Why It's OK to Crave American Fast Food When You're Abroad

fast food abroad
Chris McGrath/Getty Images News
Chris McGrath/Getty Images News

Two years ago, when I stowed all my worldly possessions in a New Jersey storage unit and took off on what would become a half-year-long eating spree around the world, several unknowns lurked on life’s horizon. Where would I go? How long would I be gone? What the hell was I doing with my life?

I wasn’t particularly concerned, however, with what I would eat. Nor was I at all worried about missing American food.

I have a particular affinity for the flavors and aromas of Asia, which was good, because I was headed there first. And so I told myself: I’ll devour platefuls of greasy pan-fried dumplings all day, every day. I’ll gorge myself on springy ramen noodles lounging in bowls of rich shoyu broth at breakfast and long for seconds by lunchtime. I’ll never grimace at the sight of elegant slivers of quivering, blood-red tuna resting on pillows of perfectly-cooked rice. The continent of Asia is home to the most diverse and scintillating collection of cuisines on the planet, and I’ll never get tired of it.

By the time I made it to Singapore, all I wanted was a freaking burger.

American food can wait, I reasoned. Not only because I had the rest of my life to eat it, but because it seemed so obviously inferior to the marvelous morsels awaiting me. The foods that crowded the dinner plate of my upbringing had no history of their own, invented not through centuries of culinary heritage but the clumsy zap of a microwave. With noted exceptions, America’s food felt to me like muddled dishes of happenstance, degraded further still by decades of fast food-ified culture. So yeah. It could wait.

I lasted two months. By the time I made it to Singapore, all I wanted was a freaking burger. I was homesick, and it manifested in food form.

mcdonald's abroad
Peter Kovalev/Getty Images

Three months into the trip, my neurons fixated on a classic BLT, the un-fuck-up-able (or so I thought) sandwich beloved at Garden State diners and Southern Waffle Houses alike. I desperately searched for BLTs on menus everywhere I might conceivably hope to find one -- in airports, train stations, hotel lobbies. There was the BLT I ordered in an airport in Shanghai, which arrived in a bamboo steamer moistened into soggy submission. The BLT at a beachside tourist-trap cafe in Bali, served on bread that looked like worm-eaten cardboard and didn’t taste much better. The best of the bunch: a cold, room service BLT scarfed down while sitting the floor of a Singapore hotel when I couldn’t bear the sight of another bowl of laksa. It was everything I needed.

With each sandwich, some internal reset button was pressed, and I wouldn’t crave American food for another few weeks at least. But the urge would inevitably return: The longer I was away from American food, the more I required it to soldier on. I may have been mentally prepared to pack up my life and book a one-way ticket to somewhere far away, but my palate clearly wasn’t. Those meals were my lifeline home, zinging me back stateside in a single bite. There’s nothing else short of a teleporter that can do that.

There's something wonderful about experiencing American culture refracted through someone else's.

When I looked for American food, I found it everywhere. I wound up eating things I might have otherwise dismissed, like the thick buttered toast in Hong Kong’s grubby cha chaan teng, a style of eatery specializing in local interpretations of Western diner fare, and katsu sando, Japan’s fried pork cutlet sandwich that’s loosely inspired by continental European cuisine. I tried regional dishes at Western fast-food chains -- establishments I wouldn’t be caught dead in at home -- like a ginger-spiked burger at McDonald’s Japan or a fried taro turnover at Burger King Singapore. Even faithful recreations of familiar fare took on an allure I’d been too headstrong to recognize at home.

burger king india
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

There’s something wonderful and fascinating about experiencing American culture refracted through someone else’s, I realized. All food is the product of a million and one influences, including the centuries-old cuisines I hold in such esteem. American food hasn’t had as much time to marinate, but its merits are multifold. Why else would so many world cultures adopt so many bits and pieces of it?

There’s probably something to be said about, as the song goes, “not knowing what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Also, the grass being greener. Also, much of the food we have built here, in American kitchens, truly laboratories of the unorthodox, is actually good.

I could wax poetic on the subject, but I’d rather meditate on the perfect BLT, the sandwich that danced in my mind as if I were a castaway on a barren island, instead of a tourist chewing my way through the world’s greatest food regions. Here it is: fresh and fluffy white bread, barely toasted, which gives way under your fingers. Crisp, springy lettuce, a perfect foil for salty, crunchy bacon riddled with caramelized fat. Tomatoes, bursting with juice and acid. Creamy mayonnaise slathered liberally. They’re everywhere, from roadside diners to country clubs to lunch counters to automats. As with anything, some versions are better than others. But you’ll never appreciate your 24-hour diner BLT more than when you’re hunched on the floor of Singapore hotel room.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer, editor, and sometimes illustrator living in New York City. See what she's eating over at @thepumpernickel on Instagram.