I am a Menu Coward

Every word on the menu looks Greek…and you are in Poland.  What to do?  

I have something to confess.  I am a recovering menu coward.  Luci and I are supposed to be the adventure couple travel gurus.  We are supposed to try anything, anywhere, from any roadside stand.  Sorry, I cant do it.   When we travel, I nervously scan the menu for words that remotely look like steak, chicken, pasta or better yet….have pizza in its name or description.

In order to understand my eating history…you must know where I come from.   I grew up in the rural western US.  Really good Pad Thai, balut, or even casu marzu were nowhere to be found.  Steak and potatoes were the plate de jour.  Right after high school all that was about to change.  I moved to Taiwan.  Food culture shock!  Thank heaven for fried rice or Chao Fan as the Taiwanese say.  I basically survived for three months eating one thing, and one thing only.  Then I slowly got brave.

Meat and potatoes

Meat and potatoes…the old standby.

One of the beauties of international travel is that it takes you outside your comfort zone in so many ways.  One of the biggest ways to get out of that zone is breaking our menu coward-ness.  There is so much delicious food out there!  In today’s flat world you could live on McDonald’s hamburgers and fries just about anywhere in the world you travel.

What follows is our 5 step program to overcoming menu cowardness.

Eat Breakfast

So often what halts us from trying something adventurous while we are traveling is that we are hungry!  After tramping around Rome all day, you are famished and frankly, you want something that you know that you are going to like.  This happens to us all the time.  Key is load up on a good breakfast.  Stateside, I am not a breakfast food eater.  If my mother in law is reading this….sorry.  I know, I know it is the most important meal of the day…ya.  Seriously, most nation’s breakfasts are the same.  Fruit?  Check.  Some form of cereal? Yep.  Bacon!  Need we say more.  Our advice to traveling couples is load up on breakfast.  If the hotel has a buffet.  Eat to full.  This allows you to have the energy to hit the tourist trail and not be weak at your “menu”  moment.

I will NOT have what she is having

One of the recommendations we make to traveling couples is seeking off the beaten path sites and eateries.  Many of these restaurants…the really good ones…. don’t have English menus.  In fact if a restaurant has an English menu, it is likely not frequented by the locals.  Another thing that Luci and I try to do is always order something different from each other.  This is a great way to cover more bases.  One of us is bound to get something that we like.  Sometimes this “sharing” disintegrates into a fight…but that’s just us.


Yummy macarons!

Hunt and Peck

One of our favorite pastimes in France is stopping at every boulangerie.  As we see the sites, we stop occasionally and buy a croissant or a pastry.  In Thailand, we would hit the fruit smoothie stands for a pick me up snack.  Eating a little throughout the day helps us to avoid the hunger blindness that can hit you late in the day.  That monster tells you it is ok to go get a burger.  Don’t surrender to the hunger.  Eat a little during the day.  Keep the blood sugar levels up.

Listen to Food & Travel Bloggers

One of the very best ways to overcome you fear of the unknown is to do what you are right now!  Read food and travel blogs.  Bloggers are great guinea pigs.  They know where to go to eat.  They know what to eat once you get there.  Case in point.  I had never had “real” goulash.  When we were in Budapest this past spring, I made it my mission that I was going to goulash.  I just put it out there onto twitter



Goulash at Kadar’s

The Fighting Couple ‏@1000Fights

Calling all #Budapest #foodie‘s- where is the best goulash? #hungary

And within seconds…boom -we had an answer from @ConfusedJulia.  She told us what to eat at Kadar Resteraunt.  LOVED it! She even followed up with us to see if we liked it!

Julia ‏@ConfusedJulia

@1000Fights Awesome! So glad you went to Kadar – we loved the goulash there :)

Travel bloggers and foodies are a great sources of info and can help you make the right choice.  While you are eating breakfast with the free wifi, put it out there on twitter…what should I eat in #________.  Use the pound sign to cast your net a little wider to the world.  If in doubt…ask @ConfusedJulia!

Cheaters Always Win

Ok, you have followed our guidance from above.  You are in the right place.  Not a lick of English on the card.  Every word on the menu looks Greek…and you are in Poland.  What to do?   We always survey the room.  Pay attention to what the waiters are bringing out of the kitchen.  You can test drive a meal before buying.  Another strategy is to engage the waiter.  Ask a few questions, ask them to describe some of the dishes.  If you happen to be allergic to some food or ingredient… you must learn the words for those items in every language you may be eating in.  If all else fails…throw caution to the wind.  Order the Shiokara!

Ok..its your turn.  What do you do when you don’t understand the menu?

What is the craziest thing you have eaten?

Leave us a comment below, we would love to hear from you.

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12 Responses to I am a Menu Coward

  1. Contented Traveller December 20, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    A lot of the time we have no idea what we are eating, its more point, pick and hope. Luckily I love to cook so can understand a lot unless it is a different script like Japan for example. Unfortunately it makes it impossible to make recommendations or even write about what we have eaten since we don’t have a clue. We tend to scan the locals and mimic what they order on the basis that they look healthy enough. Possible this ignorance is bliss :)

  2. Franca December 21, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    Me and Dale do the same as you said when ordering a meal, we always get two different dishes so we can swap halfway through it and both try two different things.

    When we don’t understand the menu because we don’t speak the language at all we try to go where there are at least pictures, we did that a lot in SEA. It’s a little bit more tricky to be adventurous when you are vegetarian like us.

  3. Calli December 21, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    Funny, I have the opposite problem! My boyfriend is so adventurous that we spend a lot of time looking for tiny restaurants down dark alleys that he read about online. While the food is always good, sometimes I find myself begging for a normal meal that will remind me of home. However I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad experience outside my food comfort zone so I guess we make a good pair :)

  4. The Fighting Couple December 21, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    You are so brave! Sometimes the best places are the ones that are so hard-to-find. We once spent an hour and a half looking for a certain restaurant in Amsterdam. It was good but we were so hungry when we finally found it.

  5. Natalie December 22, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    When I don’t understand the menu – I just go for whatever sounds good. Works! Although, I tend not worry about what I have eaten

  6. Julia December 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    Your pic of the goulash looks just like mine :) So glad you liked the recommendation – it’s always good to get some advice when you get somewhere new. Although I have to admit that, on occasion, I’m a menu coward too – especially if I see the word “pizza”!

  7. The Fighting Couple December 22, 2013 at 6:02 pm #


    You were a huge help. I can remember that meal like it was yesterday. Soooo good. You were so kind to respond. There is no way that I would have found something like that on my own. Cheers.

  8. Jennifer December 23, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    There has only been one time when we couldn’t understand the menu and no one spoke English. It was in Russia and we both just picked and hoped for the best. Luckily, the food was delicious!

    Traveling definitely makes you experiment more and I am usually willing to try most things. But bugs? I won’t eat those!

  9. Beth December 25, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    I totally agree with your points! We’ve always found that some of the best restaurants, are not the ones recommended on TripAdvisor or whatnot, but the ones filled with locals with no English menus. Or at least it’s always been an adventure! :)

  10. Angie Away January 4, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    Oh, that food makes me want to just get up and go right now. All the opportunities out there for food! Especially the good nutrition, non toxic-like American food. Great post!

  11. Corinne January 10, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    I love this post…Jim and I try to read the menu as fast as we can, because we don’t like to order the same thing either, and the first one who says a dish gets to order it. When it’s a place where we have to try something new, we try to order one that we both will try, understanding that if it’s a complete bust we’ll order something else after so we don’t starve…like that would happen!


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