In the late ’80s, I made my first trip to Asia. The small manufacturing company I started in Arizona had developed a football arcade game. I went to Taiwan to try to find distributors. I was alone, I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I wasn’t sure anybody even knew what American football was, much less whether they would have any interest in my product. (Didn’t I know things were made in Taiwan and shipped in the other direction?)
On my first afternoon, I met with a surprisingly enthusiastic distributor. Frank’s English wasn’t so great, but I sure appreciated his effort. At the end of our meeting, he asked what I was doing that night. I had nothing planned, so he insisted that I join him and his boss, Lee, for dinner.
I was raised in Oklahoma in a meat-and-potatoes family. Before I arrived in Taiwan, my exposure to Chinese food consisted of the takeout I’d eaten in law school. But I wasn’t about to say no to Frank.
We walked into the restaurant. It was a bustling place, full of locals, mostly businesspeople. I think Frank and I were the only ones who spoke any English. Frank explained to the proprietor that this was my first visit to Taiwan. From that moment on, it seemed that Lee, Frank, the entire restaurant staff, and every diner were determined to ensure I would not only try their favorite dishes but also come away with the highest regard for their country.
The food was delicious, and not always recognizable. I had many things for the first time—eel noodles, iron eggs, ba-wan (a sort of Taiwanese meatball)—and many things I cannot recall. Even with Frank’s explanations, I often didn’t know what I was eating. But it didn’t matter. If a dish did not initially appeal to me, I was so appreciative of my hosts that I convinced myself to love it. Of course, liquor also played a significant role. The need to have Frank translate made conversation awkward, so we spent much of the meal toasting each other with kaoliang liquor and draining our glasses with the refrain, “Gan bei!” Not long after that dinner, we were in business together.
I thought of my meal with Frank and Lee as we put this, our first food issue, together. I’m no foodie, and I’m certainly no cook, but I love the way that food serves as a social lubricant. When we travel, sharing a meal can bring us together with strangers despite any differences in language or culture. Hosts are eager to please, and guests are grateful. We find common ground through this most basic human ritual. We may use different ingredients in different ways, but we all know the pleasure of food and drink.
Whether you are a foodie or just a traveler like me who loves to sit at a table with locals and eat whatever they put in front of you, I hope you enjoy this issue— and all that you eat and drink in the places where travel takes you.
Cofounder & CEO
This appeared in the October 2012 issue.