More than any other experience on this journey, it's the food, how people produce and prepare it; how they share their meals, that has defined this flight around the world. Nearly every approach into every new town or city we flew into was preceded by a patchwork carpet of agricultural fields. Most were growing rice. From India through the entirety of our Asian travels- all the way to Korea. From what we could see- looking from the vantage point of the Pilatus PC-12, rice production dominates the world's agriculture. The Mideast and North Africa produce a variety of grains; corn, wheat, barley, rye, with a wide selection of legumes, fruits, and vegetables. The nice thing is, there seems to be plenty of room for all of it. There's a lot of talk about our "shrinking world", about how pushed together we've all become; either through population growth, commercial trade, the internet, or ease of travel. We're constantly told how there is nothing new left to discover, no room left for anything, and our resources are not going to last- hog wash (or as Art would say BS!). Our planet is a very big place- it only seems small when your watching it from your computer screen, or the TV in your living room. It's important to keep in mind, however, that when people with an agenda to promote are controlling the images other people see they can make you believe anything they want. Having personally circumnavigated the world, seen it with my own eyes- unfiltered, I'll give you the news flash; forget what the media has been feeding you. The world is big folks- really big.
More than any other cultural practice or tradition, people are brought together, divided, classified, and defined by the way they eat. Even religious practice often centers around a particular way of eating- vegetarian for Buddhists and Hindu's, no pork for Muslims and Jews, ham for the Christians. We eat, we live, we build our cultures around our food with endless variation. Walk through any market, in any part of the world outside of North America or Europe, and you'll see a whole lot of stuff that looks anything but familiar. Tour a market in Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia, and you'll easily see a hundred types of foods you've never seen before. What people eat in any given part of the world can seem really strange, even gross to us, but it's real, often traditional, and it's mostly pretty tasty. Whether it's our guide in Cambodia describing how rural people go out into the wetlands to hunt rats during the monsoon season with small bows and arrows. Or a master chef in Vietnam pointing out a specialty meat stall in the market in order to show us how dog is properly prepared, or seeing a road-side stand in rural Cambodia that specializes in grilled snake. Enjoying the pleasures of the traditional Parisian Cafe, the delicacy of lamb stuffed grape leaves in Istanbul, Turkey, or sampling "Carpaccio of Muskox" in Greenland, the food we've seen and tasted on this journey was one of the biggest adventures of the entire trip. OK, I'll admit, I didn't eat BBQ rat or snake, and looking at BBQ Fido was hard enough, much less eat it. The Muskox was pretty tasty though- very thin slices and quite lean.
Our flight around the world has brought many things into perspective- most in unexpected ways. I never really considered how important a role a cooking style could play in shaping history. Our Hindu guide in India described the defeat of the Hindu army during the Muslim invasion- it was the Hindu cast system that lead to their down-fall he explained; it was how each army ate that ultimately decided who the victors were. The Hindus ate alone or in very small groups according to their cast, bringing their own specially individualized food and cooking implements with them. The Muslims cooked large communal dishes with thirty or more solders sharing each meal's preparation and consumption together. The result? Eat together, fight together, and win. We often judge people by what they eat, without taking into account under what circumstances a particular food became part of the menu. Camel's milk, for instance, is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when selecting dairy products, but Camel's milk is very popular in the Middle East. Think of a traditional herd of dairy cows trying to survive and produce milk in the desert and you can easily see why the camel became number one. We ran into a herd of "dairy camels" while touring the dune sea outside the city in Dubai- they were quite tame and domesticated. Insects are a common food item in many parts of the world- a few are eaten as a delicacy, but most are simply a cheap, common source of protein. We saw specialized insect roasting stalls in some of the markets with bowls and baskets filled with spicy seasoned grasshoppers, beetles, and worms.
Traveling around the world for the past three months has caused Art and I to temporarily abandon the "low carb life-style" so popular here in the US. Low carb nearly killed us! OK, not literally, but when you're spending ten hours out of every twenty-four in the bathroom, life can seem less worthwhile. We were both quite ill for several days- weeks in my case. Exposure to strange germs was a part of it certainly, but try as we may, we just couldn't seem to get healthy and then stay healthy. A doctor in Dubai asked us what we'd been eating and then pointed out the main source of our trouble- not enough carbohydrates. As it turned out, eating lots of noodles, rice, bread, and potatoes was just the ticket. Having fresh plain yogurt at every opportunity was another healthy habit we picked up. Traveling well, means traveling in good health- lots of carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and fruit; not as much meat. After eating a traditional Asian diet for over a month, Art and I went to an expensive steak-house, pigged-out American style on pricey Wagu beef, and promptly fell ill again. I love a good steak as much as anyone, but from now on they'll be much smaller. Speaking of great beef, If you had asked me where to find the best beef brisket in the world before this trip, I would have said "Texas" without hesitation. Who would have guessed that the Chinese make some of the most fantastic BBQ I've ever had. It's pretty interesting when you think about it, but our Texas cowboy friends would feel right at home in Hong Kong- the brisket melts in your mouth.
Eating out at a nice restaurant is an event in the rest of the world, people take it very seriously, and restauranteurs take a tremendous amount of pride in the business of fine dinning; they're also quite competitive. Take XO sauce, for example, a popular condiment in Hong Kong, XO is a hot spicy concoction of dried shrimps, chilies, seasoned oils, and a variety of "secret ingredients". It's mashed together, slow cooked, preserved, and served at room temperature in small dishes. I like to think of it as Chinese BBQ sauce; it's good on lots of things. The Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong even sells jars of their version. The Peninsula Hotel, and the Mandarin Oriental, do not but they make the best (IMHO). Once, while Art and I were enjoying a meal at the Oriental, the restaurant manager overheard that we'd come over from the Peninsula and proceeded with a friendly debriefing session on his competitor's XO. We were probably not that helpful- although we'd toured the Peninsula's kitchens, and we'd seen where they made their XO; even discerning many of the ingredients, the details of its preparation were kept top secret.
Unlike the States, and much of Europe, where fine restaurants are mostly independent businesses, the better hotels are where you'll find the best chefs and the finest food in the rest of the world. But even though you may be eating the best of what a particular nation has to offer, this fact won't shield you entirely from potential illness. A case in point, while in Morocco, I saw a news story on how that country was experimenting with a new pilot program to use treated, instead of untreated waste water to irrigate agricultural farm fields. Using the untreated waste water for irrigation is traditional- and cheap in many parts of the world. Of course no amount of careful washing and preparation of raw produce can remove harmful bacteria that has grown inside the plant as a result of being watered with untreated sewage runoff. Eating well cooked veggies and avoiding raw vegetables and salads is the best way to stay healthy. It's one thing to be cavalier about what you eat when you can simply curl up in the back of a commercial jet during your travels, it's quite a bit more serious when you're the pilot of the aircraft- the world has many wondrous foods, but when you're a pilot, it pays to be conservative.
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