Picky People Problems: Navigating the East Asian

Allie Roos
If I could change anything about myself, I would expand my food palate. As someone who loves to travel and hopes to explore all this world has to offer, my eating habits pose significant challenges for me while abroad and often prevent me from experiencing one of the best ways to experience various cultures: through their cuisine. I am fortunate to not have any severe allergies or dietary restrictions, and I am neither a vegetarian nor a vegan – just your average picky eater. 
Over the years, I have improved significantly and now regularly crave an abundance of international cuisine, most frequently Mexican, Indian, and Mediterranean. However, there is still one type that I continue to have an exceedingly difficult time with, and that’s East Asian. I have a pretty severe aversion to all kinds of seafood. I had a bad experience with fish when I was young and ever since then, the sight, smell, or even the thought of it anywhere near my food has made me incredibly nauseous. You can see how I might have a hard time in an Asian restaurant. I know many dishes use fish sauce, so even if I order a vegetarian meal, there is always the fear that I will unknowingly ingest it.  
I have never been anywhere in Asia, but I really would love to visit someday. When I’m there, I want to experience as much of the local culture as possible. The last thing I would want to do is be an annoyance or offend someone by rejecting their food. For this reason, I have collected some information about how to navigate the food scene in various East Asian countries so as to experience this essential aspect of travel while not surviving solely on bowls of rice. For all my fellow picky eaters, these tips are for you!
  1. Visit night markets. The biggest problem I have with trying new foods is the anxiety over ordering something I’m not sure I’ll like. One of the ways to conquer that fear is by visiting markets, where you can pick and choose a few different kinds of food that typically come in small portions and are quite inexpensive. That way, if you don’t like something, it’s not a big deal. 
  2. Find a staple dish that you enjoy. Try to find at least one local dish you can eat if you have to. Look for something familiar like spring rolls, or variations on a simple rice, vegetable, and egg meal.
  3. Go to the supermarket. Pick up some staple foods from the supermarket to make cheap lunches or breakfasts with. Buy things like fruit, bread, spreads, yogurts, and snacks to put together an easy meal when you’re struggling to find places to eat or don’t like the local options.
  4. Stock up on fruit. It can be hard to find something tasty and nutritious to snack on when you’re stuck on a bus all day or have just arrived in a new city. To combat this, try to stock up on fruit when you travel; in Asia you can buy fruit everywhere and it’s usually pretty cheap. Try to choose fruit you can peel – like bananas or oranges – to avoid getting sick.
  5. Check out some apps. There are lots of apps out there that can be invaluable when navigating a foreign food scene. I’d recommend Happy Cow, which is an app that helps you find local restaurants serving vegetarian and vegan food.
  6. Have a local guide for a day. They are your bridge to the cultures you are visiting, and a good guide will be a well of knowledge and tips to help make your trips that much more enjoyable. If you have dietary requirements, your guide might be able to point you in the direction of some appropriate restaurants, show you which street food is safe to try, and give general advice on how to survive in their home country.
  7. Consider becoming a travel vegetarian. This is something I have seriously considered and probably will adhere to when abroad, mostly because of my fear of surprisingly ingesting fish and/or fish byproducts. It is important to note that the concept of meat is not the same in Asia as it is in the West, so asking for your chosen dish to be made without meat can cause some trouble. Though the dish might not have any meat pieces, don’t expect the broth, oil, or toppings to be veggie-friendly. In China, you can say: "Wo chi sù" which literally translates to "I eat vegetarian," or – better still – have someone write it down for you. This generally means Buddhist vegetarian, which means you also won't get any garlic or onions, so the food can sometimes be a bit bland. You can try "I don't eat meat or seafood" which is “Wo bù chi ròu huò hai xian,” but you may still get oyster or fish sauce. Buddhist temples can be a great place to find completely vegetarian food as well as Indian restaurants, which are actually quite popular in many East Asian countries.
There you have it, picky eaters! I hope this guide makes you feel a bit more adventurous when choosing places to travel abroad. Food should never be a barrier to experiencing a new culture – it should be an essential part of the experience, regardless of your dietary preferences.
Allie Roos is a senior at Pitt with a double major in Classical Language and History, as well as a minor in Religious Studies and a Certificate in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She’s hoping to enroll in a Classics graduate program after she graduates, and is currently interning at the Study Abroad Office for the 2017-18 academic year. She studied abroad in Sicily during the summer of 2016, and then again in Rome during the spring of 2017.