A hospital is probably the last place a foodie traveling abroad wants to grab a bite.
After all, hospital food here in the U.S. conjures a stereotype of mystery meat and a starchy, bland side. But around the globe, there's a lot of variety. A scan of hospital food pictures on Flickr and various blogs reveals gastronomic works of art — as well as what looks pretty close to the gruel Oliver Twist must have been fed in his workhouse. (Hat tip to Buzzfeed, which curated a collection of some of these images.)
Even within the same country, what's served from hospital to hospital can differ wildly, according to Aatul Jain, operations manager and executive chef at Saint Clare's Health Systems, a private hospital in New Jersey. Jain, who grew up in India, keeps track of the international hospital food scene, such as it is.
"In India — and in China — it's the same thing. You have these [private] hospitals that are like super, five-star deluxe hotels," he says. "It beats any of the care we get over here. It beats any of the services we get over here in the Western world. "
Meanwhile, a person who isn't wealthy might end up at a public hospital, where offerings are much more modest. So the pictures people post online, like those included in the Buzzfeed list, may not be representative of the food in a given country's hospital system.
Here at The Salt, we reached out to some of the food photogs we came across to hear about what they were served. Responses were mixed.
One gut-wrencher comes from, well, Hungary. Posted by a blog that features gruesome photos of food served in Hungarian hospitals, the picture appears to show a kind of chalky meat stew that was served in a women's clinic. The blog is curated by two staffers of the watchdog nongovernmental organization and news service Átlátszo.
Gábor Ferencz, blogger and freelance journalist for the NGO, says via email that he doesn't entirely lay the blame on the hospitals. They must make three meals a day on $2.20 a person.
But at a facility across the globe in Japan, patients seemed to fare far better.
Flickr user Annabelle Orozco offered a more glowing review of her lunch: a shimmering plate of tempura veggies, broth with seaweed and tofu, cucumber-kelp salad and apple with persimmon for dessert.
"Everything was well presented and delicious," she writes. "To me it was particularly attractive for hospital food."
Orozco visited Japan on a school study trip as a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. One of their stops was a private Japanese hospital's terminal care ward in Osaka, where, each week, patients could select a favorite dish, and a nutritionist would tailor the food to adhere to the patients' dietary needs.
"Japanese pay close attention to details in the way they serve food," she says. "There are actually several rules related to colors, textures, amount of dishes that should be served at one point or another, size and dimension of the plates."
Coverage of nutrition in the media and the popularity of food television programs have led Americans to elevate their expectations for what they're eating, Jain says. So while highbrow hospitals in China and India have long offered top-notch food, Jain says American institutions are just starting to follow suit.
John Athamanah, manager of the patient meal service at the 500-bed Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a food service management instructor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says this evolution is part of what he calls "hospital hospitality" — amenities and services meant to make a hospital stay more pleasant.
"When people talk about their hospital experience, they don't say, 'I went and had heart surgery; it was the best I've ever had,' " he tells The Salt. "What they do talk about is the food there."
Patients across the globe will see improvements as well, Jain says. He predicts that in the coming decades, hospitals will elevate the nutritional and aesthetic quality of food they serve their patients — especially as social media helps patients see what else is available.
"Hospital food is not the same as it once was," he says. "It's not just some watery chicken noodle soup with plain white rice anymore."
Whitney Blair Wyckoff is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.