OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO: The best and the würste in adventures with food
Opinion Thu, Jun 2nd, 2022 Paul Knowles
One of the greatest joys of travel is the food – the opportunity to sample and enjoy unusual, exotic and local foods in their home environment. Of course, let’s be honest – one of the greatest challenges of travel is also the food! Either way, encounters with local cuisine can make for great travel stories. One of my favourite travel assignments was a trip to the former East Germany, where I followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther. I’ll tell you about that amazing experience, sometime soon. I had visited Germany several times, but my itinerary always took me to former West Germany. I soon learned that although the country is now officially united as one entity – and rightly so – the east is very, very different from the west. In some parts of Europe, the question “Do you speak English” will likely engender a “yes” or might occasionally lead a server to politely saying “No,” or “Non,” or “Nein.” Not here. Here, in Erfurt, where Luther’s original monastery still exists, the question resulted in great hilarity. Clearly, the idea of speaking English tickled the servers’ funny bones. So, I ordered either from pictures in the menu (if such existed), or in the absence of such visual clues, by pointing to something someone else was eating. It actually worked out okay, although I probably ate far more würste than I might have, otherwise. Including an odd presentation of a foot-long sausage served in a four-inch bun. The height of culinary adventure has to be Hong Kong – a rather sad reference these days, as the city I came to instantly love has now been so torn by political upheaval. Four travel writers were hosted by Hong Kong; two, who shall ever remain nameless, decided to treat the trip as a personal holiday, and disappeared almost immediately. That worked out fine for me and one other writer, because the generous hosts had arranged for two guides, two cars, and two drivers. The plan was for two writers to share… but with two having bogged off, we two legitimate travel journalists instantly inherited our own, personal entourage. With an intimate knowledge of everything great about Hong Kong. The food? Incredible. At one ocean-front restaurant, there was no menu – just an assortment of dozens of stacked aquariums. My guide told me to pick. I asked her advice. She pointed to an alien-looking beast called a mantis shrimp. I nodded. It was probably the best meal I have ever eaten. But also in Hong Kong, we were asked if we wanted to go to an authentic breakfast place. The Langham hotel where we were staying at had the most lavish breakfast buffet I had ever seen, but when in Hong Kong… so two of us were taken out for congee. Congee is basically rice porridge. I had it in a hole-in-the-wall diner; the other writer and I were the only non-Asians in the place. It’s served with glasses of hot tea, and to the congee, you add a meat of your choice, from a pretty broad menu. One of the options was bull’s penis. I went for the chicken. And today, if you ask me about congee, I can tell you I have eaten congee. Enough said. Some restaurant experiences are simply odd – like the apparently famous seafood place in The Hague, where the guide had insisted I try the perch – the house specialty. I had been offered a complementary meal (travel writing is such a tough gig!), and so, following the advice of my guide (who had not joined me for dinner), I ask for perch. “I’m sorry sir, but your arrangement only allows the limited menu. Perch is not included.” So sitting in a restaurant famed for perch, I had… rather feeble chicken. These “arrangements” sometimes fall through completely, although I have learned to be much more careful in checking out the details. A guide once recommended the risotto, the speciality of a Swiss restaurant, while telling me I had a reservation there. Well, yes, they had made a reservation – but no arrangement for actual payment. That was certainly the most expensive risotto I will ever eat! However, I have to say it was also the best risotto. Speaking of high-end restaurants, we were once dining in a very classy joint near Stadhampton, in England. Several of the other diners in the room had ordered the salmon, a specialty of the house. One dissatisfied diner eventually called the manager over. “My salmon filet is clearly smaller than hers,” he said, pointing to a plate at the next table. The owner insisted it was not. The diner insisted it was. Conversation ensued. Finally, the restaurateur declared, “Listen, I know they are all the same size, because we buy them pre-cooked, vacuum-packed, all carefully pre-measured, and all we do is heat them up.” There was silence, as a number of diners stared at what they had believed, only moments before, were freshly prepared chef’s specialties. I don’t know if that restaurant is still in business. Paul Knowles is an author and travel writer. To contact Paul about travel, his books, or speaking engagements, email firstname.lastname@example.org.