I am a backpacker and proud of it. I have travelled the world for over twenty years, immersed myself in local cultures, travelled slowly and ethically, I am proud of that traveller status, yet on a recent trip I committed the ultimate backpacker sin. I ate fast food!
Look at any blog or travel website and you will see everyone waxing lyrical about local food. Local cuisine is always best, local food is one of the best ways to connect to the culture, you have to eat local food or you are not a real traveller! Local, local, local!
And I have been guilty of this myself to be fair. I absolutely love local food, I even tried Balut in the Philippines for crying out loud, and I do not generally disagree with any of the above statements. Okay, maybe the real traveller one, to an extent.
I will always argue that a huge part of immersing yourself in the local culture is trying as much of the local food as possible. The best way to the heart of any destination is through your stomach, and one of the first things I do after leaving the airport and dropping my pack is head to a street stall or food court to feast on as much as I can!
But I travel slowly, and for the majority of the time – unless I am working – that means staying in a place for quite a while before moving on, and sometimes that means I want or need something different or something familiar to eat.
And that is why on a recent trip to Egypt I ended up at a certain well known pizza restaurant.
I was in Egypt and I ate pizza! Shock! Horror! How dare I!
Now I technically could justify it by saying I wanted to try this particular restaurant because it is actually quite infamous. And it really is. This was the infamous pizza place in front of the Sphinx, the fast food place with one of the best views in the world!
But the truth is I had been in Egypt a while and although I love Egyptian cuisine I was a bit bored of shawerma, kebabs and kofta for every meal. I just felt like something different. This was one of the very few options in the immediate vicinity.
And that is what I got.
After that my next meal was a quick shawerma from the local place I had been frequenting quite a lot.
Now don’t get me wrong, as an ethical traveller I always try and stay away from international chains as much as possible and will always argue for locally owned businesses every single time, but like every rule there has to be the occasional exception.
And this is a dillemma that most travellers will come across, there is a kind of group mentality, a pressure, that says only eat local food, a kind of shame when backpacking that comes from eating anything ‘western’ or familiar.
And although I get that from the perspective of promoting local food, which is awesome, I do draw the line at the shaming part.
It isn’t a good idea to head to a new destination and only stick to a certain branded fast food burger place because ‘that is what you know’, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with going back to what you know once in a while either. The key phrase there is once in a while.
Our diet at home is generally quite varied, for the majority of us at least anyway, so why would we not eat a varied diet when travelling?
And okay, the example I used here is fast food but it doesn’t have to be just that. I’m talking about a variety of cuisines too. When in Thailand the pad Thai and spring rolls from street vendors are among the best food you will ever taste, but when you are there for a few months your body may crave a bit of Italian pasta, or a Western burger, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! There are plenty of amazing local places that will serve those cuisines.
This is your trip, your adventure, and if you want to eat some sui mai and sweet and sour in Mexico, or some chimichangas in China, then you go for it!
Look at Club Street in Singapore’s Chinatown. Singapore is world renowned as a foodie destination, and rightly so, and it has one of the best cuisines in the world too! But club street has local owned restaurants that serve Italian, Western, Chinese, Mexican, food from all over the world, and although the chilli crab and chicken rice is amazing, there is nothing wrong with eating different cuisines as well.
By all means eat local most of the time, but eat a range of cuisines too! Variety is the spice of life after all!
I think the key here is relative moderation.
And I give this advice to everyone obviously, but to newer backpackers and rookie travellers in particular because frankly they are much more likely to feel the pressures of culture shock and homesickness, especially in the very early stages of their gap year. Getting a varied diet and eating something familiar, something that feels a little bit like the comforts of home, can really help with the process of dealing with that.
Sometimes a first time travellers gut is still getting used to the different spices and cuisines from the new destinations they are visiting and that can have a negative effect on their health, so having more of a balance of familiar food with local fare can actually save them a day or so near the bathroom.
So whilst I encourage everyone to go and try local street food, local restaurants, local cuisine, I am not going to judge them from eating something more familiar or comfortable either. I mean after all you go to a fast food place, whether that is a more local one such as Sushi King or Kenny Rodgers Roasters, or an international one like Pizza Hut, those places are filled with locals too.
Local food is awesome, but the odd bit of comfort food here and there won’t do you any harm either.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.