and mixed differently. I started looking at food with new eyes, and appreciated the way it changed and shaped according to our experiences. 

    I saw roasted chestnuts on the street, and I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t exclusive to the Portuguese Magusto, a traditional time of the year during fall when you can find chestnut stands spread around town. I thought about how spices, ingredients and recipes themselves have travelled for so many years and across so many lands, how generations had changed but still managed to pass on this knowledge that unites us all.

    When I came home after these trips, I thought about how I could just go for Turkish, Ethiopian, or Indian meals in my country as well, but I didn’t feel as excited to try them as I had while travelling. Something about being outside my comfort zone triggered a part of me I didn’t know anything about—-I looked forward to dinner time. I actively wanted to order food off the menu without knowing much about what it was.

    My Grandma barely cooks any more—she says she’s tired and doesn’t enjoy it as much. I look at her wrinkled hands, and think about how many meals she’s prepared. How many crops she’s collected, washed, chopped and transformed into something beautiful. Her persistence would slowly start making sense to me, a sense of patience I’ve gained by accepting that my attitude towards food can change.

    I still consider myself a picky eater, especially when at home. I still have cereal for lunch a couple of times a week, and there’s nothing in this world that beats French fries. And I’ll still opt for the safe option when trying new restaurants, even though I can be convinced to try new things.

    My Mum and Grandma’s perseverance throughout the years have given me something I can only be grateful for and feel privileged to have. All those hours sitting up on the roof didn’t go to waste—they were nurturing a part of me that needed time to develop. And you’ll be happy to know, I can finally say that I like food.