Foreign Food Is Rubbish

Some time ago, I wrote about Japanese travellers complaining about Japanese food abroad. Today, I’ve been thinking about the more general complaints about food abroad that I often hear – basically, the food-in-(big foreign city)-is-rubbish view. Of course, this isn’t representative of all Japanese travelling abroad. I am sure plenty drool over local dishes with the relish of an oyaji eating sushi off a naked woman but, even so, more than a few of my adult students have travelled to foreign lands and come back to tell me their trip was good but that they didn’t like the food. Los Angeles, Paris, London and Rome have all been accused of having disagreeable food. Yet I have been to all of those cities and food has been a most pleasant part of the experience. Why do our views differ so?

Perhaps it is because I am British and, if the words of my students have any truth to them, I have grown up eating food not much better than pigswill. That seems to be the general view of my home country’s food expressed both by Japanese who have visited and, just as often, by those who haven’t. My ire was provoked most recently by a woman who informed me that food in London is absolutely awful. She has never been to London, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that for anybody to visit a major city and say with some authority that the food is terrible is ridiculous. London is huge, Los Angeles is huge, Paris is huge, Tokyo is huge. They all have rubbish food. That is true. What is equally true is that they all have fantastic food and plenty of it. To travel to a big city and not find any food that meets your taste suggests very bad luck or that you just ate in shit restaurants. Often, with my Japanese acquaintances, I feel it is the latter. If they didn’t dine in Japanese restaurants, they ate in bog-standard Pizza Express type places or cheap-as-chips joints where they really ought to have lowered their expectations. When friends visit me in Japan I could take them to Yoshinoya and Gusto and Royal Host every night and they would surely complain about shitty food and how you they only give you four chips with a hamburger steak and the salad is two bits of lettuce with a bit of pink sauce. But that, of course, is not representative of all food in Japan and does its fine cuisine a disservice.

I will admit that it is perhaps easier to find good quality food at a lower price in much of Japan than it is in London, but that is really just a question of price not availability. I would also add that whilst the best food in Japan is almost always Japanese, the best food in Britain is not necessarily British. There is plenty of fine British fare to be had, but there is as much or more very good food either from or based on the cuisine of other countries. To suggest otherwise is either to be misinformed or have a shockingly low threshold for welcoming the unfamiliar into your digestive system.

For me, food is one of the finest things about travelling and I find it hard to understand those that don’t seem able to enjoy dining out on their travels. But what do I know? I was brought up eating bland stodge and grease, apparently.

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9 Responses to Foreign Food Is Rubbish

  1. Tom Boatman says:

    Japanese often bring Cup A Noodles with them when spending a long time overseas. I beliver it’s not the quality of the food that disagrees with them, but the “foreigness.” My wife is always complaing she needs rice, she can’t get good rice. I have a similar problem in Tokyo, you still can not get a decent made to order sandwich anywhere in this town.

    • But I bet you still find plenty food you like! I knew a guy who took his own food to India because he was worried about hygiene. Fair enough, I suppose, but he was taking his own packets of curry.

  2. kamo says:

    Chances are that 90% of them ended up eating at the Aberdeen Angus off Covent Garden, in which case their ‘the food is shit’ assessment would be entirely correct. The food in tourist traps is uniformly awful, pretty much everywhere you go.

    I often get the ‘I hear british food is bad’ line. My response is always, ‘Actually it’s great, but often it’s done very badly’. You have to pay to get the good stuff. It’s much easier to eat well for less in Japan. Though give the strength of the yen right now, there’s really no reason for tourists in London to eat badly aside from a lack of research.

    • Yes, definitely easier to eat well for less here, but I think a lot of Japanese go abroad expecting the food o be rubbish (or at least to the UK with that expectation!). They are also often the ones that insist London is still mired in Dickensian smog.

  3. Will says:

    I’ve heard time and time again just how good the curry is in London. And saw a decent Youtube clip about the eel pies, courtesy of The Guardian’s Simon Majumdar. Frankly, people who winge about how bad food is everywhere are exactly the type of folks not to travel with. The name for those folks… tourists. Would much rather just be a visitor.

    • I love a curry in Britain! I like curry here too, but I can just accept it as being different from what I’m used to. Have had lots of eel, but never tried an eel pie (apart from the unagi pie biscuity things they have in Japan).

  4. First, I think that’s because you’re British. 😉
    I know it’s easy to poke fun at British food – and believe me, if you think it’s bad with the Japanese, wait til you hear from across the Channel. However, while I haven’t really had bad food in Britain, I can’t say I had great food either (and actually my friends brought me to a restaurant they found “great”, I found “decent”).
    That being said, I think the problem with many Japanese people traveling abroad is not that the food is bad, but that the food is foreign as Tom said. I was always amazed when I lived in Paris to see Japanese tourists lining up in front of Udon or Ramen restaurants, as if they couldn’t survive without them for the one week they were spending abroad.
    Yet, I have found that “foreigness = bad” shortcut of the thought with many tourists from many countries, and at least Japanese people have the excuse to have good food at home. When I see American tourists complaining about the food in France or in Japan, simply because what they’re eating is too elaborate for their underdeveloped taste buds, I really want to kick them out of the country myself.

    That being said, I’ve also noticed that many tourists don’t know where to find good food abroad. When I used to see the zillions of tourists in Paris flocking to the same tourist trap restaurants months after months after months, I was really embarrassed about what they were going to think (and generalize) about French food (however, while it’s possible to find very good food in Paris, I also think it’s overall sub par to what the rest of France has to offer, mostly because there are no local dishes from Paris (for obvious reasons) and what makes food great in France is that local dishes are… well… local…).

    So basically, I can imagine Japanese tourists, first being confused about the foreigness of what they’re eating, but also not eating great food at all because they will most likely eat in tourist traps near the famous landmarks and not dare venturing in the parts of town not mentioned in the tourist guide and where the good food is.

    • Yes, that’s basically it. They often eat in tourist traps, don’t get great food but then that backs up the preconceived notion that food abroad is not as good as Japanese food and assists in making that shortcut you mention that ‘foreignness = bad’. I just wish more could find some great food to see that good food does exist everywhere. I guess I was brought up to always try new food and encouraged to be adventurous, and all my life have loved the experience of eating abroad, even if it has meant me eating a few things I don’t like. That’s part of the experience and if you don’t like something try something else rather than just seeking out for own country’s food in a foreign land. To see the food of an entire country being denigrated because of poor restaurant choices or, worse, simple hearsay annoys me!

  5. Pingback: The Japanese and English Cuisine | Marshmallow Sensei

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