Wherever we travel, food plays a big part of the experience. Partly because food is an everyday challenge so the best & worst of the cultures you visit are magnified and partly because it’s something that is completely open to chance.
So, here are a few random food highlights gleaned from over 4 months of family travel from New Zealand across the Pacific via Hawaii & Fiji to the US. I’m not a foodie, in fact when you’re traveling with family in tow you have to adjust your eating habits accordingly. You’re not dining out every night. You can’t eat at high end joints that tend to be child-unfriendly. That said, there are plenty of options, mainly at the easy entry level available to be explored.
Here are a few random findings:
Food in Tokyo
Tokyo is food heaven.
Not only can you eat well cheaply, you can eat healthily. I can buy a lunch of fresh tofu, wakame (seaweed), edamame beans in a local convenience store for less than $5. You can also buy drinks without sugar in them. A few convenience store musts for the traveler:
- Onigiri – orange sized rice ball covered in nori seaweed that will often contain either chicken, tuna, vegetables. Cheap at $1.
- Hijiki – dark spiky seaweed, full of minerals and very different from your average health food store fare.
- Salad bows – great for a picnic, usually comes with Japanese dressing and generally good quality
- Vegetable juice – and I’m not talking about that acidic V8 tomato stuff but genuine green juice without any citrus
- Edamame beans – I love these little badboys. A traditional Japanese summer desert for salary men to snack on as they drink their beer
- Aquarius – perfect drink for hot weather, post-workout or that hangover. Non-sweet electrolyte drink. I believe Aquarius is available outside of Japan. The local rival is called “Pocari Sweat“.
There are a few places in the world where good food is the rule as opposed to the exception. I’ll say this is true of Japan, Thailand, India and possibly Italy. In most other countries, it’s 70% miss, 30% hit but that’s half the fun of travel – you just don’t know what’s round the corner.
Sushi & “Sushi”
You can’t talk about Japan without talking sushi.
And this is a moot point for many of our travel experiences. Having lived in Japan and also been married to my better Japanese half for many years I think I know enough about sushi to distinguish what’s good and what’s not. And here’s the problem. Sushi in New Zealand and the US just isn’t very good. Now, there are probably many good sushi joints in these countries but your average walk-in sushi vendor is pretty low quality.
Sushi joints in NZ and US are mainly run by Koreans and Chinese. That’s not an indictment on Korean and Chinese food (some of it is very good), it’s more a statement of fact about the nature of sushi. They are more entrepreneurial than Japanese sushi restauranteurs. They’ll mix up the menu to local tastes and approach the food differently. I’ve seen giant sushi in NZ and sushi covered with both mayonnaise and other sauces. I’ve seen deep-fried sushi, which I tried – wtf??!!
What can be said of sushi in NZ and US can also be said of many of the “Japanese” restaurants which are, in fact, run by Koreans and Chinese again. We found a Japanese udonyasan in Hawaii that had a Zagat rating but when we got there, despite the long queues for service, found the food to be pretty average. The place was run by non-Japanese Asians. In fact, interestingly, many of the fast food Japanese joints in Hawaii are this way staffed by Chinese and Filipinos. It seems the Japanese gravitate towards higher end restaurants leaving the cheaper end to the imitators.
Let’s face it, if you were a Korean or Chinese restaurant owner, would you slug it out serving your own country’s dishes or double your price and pass yourself off as an authentic Japanese joint? Many opt for the latter. Korean food is very good, so it’s disappointing they don’t serve that up instead of average Japanese fare.
A few tips on working out if it’s Sushi or “Sushi”
- Sushi rarely comes served with sauce on top
- Japanese sushi is generally small. The circular futomaki sushi is often no bigger than a golf ball. Giant sushi is almost always giant “sushi”
- Japanese restaurants will rarely serve other types of food (like Korean or Chinese). Their menu will also be limited. A vast menu covering different Asian cuisines is a giveaway
- A good way of telling is to look at the name of the license holder. There will be a brass plate or framed certificate somewhere in the restaurant near the entrance. Needless to say, you’ll need to be able to distinguish between a Japanese and non-Japanese Asian name
Sushi aside, there were some good discoveries. Burger Fuel in New Zealand is a veritable oasis in a culinary desert. Funny I’m saying that about a burger joint, but the quality is very good indeed. This is how burgers should be (and the service is good too!) These guys should expand as there is a dearth of quality burgers at this level.
Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods is a grocery store in the US. For healthy eaters like myself it’s a dream come true (but at a price). One shopping cart loaded with goodies will easily set you back $300+. Attractions at WFM include more Kombucha drinks than you can shake a stick at, a vegetable section that includes stuff you simply won’t find in your highstreet retailer (e.g. dandelion leaves) and a salad bar that charges $9 per lb but pretty much has most of what you’ll want for a snack. The Asian food island in their stores isn’t very good (see sushi above). Back on the sushi tip, WFM has a good selection – the sushi is very fresh (although the rice isn’t so good).
A few highlights from whole foods market:
- The salad bar
- The Kombucha cooler cabinet
- Juice cooler cabinet loaded with different type of non-citrus green vegetable juices
- Snacks for runners. An aisle full of cliff bars and the like to keep you carbed up.
- Sushi counter (try the sashimi rather than the sushi)
Matcha Latte / Green Tea Latte
I lament the lack of availability of this drink outside of the Pacific rim. You can find Green Tea soy latte at Starbucks from New Zealand to the USA. They should have this in Europe I’m more of a tea than coffee drinker so this is a real treat.
Kombucha tower, downtown Honolulu (Photo credit: barefootjournal)
Here’s another drink difficult to find outside of the US. I don’t know what Dave does to his Kombucha but I’m shelling out $4 a bottle for this stuff and buying it by the case-load wherever I find it. Kombucha is fermented green tea. The name “Kombucha” appears to be a misnomer. The original Japanese Kombucha is not the Kombucha you find in the US. The original Kombucha is fermented from some form of mushroom and I believe a totally different drink. Western Kombucha, however, isn’t in anyway inferior. It’s very good. Kombucha is naturally fizzy and supposedly possesses a whole bunch of health benefits. To be honest, I just like the taste. I don’t care much for sweet sodas so a sour taste without any added sugar is just perfect.
My Kombucha top 5 flavours:
- Greens with Chia seeds: this is almost a meal in a bottle with those swollen chia seeds floating around in it. An acquired taste but I love it
- Classic Original: in the black bottle with the alcohol warning. Yes this contains 0.5% alcohol. You’d need to drink 10 of these to have the equivalent of a pint of beer but that said, its presence is a nice surprise.
- Classic with Mint: a nice twist on the above
- Multi-green: has a whole lot of green sludge at the bottom which should be good for you. Taste is good though, sludge a bonus
- Gingerade: beats ginger ale any day