Are you experiencing a new country with all five senses? Are you taking advantage of the fact that most places are laying out their culture on a buffet and inviting you to into local life by eating their food?
I once got on a flight to Central America and was surrounded by one of those mission groups in matching T-shirts. You know, the ones who spend $1,500 each on something not called a vacation to a tropical country, a trip that is organized by their church. The stated charity goal is usually to contribute their unskilled labor building a pastor’s home, repair a church, or install a playground. Invariably it’s in a place where the local construction workers could be hired for a few bucks a day instead. Anyway, one of the women with a commemorative T-shirt reached up into the overhead compartment above me to get something out of her bag and 40 granola bars came tumbling down on me and the aisle floor. “I wasn’t sure what there would be to eat there,” she explained sheepishly as she picked them all up.
That is just sad. Unless you have some kind of medical dietary restriction, eating the local food should be one of your goals, not one of your fears. The greatest window into another country and its culture is its food. If you’re not eating what they like to eat, you’re barely scratching the surface of a place.
Let a Local Show You What’s Great
If you have a foodie friend in the area where you’re going, give them free reign to pick the places to eat, including the grubby ones in a side alley. They will know the neighborhood joints that don’t dial back the recipes for foreigners.
If not, get on a food tour soon after arrival. Even if you think you know the local food, you probably only know an exported version of it. For example, the Italian food you know and love at home may be quite different than what you find when you visit Rome. If you want to eat like a local in Rome, book a food tour with someone who knows the markets, the street vendors, and the special places away from the main sites. Use a company like Withlocals to have someone who lives there explain the history and the traditions. They’ll take you to the best places and give you insight into how those tastes developed.
On their Rome food tour, you visit a local market to see what people are cooking, you try some local dishes at some authentic places, and drink something in a place the locals visit every day. At the market you try some seasonal fruits grown in the region, you get to eat a piece of classic Pizza Bianca, and some Roman Supplí. Showing the mix of cultures over the year, you also get to try the original Jewish Ricotta Pie. Add a panini, a pastry, some Italian chocolate, and then have an espresso at a local cafe.
Eating Like a Local in Good Places
The side benefit of going on a local food tour like this is you can find out where the best places are to eat for the following days. You can return to the places you liked a lot for a more leisurely meal, or you can hit your guide up for suggestions on which restaurants the locals go to, the affordable places your hotel concierge will never mention.
Naturally on a site called Perceptive Travel, we write about local food a lot. Kerry answered the question, Scotland, What’s for Breakfast? Sheila recently took us to Katz’s Deli in New York City, an institution that was already well-known when I used to walk by it in the early 90s. There you can get the ultimate Jewish deli pastrami on rye, egg salad, or matzo ball soup. Chantae recently supplied some great tips for vegetarian and vegan travelers, but started with this important note: “Tasting a new country’s cuisine is one of the greatest parts of the travel experience – for some, it’s even the greatest.
Often there’s a signature dish or two you need to try when you’re in a certain place. In Mobile or New Orleans it’s the beignet. In Rotterdam it’s the kapsalon. If you’re on a local food tour, your guide will probably know the best place to get that signature item and you’ll get the real story about how it came to be.
I’ve taken great food tours in places in multiple countries, from Puerto Vallarta to Bangkok to Savannah to Ithaca to Quito. In Karakol, Kyrgyzstan even, where it was a mere $9. I’ve learned more about a place that way than through visiting museums or monuments. While physical structures can give you a good snapshot of a certain time, the food of a country is like a whole photo album spanning centuries or more, showing you how the culture and people have evolved over time.
A good local guide can answer all those burning questions you have. He or she knows the language, so there’s help when you’re stuck on what something means or you want to ask the vendor or cook a question. Since it’s a leisurely few hours of walking around in a small group instead of a “follow the flag” cruise ship or bus excursion with 100 others, you feel like you’re getting authentic information from a local source instead of a canned script that has been memorized.
Where have you taken a great food tour in your travels and learn to eat like a local?