bilan travels // dealing with food restrictions abroad

Despite being a person that often thinks of the worst-case scenario, I put my fears aside and dove in, fork first.

Food was a very interesting part of my study abroad experience in Spain. Coming into it, I was nervous because I don’t eat pork nor am I a big fan of seafood. Despite being a person that often thinks of the worst-case scenario, I put my fears aside and dove in, fork first. Three main takeaways you ask? Get creative, take charge, and if you can, just try it! The last one is especially relevant in situations for foods that you have never tried before. You might actually really like it (e.g. Calamares en su tinta), or at least you can say you’ve tried it once even if you never eat it again haha.

Though Spanish people are very proud of their variety of ham, jamón ibérico y jamón serrano, there is more to Spanish cuisine than that. Living in a homestay allowed me to try so many different dishes. Each region of Spain has different traditional foods and different ways of preparing foods like paella. Some areas use mariscos, seafood or even conejo, rabbit. Following the Mediterranean diet according to my host mother, means that they eat a lot of light, fresh salads in the summer and heartier soups and meals in the winter. As a fall/winter study abroad student, the amount of soup I ate toward the end was immeasurable haha, but it was so good though so I can’t even complain! The pastries were another story. Amazingly fresh and simple! The fresh baked smell of napolitanas coming out of the oven, or the crispy croissants that accompanied a cup of café con leche (or specifically café con leche templada, coffee with room temperature milk). Relaxing mornings in cute cafeterías with friends were some of my favorite moments. All in all, the food, along with the general culture, encouraged people to get together, sit down and enjoy rather than always taking it to go, and appreciate the little things.

In situations where you cannot a lot of foods typically offered in traditional restaurants, I say get creative and/or take charge of the situation. First and foremost, learn how to say foods that you can and cannot eat in the local language. Whether you choose to memorize it or write it down and carry it with you, this will make your life immensely easier. For example, if you are a vegetarian in Spain, be sure to know words such as vegetariano/a, carne, vaca, pollo, cerdo, etc. Also, depending how strict you are, it may be useful to ask if something has been cooked with x or flavored with y. An option if living abroad is preparing your own food and opting for a fun evening cooking with friends. If you are just visiting on the other hand, I would always recommend doing research beforehand. Try to find restaurants in the area that cater to your restrictions using resources such as HappyCow (vegetarian), Zabihah (halal), Shamash (kosher), and or if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, take advantage of rising collaborative consumption trend and explore options such as EatWith, a platform that fills the extra seat at dinner. The site connects those looking for an atypical dining experience with fellow food lovers or talented local chefs in a given area.

If none of these options work for you, I wouldn’t underestimate the option of asking people native to the area. There may be some older, hidden gems nearby that haven’t been bit by the social media bug. It is easy to become frustrated when you are traveling with food restrictions, so hopefully these tips will allow you to enjoy your time…and not on an empty stomach!

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