Eating at the Chiang Mai Night Market

The Fussy Eater Travel Guide

There’s something I need to finally admit here on the blog; a somewhat shameful secret that may well brand me as a ‘bad’ traveller by many.  So here it is: I don’t like Asian food. In fact, take away my British and Western food staples and I tend to panic. In short, I’m an extremely fussy eater, so how on earth do I cope as a traveller?

Eating at the Chiang Mai Night Market

Eating at the night market in Thailand

For as long as I can remember food has been a bit of a minefield for me. I was a skinny child who wasn’t fond of eating and if food looked or smelled weird, I just wasn’t interested. Forget anything spicy, meaty or adventurous, I would eat only simple potato or pasta based meals and would often skip a hot dinner in favour of a sandwich or bowl of cereal. I was 18 before I even tried Chinese food and when I moved away to University the only thing I knew how to ‘cook’ was a pancake. It’s fair to say that my diet was pretty limited throughout my childhood and teenage years.

Coconut ice-cream on our Koh Samui Holiday

Coconut ice-cream in Koh Samui

Things changed when Andrew and I moved in together when we were 22. We put our unhealthy student diets aside and started full-time jobs; we took packed lunches to work and planned out what dinners we would eat throughout the week. I learned to cook and to bake – it even became a kind of hobby of ours. Despite all this I still wasn’t an adventurous eater; trying new dishes always seems like a bit of a gamble to me; I get anxious if I don’t know what to expect from a meal. Back in London I’d typically have a banana and cereal bar for breakfast, fruit and sandwiches for lunch and vegetables with either pasta or baked potato for dinner.

We cooked a great roast for Janet & Graham

We cooked a great roast for Andrew’s relatives in Australia

I know many people consider food to be one of the most important aspects of travel, something to explore and discover in its own right; I wish I could be more like that but my taste buds and stomach don’t agree. Given all this, I knew from the moment we started planning our travel adventure that I’d be forced to eat outside of my comfort zone in Asia.

How I Eat in Asia

Aside from Australia and New Zealand, where we cooked familiar meals in hostels, the one country I’ve been to that I was able to eat happily in was Italy. I can eat pasta every day of the week and not get sick of it, add in some cheesy pizza and delicious gelato and I’m sorted. By contrast, I get sick of rice very easily. I’m not good with spices and did I mention that I gave up eating meat a few years ago? Yes, Asia is probably the worst continent for me to be travelling in food-wise, so how do I cope?

Gronola and Yogurt at the Yoghurt House, Sagada

Breakfast at the Yoghurt House in the Philippines

Eating outside of my comfort zone: while in Asia I’ve had to get used to eating things I’d rather not. As a consequence there have been some horrid food experiences so far; sugary bread and watery soups, greasy rice dishes cooked in copious amounts of fish oil, chicken floating in my Vietnamese ‘vegetarian’ soup and street food in Laos that made Andrew violently sick. There have been times when food has been offered to us out of genuine kindness and it would have been rude not to accept; when staying at a longhouse in Borneo for example we were given some local food which included cucumber soaked in fish-oil and tiny minnows which were cooked and eaten whole, eyes and all. We were also treated to some Chinese-Malaysian food by our new friend Mr Chem and his daughter while in Borneo; my stomach clenched up at the sight of the fried dough balls floating in a frog-spawn-like substance that they gave us.

Andrew in the Longhouse, Borneo Malaysia

Our meal at the longhouse

Discovering new foods I love: there have been occasions when daring to try a new dish has worked out well for me though; one of our hosts in Borneo cooked us the most amazing Indian-Malaysian meal ever and I finally understood the appeal of Pad Thai once I’d ordered one from Apple and Noi’s in Kanchanaburi. After a terrible start in Indonesia I grew to like Nasi Goreng, a local rice, vegetable and egg dish and ate some delicious veggie meals in Ubud. Sometimes I’ve also managed to find familiar, locally sourced foods in Asia that I’ve loved; delicious salads and homemade bread at the Buzz café in the Philippines, tasty yoghurt produced in Dalat Vietnam, French-style baguettes in Laos and fruit, muesli and yoghurt breakfasts practically everywhere we go.

Lunch at The Buzz, Bohol

Lunch at The Buzz, Philippines

Stuffed Eggplant in Ubud, Bali

Stuffed eggplant in Ubud

Finding comfort foods: although it doesn’t do our budget much good, there are the times on the road when I’ve simply succumbed and paid more for the comfort of some proper western-style grub such as vegetable pie and mash at the UNIrish pub in Chiang Mai, tasty pizzas in Kanchanaburi and proper Italian-made pasta and veggie burgers when I can find them. Cheese is the food I miss most from home and it’s almost impossible to find in Asia, when we’ve been absolutely desperate Andrew and I have paid up to £5 for a tiny block of mature cheddar to calm our cravings. Staying put in an apartment in Chiang Mai for a month also allowed us to cook our own meals and indulge in the foods we missed from home, such as macaroni cheese.

Pie and Mash at the UNIrish Pub, Chiang Mai

Pie and mash at the UNIrish pub

Museli, fruit, yoghurt in Thailand

Muesli, fruit, yogurt and fruit shake in Thailand

Battling bad habits: we find it much harder to eat as healthily as we did back home while we travel and have found ourselves buying fast food at times; back home we never touched McDonalds but we’ve been to one at least once in half of the countries we’ve visited so far. Pot noodles became a favourite meal of ours in Malaysia since it was difficult and expensive to get tasty food. There have also been plenty of travel days when we’ve eaten nothing but crisps and biscuits while other meals have been skipped entirely – we’re constantly battling these bad habits as we travel.

FergBurger, Queenstown New Zealand

Fish burger in New Zealand

Fussy Eater Travel Tips

If you’re a fussy eater like me who’s nervous about finding food you like on the road, here are some tips that might make things easier for you:

  • 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 I’ve conquered this in Asia is by visiting markets where I can pick and choose a few different foods which typically come in small portions and are quite inexpensive so if I don’t like something, it’s no big deal.
  • Travel with a more adventurous eater – Andrew is a far more adventurous eater than me and will often encourage me to try his food, which is a great way to find out whether I like a dish without having to order one for myself.
  • Find a staple dish – try to find at least one local dish you can eat if you have to; I look for variations of a simple rice, vegetable and egg meals or spring rolls when I become daunted by unfamiliar dishes in a local eatery. I’m surprisingly pretty good at eating Indian food which is usually available in Asia, so we’ll often search some out when we’re stuck for something to eat.
Indian Food in Thailand

Indian food in Thailand

  • Learn how to express yourself – if you have specific food needs, learn how to express this in the local language. We try to learn the word for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘no meat’ in each country we visit to make things easier when ordering in restaurants. This strategy doesn’t always work; in Vietnam we often ordered ‘vegetarian’ food that came with meat in it – one menu even advertised ‘vegetarian pork’ which I still can’t get my head around!
  • Go to the supermarket – pick up some staple foods from the supermarket to make cheap lunches or breakfasts with. We buy fruit, bread, spreads, yoghurts and snacks to put together an easy meal when we’re struggling to find places to eat or don’t like the local options.
  • 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 I try to stock up on fruit when I travel; in Asia you can buy fruit everywhere and it’s usually pretty cheap. I try to choose fruit I can peel like bananas or oranges to avoid getting sick.
Fruit at the Market in Laos

Fruit at the market in Laos

  • Research where to eat – we often research restaurants on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet when we arrive in a new destination to find somewhere which serves the type of food we’re after, has good reviews and is in our budget range.
  • Cook when you can – hotels and hostels in Asia don’t generally tend to have cooking facilities but there are a few around with basic amenities that will allow you to prepare meals you’re comfortable eating. Better still, rent apartments with kitchens occasionally, like we did in Chiang Mai, to completely alleviate your food worries and cook your own meals.
  • Carry a few home comforts – we travel with a supply of Marmite and peppermint tea bags, generously restocked by our parents when they visited us over the summer. It’s great to have these small food comforts when you’re feeling sick of local foods.
Marmite on Toast

Marmite on toast in Indonesia

  • Be brave – sometimes you just have to swallow your fear and try something new; while I’ll never be the most adventurous eater, travelling in Asia is slowly teaching me to step out of my food comfort zone.

Any other fussy eaters out there; how do you cope with food when you travel?

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23 Comments
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 12:26h, 09 February Reply

    Well, you know that neither Tony nor I are fussy and love trying weird new foods, but I will try to help you out with the vegetarian meat issue you encountered in Vietnam, because you might do the same in Taiwan: there are many vegetarian restaurants in both of these countries that use soy products or mushrooms to resemble animal protein. So there is a vegan restaurant one street over from us here in HCMC that serves “BBQ pork”, but it’s actually just tofu skin made to resemble pork. You will find this at a lot of Buddhist temples in Taiwan—we actually ate at one place where we didn’t realize until halfway through that all the dishes were veg because they so realistically mimicked meat! You’re not in Vietnam any longer, but one thing to look for should you ever come back is the word “chay” in restaurant names—this means vegetarian and we’ve never been to a place yet that has this in the sign that serves anything other than vegetarian food.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:18h, 10 February Reply

      Hi Steph, that explains the ‘Vegetarian Pork’ then! Thanks for letting me know, that’ll come in handy in Taiwan. Apart from finding one Chay place in Vietnam we did have a nightmare with the meat issue; once Andrew asked for vegetable Pho, empahsising that he wanted it without meat but it still came out with scraps of meat in! From what the waiter said we gathered they had just fished the meat out of the soup and missed a bit! I think that was what happened with my veggie soup in Halong Bay too. I loved Vietnam but became paranoid about the meat issue!

  • Kellie
    Posted at 14:53h, 09 February Reply

    I’m feeling your pain at the minute Amy. I was a vegetarian for 18 years but gave this up a few years go. Really the only things I don’t like to eat are celery and cucumber. However since being ill, I’m back to my vegetarian ways and I’m not eating any dairy. This is not easy in Mexico! Thankfully at the moment we have our own kitchen, otherwise I’d be existing on bananas and crisps.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:11h, 10 February Reply

      That sounds like a struggle Kellie, I hope you get over your nasty illness soon. I really envy you having a kitchen there in Mexico, if I could cook up tasty treats like those vegan pancakes you made I’d be happy!

  • Patti
    Posted at 19:06h, 09 February Reply

    I know it must have been yucky, but this cracked me up: “my stomach clenched up at the sight of the fried dough balls floating in a frog-spawn-like substance that they gave us.” I’m not quite as picky as you but I’m not an overly adventurous eater either. I give you a standing ovation though for taking on the challenges of traveling (and eating) out of your comfort zone. There are just some places we will never visit because I know I couldn’t handle it. So, give yourself permission to eat at McDonald’s once in a while if it sustains you, look where you are and how far you’ve come! Good for you!

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:08h, 10 February Reply

      Thanks Patti; glad I made you smile 🙂 Actually, I have to admit that the balls in frog-spawn weren’t nearly as bad they looked; sort of like donuts in a sugary sauce, still, you wouldn’t have known that to look at it!

  • Stefan Arestis
    Posted at 23:45h, 09 February Reply

    Great post. And I love that you guys carry a pot of marmite with you.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:06h, 10 February Reply

      Thanks Stefan – Marmite has become an essential travel item for us!

  • Kerri
    Posted at 06:44h, 10 February Reply

    You described my daughter to a t. But I have noticed that travel in itself has opened her up to be much more adventurous food wise. The other day, she floored me when she ate bugs in Bangkok. Never thought that would ever happen. We still need to get those comfort foods such as yogurt.

    • Amy
      Posted at 09:46h, 10 February Reply

      Wow, I’m impressed that she ate bugs Kerri – even Andrew wouldn’t attempt that! Comfort foods are what I crave most when I travel, I’m going to eat so much cheese when I visit the UK over the summer!

  • Gem
    Posted at 20:23h, 11 February Reply

    Love this post! I’m a very picky eater, but within the last couple of years I’ve been trying to eat new cuisines and try new foods… I don’t think I’ll ever be an adventurous eater though =).

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:51h, 12 February Reply

      Thanks Gem, nice to hear from another picky eater 🙂 Well done for trying new cuisines, I try to challenge myself but like you, I’ll never be an adventurous eater!

  • Jenny
    Posted at 10:24h, 26 February Reply

    I can sometimes be a fussy eater at home, but I feel like the best cure for choosiness (about anything really) is long term travel! Sometime I think being a long-term traveler turns me into a better version of myself. I have no choice but to be more patient and open to new things.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 13:47h, 26 February Reply

      That is so true Jenny, we never would have eaten or experienced all the things we have in the last year had we stayed in England. Travel is definitely good for broadening your horizons!

  • Krishna
    Posted at 10:10h, 03 June Reply

    Hi Amy and Andrew have been reading your blog and been very engrossed!
    Currently passing time at changi Singapore airport reading about your travels!

    I am vegetarian, and when traveling I usually only eat pasta, pizza, fries, sandwiches!
    I don’t eat fish or eggs either so it’s harder but not too difficult.
    Indian restaurants are great and almost easy to find anywhere in Asia!
    I totally understand your comment about eating McDonald’s more often abroad!

    So jealous of all your travels!

    Have a fab time teaching and look forward to reading more!

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:02h, 03 June Reply

      Hi Krishna, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s great to hear from another fussy eater, I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with food in Asia! I think one of the best countries for me food-wise would be India because it’s so veggie-friendly but no doubt I’d still crave cheese and pasta! Have a great flight 🙂

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