Years of eating dangerously

In Turkey earlier this year, I learnt of two useful treatments for tummy trouble (the euphemism I will use for diarrhoea). If you're in Istanbul, go to a pharmacy and ask for Tasectan Kapsul.

If you're in the countryside, go to a local market or greengrocer and ask for Cornelian cherries. Either treatment will slow the flow within a couple of hours.

In offering this advice, I don't mean to imply that you are more likely to get tummy troubles in Turkey than in any other country.

Occasional TTs are the risk you run when you travel as a gastronomic scholar (the euphemism I will use for glutton).

As I keep telling my friends and family, gastronomic scholars eat a lot because they are in search of learning experiences. They expose themselves to bizarre flavours and digestive upsets to understand other cultures. Of course, you want great meals on your journey, but more importantly, you want the Story. You'll get both if you follow three principles:

1. Eat in local trattorias rather than posh restaurants (which are the same the world over);

2. Always order the strangest-looking item on the menu;

3. Engage the waiters in conversation, so they'll explain what you've ordered.

In a restaurant called Pap'Acorda in Lisbon, the strangest words on the menu were "peixonhos da horta" (which literally translates as "little fish of the garden"). It was a kind of fritto misto, but the batter was beautifully light. I remarked that it looked like tempura, and the waiter replied: "It should. Tempura comes from Portugal. We gave it to the Japanese."


He explained that the idea of frying small fish in hot oil was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.

They had sailed into Nagasaki in ships displaying the red cross of the Knights Templar. Tempura, he said, is the Japanese pronunciation of "Templar".

Research later confirmed part of his story - the Portuguese did indeed carry the idea of flouring and frying fish to Japan, but it is more likely the name comes from the Portuguese word "tempero", which means "seasoning". A waiter's tale does not need to be 100 per cent accurate to be interesting.

Portugal is proud of its role in mapping the planet, but not every nation sees that history so positively. In Manila, I asked a waiter to explain a dish called "lapu-lapu". He told me it was grilled fish with garlic and soy sauce, but that was not important. Lapu-Lapu was the name of the island chieftain who killed the explorer Ferdinand Magellan on April 27, 1521.

Geography teachers in English-speaking countries portray Magellan as a heroic pioneer - the first person to circumnavigate the globe. To Filipinos, he was an invader. Lapu-Lapu was a freedom fighter, worthy of commemoration in a favourite dish.

It's rare that a meal can make you look at the world in a new way, but that's the experience I seek when I travel on my stomach.

This approach does make you dependent on the kindness of waiters, which is fine in Italy, where the waiters love to talk, and a forlorn hope in Hong Kong, where the waiters are likely to say, "You no like?" in response to questions.

In a restaurant called Luk Yu, which I decided was rhyming slang for the waiters' attitude, you get a pencil and a sheet of paper on which the names of the dishes are printed in Chinese characters. In the absence of waiterly advice, I circled pictograms at random, and got an interesting variety of dishes.

I brought a copy of the menu home and had it translated by a friend. It turns out I was eating "specialty beautiful tidbits" such as "baked rice with pig tongue and fruity sauce", "high-class ham with minced fish in rolls", "steamed bun in lard", and "pigeon meat on toast". Would I have ordered so adventurously if I had known what I was getting? Probably not, and my experience would have been the lesser.

In any case, carrying a dictionary is no help in countries that are so passionate about their cooking that they write poetry on their menus. Two Turkish classics, Imam bayildi and Karniyarik, translate as "the priest fainted" and "split belly", giving no hint that they involve stuffed eggplants.

Nor do the translations "lady's thighs", "lady's lips" and "lady's fingers" offer any expectation of tasty pastries, even if they give insight into the preoccupations of the sultans who named them.

The policy of ordering the strangest item on the menu works particularly well in Italy, because the dish is likely to be a local specialty, written in dialect. In Dodici Apostoli (Twelve Apostles) in Verona, I ordered "pastissada de caval" and got horse stew.

At Christmas in Poste Vecie restaurant in Venice, I ordered "bisato sull'ara" and got stewed eel on polenta (the words translate literally as "serpent on the altar").

Elsewhere in Venice I applied the principle of "go for the strangest name" in deciding to have lunch at a restaurant called Antiche Carampane, which translates as "old sluts". Apart from the name, the attraction was a handwritten sign outside that read, "No pizza, no lasagne, no menu turistico". I asked the waitress if she would give us a few small plates of whatever was good that day, and ended up with a wonderful array of local seafoods.

The only time I've broken my rule about eating within the culture was in Vienna with my pregnant wife. The Austrians are serious carnivores, and after four days of sausages and pork, our systems were shutting down. It's no surprise that Sigmund Freud coined the term "anal retentive" while working in Vienna.

We were desperate for vegetables, and we'd heard there was a clever chef at the Hotel Imperial. This was my conversation with the waiter.

Me: "Do you think the chef could do us a plate of mixed vegetables?"

Waiter: "Anything you want."

Me: What is in season now?"

W: "We have herrings done five ways."

Me: "Well, yes, but do you have any vegetables?"

Waiter looks worried and fetches the head waiter, who asks: "I'm sorry sir, what did you want?"

Me: "A plate of mixed vegetables."

HW: "You do not like meat?"

Me: "Not today. We were hoping the chef could do something interesting with vegetables."

HW: "You want English style?"

Me: "What's that?"

HW: "Boiled vegetables."

Me: "No, not boiled vegetables. Different vegetables in different ways?"

HW: "Anything you want."

The waiters returned 15 minutes later with herrings done five ways, spinach puree topped with a poached quail egg, tiny zucchini, steamed carrots, sauteed potatoes, fried spring onions, green asparagus mousse, and fat white asparagus spears wrapped in ham.

It was fabulous, but I fear it was nothing like what most Viennese were eating that night.

Sometimes even the most serious gastronomic scholar has to rise above principle.