By John Mariani
Eating the kinds of bizarre foods TV omnivore Andrew Zimmern puts in his mouth each week was once the hapless lot - never the intent - of 19th century adventurers like Sir Richard Burton, who while trekking from Zanzibar into the Congo would have given anything for some good British beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Traveler's illnesses will lay low, even kill, guys who count themselves manly if they gulp down stinky tofu in Taipei or maggots in the Yucatan. Ernest Hemingway would have shot anyone on safari who suggested he drink the blood of a water buffalo. It's bad enough just dealing with unwashed lettuce in a salad in Madrid, much less shrimp pulled up from the putrid rivers of Phnom Penh. And you can just as easily come down with Delhi Belly in Mumbai as you can Montezuma's Revenge in Mexico City.
You're never going to escape it entirely, not on the Champs Élysées or the Via Veneto, though you can take precautions by watching out for certain foods that have a greater chance of bringing you to your knees talking to Ralph on the big white phone.
The basic problem is that if you grew up in the U.S., no matter how healthy your are, you haven't developed defenses against all exotic bacteria. And the stress of travel, the different schedules and missed routines can decrease your immune system so that you're ripe to pick up bacteria from something as innocent-looking as a stalk of celery. Even a cold, uncooked soup like gazpacho can mean trouble. And because it's impossible to know what the animal you intend to eat was eating before it got to you, odd species like snake and rats are not to be trifled with.
The next problem is how the food was handled, even in the finest restaurants. Hell, 67 out of 78 people dining at Noma in Copenhagen, considered by some the best restaurant in the world, got food poisoning in one night. But the odds stacked against really mount in street foods, when running water is rarely available.
Processed foods out of China and Thailand have become so problematic - sometimes what the package says, like beef, isn't even what's inside - that many Chinese markets and restaurants in America refuse to buy ingredients from Asia and proclaim that on their menus.
Still, there are specific foods that are in varying degrees risky. Here are a few I (mostly) stay away from in foreign countries. Manly man that I am, I can live without ever eating Mexican monkey's brains or Malaysian ants. And probably live longer.
However proud an Osaka sushi chef is of the pristine quality of his raw seafood, shellfish, which are bottom feeders, pick up a lot of nasty bacteria, and if uncooked, they can easily be transferred to you. Cooking should kill most of them off, and the fish used for sashimi is pretty safe. But eating raw oysters or mussels anywhere can be hazardous. I know: I ate a bad oyster in New Orleans and was never so sick in my life. Oyster-causing hepatitis can be a killer that destroys your liver (and thereby your ability to drink alcohol). You can also get a tapeworm from eating contaminated raw meat.
Next time you enjoy a nice haunch of venison at a restaurant in the U.S., rest assured it came - by law - from an inspected game farm. Wild game, even trout from crystalline Alaskan rivers, may contain badass bacteria, and before you eat what you kill in the wild, you'd better be damn sure the animal was healthy. If you do see "wild game" on a menu, then it was most probably venison or grouse that was shot in Scotland and approved for sale by a game inspector. One of the best, most reliable sources for wild game is D'Artagnan Foods, which imports inspected foods including Scottish pheasant, redlegged partridge, grouse and wood pigeon.
Every guidebook to a foreign country stresses not eating unwashed, uncooked vegetables and fruits. And too many people have done so anyway at their peril and ended up sick as a dog from salmonella, cyclospora, campylobacter, and more. You can wash and scrub and peel raw fruits and vegetables and remove the outer bacteria, but that won't kill what's inside. Boiling and cooking is more advisable. And watch out for desserts, too, that may have raw fruit in or around them. Order a nice slice of apple pie instead.
Some Americans still harbor an irrational fear about eating pork that has not been cooked to shoe leather supposedly to kill off the trichinosis larvae. The fact is, there are fewer than a dozen reported cases of trichinosis in the U.S. each year, and all of them come from eating wild game, including a wild hog. Hog production in the U.S. is extremely hygienic, so cooking your pig till pink is just fine. But in the rest of the world, particularly in developing countries, such hygiene is not standard practice, so only eat pork there that has been thoroughly cooked through to 160 degrees F.
Bet you didn't know that half of all egg-related illnesses, mainly salmonella, are picked up in restaurants, including in the U.S. The problem is in the chicken that lays them, not the shell itself, though this should be thoroughly washed, something that cannot be counted on abroad, where a freshly laid egg is cherished. That means no Caesar salads abroad and no steak tartar with a raw egg in it. Forget the raw steak too.
It used to be a rubric when traveling abroad not to drink the water, even in Europe. But this has largely become irrelevant if you're staying in a city like Paris, Stockholm, or Tokyo, where the better hotels filter their water. Nevertheless, unless you ask, you won't know that, and even brushing your teeth with contaminated water is going to be bad news. Bottled water is crucial when traveling, and the more familiar the label on the bottle, the better off you'll be. Drinking from a fountain is very stupid. A friend of mine recently spent three weeks in spasmodic pain just because he caught a wave of river water in his mouth while sailing through Bangkok.
If you're taking a pleasant cruise down the Amazon with a reputable outfitter, you probably don't need to be told about chicha. But just in case you are invited by some local tribesmen anywhere in the Amazon Basin to knock back a tot of chicha, do anything to avoid it. Chicha comes in many forms, but it always involves saliva. In some cases the cassava root is chewed by the tribeswomen and the juice spat into a bowl that is left to ferment into alcohol. The honor of drinking chicha is one that may follow you home for the next several months. Fortunately I have not been so honored; unfortunately, I do not know the etiquette for turning down the chief's offer to take a swig. Maybe tell him your doctor put you on antibiotics and said you can't drink alcohol.
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