The joys of eating with a stranger while travelling
Originally posted at https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2023/03/09/joys-eating-stranger-while-travelling
To be brave or not to be? The constant challenge of a solo traveller.
During the same week that I was researching accommodation for a work trip in Seoul, I tuned into an episode of food show Far Flung with Gary Mehigan. Coincidentally, the episode was based in South Korea, where Mehigan visited Seoul's Gwangjang Market â€“ an enormous, traditional market.
Established in 1905, Gwangjang Market is one of the oldest markets in Seoul. It predominantly houses textile vendors and food stalls that brim with Korean delicacies. I was captivated as Mehigan explored the market â€“ the colours, the energy, the sheer size of it all. "I am setting up shop near that market", I thought to myself. I booked accommodation right across the road, which turned out to be one of the best travel decisions I've made.
This was my first time travelling solo, which came with some food-related challenges. The day after I arrived in Seoul, I darted to Gwangjang Market to eat. However, I found it quite tricky to buy food for one person since many vendors had a minimum purchase requirement.
A woman approached me; she was also alone. She asked if I spoke English and what my name was, and then she suggested we buy some food together to share. It seemed she had the same issue as me â€“ we both wanted to try an array of things but couldn't justify buying large servings.
It was the perfect solution, but not one I would have been brave enough to propose. I was impressed by the confidence and boldness of this woman, ready to share food with a total stranger, inevitably with a side of conversation.
We bought some gimbap (seaweed rice rolls), twigim (fried goods, similar to tempura, but often supersized, such as whole-fried squid), a bindaetteok (a fried mungbean pancake) and some fruit. We sat down at a table on the outskirts of the market; it was a 4Â°C winter's day but cheerfully sunny. We were both eager to warm up with some food.
We swooned over how delicious and fresh everything was. My nerves disappeared and a fluid conversation followed. Stella was from Taiwan, she had studied in Hawaii and we bonded even more after learning we both studied media and communications. We met up later that week and saw more of Seoul before she jetted home.
Food can be the ultimate icebreaker when you're travelling alone. Even the Latin roots of the word 'companion' mean 'together with bread'. As cheesy as it is, food truly bonds us universally.
Eating together (whether we realise it or not) also has a funny way of establishing trust, whether it's eating out or at someone's table. There's instantly something to talk about â€“ the food itself â€“ which can take the edge off when meeting someone new.
"Even the Latin roots of the word 'companion' mean 'together with bread'. As cheesy as it is, food truly bonds us universally."
And of course, there's a different layer of connection when you're not eating separate meals together but actually sharing dishes.
If you are looking to meet people to eat with while travelling in a more organised way than walking up to someone in a market, there are plenty of apps that cater.
Here are two takeaways: One, if you're visiting Seoul, don't leave without spending ample time exploring Gwangjang Market. It's a place that needs to be on your culinary bucket list. Two, be a little brave and open-minded, even when travelling solo. You simply don't know who you could meet and what experiences are around the corner. Taking a leap can pay off.
Caterina is a food writer for SBS Food. Photo credit: Stella Linhttps://www.sbs.com.au/food/person/caterina-hrysomallis