International travel and food can be a volatile mixture of both pleasures and pain. Whenever, I hear those “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” questions, I usually start to giggle hysterically and that my family are quickly pulling the straitjacket out of the cupboard. So, let’s go over a few highlights and lowlights, just from the world of work. I think when I travel for pleasure, it’s open season; work settings ought to be safer. Hmm, maybe.
When you’re presented with sheep’s eyeballs, do you turn the pupils away before you bite? Azerbaijan is Turkey’s cousin and has some of my favourite food. But, traditions are different. When the host of the banquet wants to show his appreciation for the work the IMF team did, he offers the mission chief the first pair of sheep’s eyeballs. But, the crafty manager, has a solution ready: “Dennis, why don’t you do the honours?” To quote Basil Fawlty: “You bastard!”
Swallow, gulp, swallow, slurp vodka, swallow…Belch! You have to show your appreciation of the delicacy.
Staying with Azerbaijan, but the other end of the tasty scale, though an oddity for most, something I grew to love: Beluga caviar (sturgeon roe), raised plentifully in the Caspian Sea.
The Azeris loved to give the mission members several jars at the end of work; some had no interest, so I was a willing taker of surplus. I often stopped in London on my way home to stay with my wife’s uncle, who was a High Commissioner at the time. He and his wife supplied Champagne to go with my ‘rent’ payment. Bliss! Admittedly, it’s really preferred with ice-chilled vodka, which was how I’d consume it in-country.
I already mentioned Matoke, as a speciality of Uganda. All I’ll add is that I was told it was reasons for automatic divorce if a wife could not make it well. Go, research it, if you disbelieve me. 🙂
Early visits to former Soviet Union countries brought a level of culinary shock that’s hard to explain. One of my early points of confusion was seeing people lining up, but not knowing for what; it turned out to be for bread (хлеб (chleb), in Russian) and no one knew how much was available, just that some would be. But in the early days, scarcity was the norm.
Russia, mid-1990s: We were in the food ‘Gulag’. So, it was common to have this exchange in a Moscow restaurant (excuse the attempted Russian accent; I could write it in cyrrilic, but 🙂 ):
“Vot would you like?” the waiter asked. I checked the menu, and ordered chicken. “No chicken.” I checked again, and saw ‘meat’, so ordered that. “No meat.” I’m patient, but… I asked what was available. “Potatoes and cabbage.” My eyes met his and rolled a lot. Those ingredients would be alright in borscht, but just alone on a plate? McDonald’s hadn’t yet opened. Time to get up and leave, with a smile. Socialism’s equality of opportunity is fine, if you must want the opportunity offered.
But, I’m a sucker for street food, and Africa hit the spot best, including Casablanca, Morocco, where I often took stopovers en route to Mauritania.
Or ‘fry fry’ in Freetown, Sierra Leone:
I love Asian food from the whole region, but never worked on the continent. The best I got was, oddly, a Korean restaurant in Conakry, Guinea, where we often went on Sunday evenings, for their mixed offering of Vietnamese food and Korean BBQ. Our daughter was less than 3 but that’s where she learned to use chopsticks 🙂
What about drink? What about it? Most countries have their local beers and I’m glad to try any. Having spent so many formative years in England, and enjoying dark, warmer beer, with little fizziness, I’d learned that most of the world like lager or Pilsner beers, with fizz. The best compromises were the dark beers of Germany and the fruit beers of Belgium. But, if I’m pushed, my favourite Pilsner, from work settings was Czech Budweiser.
Drinking it or wine while dining in a restaurant that’s in a cave in Prague—Svatá Klára? Magical.
But, without my business travels would I have known how much vodka I can drink and still walk straight and take good notes? What is the maximum number of toasts at a dinner? Would I have learned about the quality of Georgian brandy? Where would I have learned about Chibuku shake-shake? Would I have learned that Estonia’s Vana Tallinn is made from a base of Jamaican rum? Why does Latvia’s Riga Balsam taste so much like Ferrol Compound and are the medical benefits similar?
But, food is truly joyous with good company. I’ll never forget how my staff in Guinea greeted us on our reconnaissance and my assignment visits–with home-prepared dinners to carry through a few days. A better welcome has never been had.
In Guinea, we were good friends with the Japanese ambassador and his wife; their chef was excellently and scoured the fish markets daily for the best catches. Any invitation to dine at their residence was an automatic yes. His wife loved the traditional tea ceremony; so did we. Sushi was to die for. They were part of a group of 8 which we formed for tennis on Sunday mornings. The group was completed by a French couple and the British ambassador, our immediate neighbour. The French couple’s kids would babysit Rhian while we played. After, was potluck brunch at our house. Each brought something: pastries and sushi were constants. Brunch had no end time and often went past noon. That’s when my wife started the tradition of watching tennis grand slams with friends food and drink.
Finally, dining with ‘important’ people in informal settings is often the mark of good relationships.
- Guyana’s president enjoying good curry while discussing budgets in his garden.
- Discussing program issues with Estonia’s finance minister in a sauna with beer, pickled herrings and peanuts.
- Saturday lunch at home, under the gazebo, with the French ambassador while she rocked our toddler on her knees.
- Spending a evening sitting on the floor having dinner with Mauritania’s central bank governor, with jazz playing in the background.
The details of the meetings? Not important now. The memories? Timeless.