The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DISPLACED Q: Which dish is the worst international traveler?

Although “Does it travel well?” is a question usually asked of wine, we think the same query should be demanded of food, and often.

Alice agrees with us.

Soup didn’t cross successfully from the sublime to Wonderland:

“There’s too much pepper in that soup!” Alice said to herself as well as she could for sneezing.

At least use the correct animal.

In his Telegraph article, “Elegy to English shepherd’s pie”, our Alice Award winner, Sebastian Doggart, bemoans American ineptitude when it comes to making this most English of lamb dishes.

Americans just don’t get it.

First problem, encountered even in supposedly English pubs here in New York, is that it’s usually made with beef.

Putting the wrong animal in a dish? For shame!

Perhaps food should follow the jet stream.

Bill Bryson, in his book The Lost Continent, describes an equally disappointing encounter with another dish that hadn’t traveled well from East to West: a Cornish pasty in Michigan:

It was awful. There wasn’t anything, wrong with it exactly—it was a genuine pasty, accurate in every detail—it was just that after more than a month of eating American junk food it tasted indescribably bland and insipid, like warmed cardboard.

Although he attributes its lackluster flavor to his tastebuds becoming accustomed to American cuisine, I beg to differ on this point. Some dishes simply don’t travel well, and the Cornish pasty is evidently one of them. No one should attempt to recreate it outside England’s borders.

Or perhaps direction doesn’t matter.

However, Mr. Bryson found that some foods didn’t travel successfully across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, either.

In Notes from a Small Island, he comments on British hamburger chain Wimpy in the 1970s, before McDonald’s ruled UK fast food :

“I confess a certain fondness for the old-style Wimpy’s with their odd sense of what constituted American food, as if they had compiled their recipes from a garbled telex.”

He has a point. You don’t find American McDonald’s serving Big Macs with a side of Heinz baked beans.

And lastly — if you can’t boil a kettle, don’t make the tea.

Here, I am going to jump up on my hobby horse and say emphatically, “If you don’t understand that tea must be made with boiling water –- that’s when the cooking thermometer reads 100 degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit –- don’t even try.”  Leave the tea to the British and Indian experts and stick to coffee instead.

I’ve lost count of the times when restaurants have served me “tea” by plonking down a cup of barely hot water with a teabag, still in its paper wrapper, at the side.

Why, for goodness’ sake? I also ordered a sandwich, but wasn’t handed two slices of stale bread and a packet of ham and told to get on with it.

Once bitten

Alice could have warned us of these perils, naturally. Her culinary adventures in Wonderland made her cautious before she jumped through the looking-glass:

“How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink.”

Out of the mouth of babes and Victorian child-heroines, indeed.

So tell us: What’s the worst-traveled food you’ve encountered?

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13 responses to “DISPLACED Q: Which dish is the worst international traveler?

  1. Kym Hamer June 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Firstly, tea MUST be made with freshly boiled water – otherwise the leaves don’t infuse!!!! (over 5 years working with major tea companies made me a FASCINATING dinner party guest, let me tell you!)

    And to answer your question:
    Lamingtons do not travel well – particularly in a padded postpak from Australia…

    • Kate Allison June 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      LOL, Kym – I’ve got this mental picture of a padded envelope seeping sponge cake and coconut at the corners…

  2. Piglet in Portugal June 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    “Toad in the hole” would not travel well
    or “Chop Toad”
    LOL 🙂

    • Kate Allison June 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      I can say with confidence that you are 100% correct with Toad in the Hole. It must be made with English sausages, and hot dog wieners are no substitute. Believe me, I’ve tried.

      I’ve also tried to make my own pork pie, and that was a very sorry experiment too.

      • Piglet in Portugal June 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

        The name conjures up all sorts of ideas and so much is lost in translation! No, hot dog wieners are no substitute…I want tell you what we have nicknamed those!

        Have you tried it with lamb chops…hence chop toad?

        The knack is the pastry with Pork Pie…hmmm when I returned to England last week I bought some from our local butchers and brought them back to Portugal along with 10 packs of sausages!

        Hey ho is time to turn the lights out…I need my beauty sleep.

  3. missneriss June 7, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    You know, I actually thought shepherd’s pie was made from beef! Shows how much I know… I’m trying to think of an Australian dish that’s been butchered abroad, but can’t think of anything! Asian food, however is another story altogether. Sweet and sour pork balls anyone?

    As for tea, the water must be boiling and I need a splash of milk. Sorry, but I do!

  4. amblerangel June 7, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Since you asked- my personal opinion is that Italian food has not traveled well across the Atlantic. Somewhere along the journey everything got buried in tomato sauce, basil, too much oregano, resulting in all dishes being indiscernible from the other.

  5. ML Awanohara June 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Funny, do we mean food traveling for real (in one’s bag or suitcase) or figuratively: ie, being recreated in another place? I’m feeling a little muddled.

    Maybe all this Alice stuff is infecting my brain?!

    My own experience has been skewed by living in Japan, where top chefs possess the enviable ability to study other cultures’ cuisines in minute detail and come up with something even better than the original. I’ve had some of my best-ever French five-course meals, Italian pastas, and dim sum brunches (Japanese version of Chinese dumplings is much more delicate and tasty) in Tokyo!

    On the other hand, Japanese also have the ability to concoct some truly wacky Western foods, such as the flying potato sandwich mentioned by Carole Mallett Hobbs in her guest post of yesterday.

    In general, I find that the simplest things are harder for other cultures to get right. I mean, how hard is it to cook a hamburger — I’m of course talking about real burgers, not the McDonald’s kind. Yet burgers rarely taste as good to me abroad as they do here in the U.S. (with the possible exception of those produced at the Tokyo American Club). What is it — the quality of the meat? I have no idea…

    Here’s another example. I noticed that Piglet in Portugal, who will be featured as one of TDN’s Random Nomads tomorrow, has put up a post saying that the foodie highlight of her recent trip to Britain was indulging in a Devon clotted cream tea.

    I’ve lived in that part of the world long enough to understand why she felt that way. Cream teas simply aren’t the same outside of the UK.

    But again, why should it be such a challenge? I’m mean, we’re talking about scones, jam, and cream here.

    Is it the quality of the dairy? Most likely…

    But homemade English jam, too, tastes different, as do scones — the best ones in the UK are so much fluffier and fruitier than those found elsewhere. (Note that Piglet provides her recipe for scones — but will baking soda behave the same way in other climates? Perhaps that’s the rub…)

    One last example — from a non-Western perspective: My husband (he’s Japanese) and his colleagues don’t like going to sushi restaurants in the U.S. where the chef isn’t Japanese. Chinese don’t know how to make sushi, they say; Koreans are somewhat better. Listening to their banter, I say to myself: goodness, what’s there to get wrong? I mean, the only thing to cook is the rice…

    Once again, we have a seemingly simple dish that apparently only natives have the knack for preparing.

    My conclusion: there can be no accounting for tastes — and tastebuds!

    • awindram June 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      The problem I find with burgers outside the US is that people rarely bother toasting the bun.

      In Penang I came across a place that thought you added Philadelphia cream cheese to a Philly cheesesteak. As a former Philly resident I found that a particular heresy.

      Fish and chips are never any good in the US (or in the south of England, I would controversially argue). They’ll often give you three small battered bits of fish rather than one big one, fries rather than proper chips, and you can never get mushy peas. Also, they always insist on giving you coleslaw.

      American hard cider isn’t proper cider, it’s just alcoholic appletiser. There’s something about the clay in the south west of England, as well as a small pocket of France and Spain that allows you to grow the right kind of apple for cider.

      • Kate Allison June 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm

        There’s a reason I didn t mention fish and chips in this piece, and that reason is — shameless plug alert — Lenny and Joe’s Fish Tale in Westbrook, Connecticut. Quite simply the best fish and chips I’ve had anywhere, and that includes the north of England. It could only be improved by the introduction of mushy peas, but that might be a bit of a tall order on this side of the Atlantic.

      • ML Awanohara June 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

        I could not agree more about the need for toasting the hamburger bun, but malheureusement, since repatriating to the U.S., I’ve encountered people even in my own extended family — albeit no one with blood ties, at least so far as I know — who appear to be blissfully unaware of how crucial bun toasting is. I’ve had to request that they do so upon pain of looking like an ill-behaved barbecue guest! 😦

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