Traveling to new places is always exciting. With sights to see, people to meet, and stories to hear, every place is different and offers its own experience. Some people travel for the architecture and the history; some people go abroad to climb mountains and explore the unknown.
Me? My favorite part is the food.
Two years ago, I got the chance to travel to Portugal for the first time. This small country on the Iberian Peninsula is home to some fantastic, well-known foods — ever heard of Port wine? — and I was really psyched. For three days, I ate pretty well, mostly meals that I figured were Portuguese ways of cooking familiar ingredients, like chicken, fish, etc.
But one day, I sat down with my parents at a local restaurant-bar-type-place in Lisbon, and took a look at the menu. After the handful of minutes that it took to stare at a menu in a different language, I ordered what I thought was just another chicken dish. Imagine my surprise when, fifteen minutes later, a steaming plate of grilled octopus legs arrived at my table.
Apparently I mistook what I thought was the word for chicken (I thought it was pollo, but apparently it’s frango) and ordered polvo, or octopus. And you know what? That pile of grilled octopus was by far the best meal I had on the entire trip.
It turns out that local foods don’t always have a direct translation to English, or are made with foods that are common at home. Arguably, Portugal’s best seafood is fresh, grilled sardines — not the canned or dried stuff we get in the US — but the mental image of canned fish would have probably stopped me from ordering them. That is, if I had known what they were.
Six months later, I went to Puerto Rico with my swim team for a training trip, and tried to recreate what had happened in Portugal. I looked at the menu bolted next to the order window at a family-run place, and found a word whose translation eluded me – Mofongo. Apparently, mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican meal consisting of broth, fried meat, and mashed, cooked plantains. Again, it was the best meal on that trip.
My biggest discovery on these two trips was that the unexpected is better than the predictable. It is, to me at least, more fun to point randomly at a menu and get some new or local dish I would have never thought to order than scour the menu for words I can decipher. Taking a step away from the foods in my comfort zone has opened my eyes (and taste buds) to new flavors, new ingredients, and best of all, new food.
I also discovered that grilled octopus makes one heck of a tasty meal.