Tasting local cuisine is one of the best ways to get to know a new place. But how to best go about it? Here are six tips to help set you on the path to some enlightening gustatory experiences:
1: Eat what you don’t know
This is the one rule to rule them all. And “Let’s see what Quarter Pounders taste like in Sweden” doesn’t count.
Travel is about experience. It’s also about learning, and putting home into perspective. But maybe most of all, it’s about stories. And food stories are some of the best. You can try to describe the feel of the souk in Marrakech, how you can get lost for an hour because you were certain that coffee-pot vendor was the one you walked by when you entered. Pictures can help. But food is more visceral. Tell someone about the souk, and they’ll be entertained. Tell someone about ordering the b’stilla after you’d given up ever finding your way out, and they’ll be transfixed. “You ate pigeon!” they’ll say. “What was that like?”
But even better than transfixing your friends and bewildering your family, you actually will know what that was like. You can tell them about ordering the one thing on the menu you had no idea what it was, your surprise at finding out it was actually pigeon pie, and your further surprise at discovering that, no, it actually doesn’t taste like chicken.
The world is full of these exploratory gustatory experiences, and you don’t have to go as far as Morocco. Go to Chicago and order the tavern-style pizza instead of the deep dish, or Newfoundland and get the fish and brewis, or even the bakeapples (hint: they’re not apples). Make it a habit. Look over the menu and find the one thing you have absolutely no idea what it might be, and order that. You may not always like it, but you’ll always have a story.
(And for the record: Go to the McDonalds in Kungälv and order a Quarter Pounder and they’ll look at you funny. They’re QPs, and pronounced ku-pay-uh.)
2: Eat what you do know
Chances are, wherever you live there are local restaurants that serve food from abroad. And you may really love their pad Thai, the Singapore noodles, the vindaloo, or the tacos. You may even be a person who says, “I love falafel. I’m a falafel guy.”
It’s true that many of these restaurants, in small towns and big cities alike, are run by immigrants from the countries in question (the big exception in much of the world being Japanese restaurants. For some reason, the Japanese like staying at home, and their restaurants worldwide tend to be run by other folks). But it’s also true that not all ingredients are available everywhere, and that even when they are, they don’t taste the same. I took a Malaysian cooking course in Singapore once and learned to make rendang. I also learned two important things about eating food from other cultures at home. First, the kaffir lime leaves — a huge part of rendang’s flavour — tend to only be available at home in dried or frozen form. It’s better than not having them at all, my teacher told me, but it’s not the same. The rendang, she said, would end up tasting a little muddier. The other thing I learned is that even a basic dish like rendang takes ages to make. I was grinding away on my little mortar and pestle for upwards of an hour. Now, in Malaysia, or Singapore, where people have certain expectations, this kind of effort pays off. But in Calgary or Philadelphia, whether you hand grind your lemongrass, lime leaves, turmeric, chili, and galangal with a pestle or in a blender for 10 seconds isn’t going to materially affect the outcome.
So order the rendang in Kuala Lumpur or the falafel in Jordan and you’ll go home with an idea of what the differences are, which foods are more or less the same (in my experience: Ethiopian food in Addis Ababa is pretty much what it is in Toronto), and, as a bonus, you’ll be the person at the table who breaks out her “Well, I had tacos when I was in Mexico City. I mean, these are good, but, listen, I went to this little place…”
3: The signs of quality are often counterintuitive
I didn’t realize how much I judged restaurants by their signs and design until I started travelling. Back home, it’s a fair chance that someone who really cares about their restaurant and wants to make a go of it will invest a little money in things like signage and typography. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, good signs mean good food. This is not the case everywhere.
Taker Dar es Salaam, for example. I wandered around that Tanzanian town for two days, and didn’t find a single restaurant I would have looked twice at on an average Tuesday. The windows are cloudy, the signs, when lit, were often only partially so. Many looked like they hadn’t been replaced in a generation, and the new ones looked like they came out of the Signs-R-Us outlet store catalogue.
But I had some really good meals there (pro tip: always try the ice cream). But I only had them once I got over the fact that everywhere looked like crap. Marketing, branding, hiring an architect to design your interior – these are not universal values. Some people, in some parts of the world, just sell food to people who are too busy, too poor, or too spouseless to eat at home. No big deal. Come in, we’ll feed you. And that’s the thing. You want the big-deal food at home, the new Korean tapas place, or stuff from the chef who’s all about lichen this season. But when you’re travelling, you most often want the no-big-deal food. What’s Bolivian food when it’s at home? So tamp down your instincts and walk through the door that sticks. You’ll have a good time.
4: Try things you don’t like twice
You’ve been brave, you’ve ordered pigeon pea pulau in Trinidad, or the fish livers in Thailand, and you didn’t like them. OK, no harm, no foul. You’re just not a fish liver-lover. Except, maybe you are. Maybe you had a bad batch. Maybe there are different styles of fish livers, and you just tried the one you don’t like. Or maybe you were so tensed up about trying this possibly gross thing that you weren’t really letting yourself taste it for what it was. I’m not saying you should love all foods. Some of it tastes like ass. All I am saying, is give peas a chance. (And fish livers, too.)
Be like old Anthony Bourdain. Don’t be like young Anthony Bourdain. Old Anthony Bourdain was a national treasure, and his death is mourned by eaters and travellers everywhere. We’ll not see his like again soon. But young Anthony Bourdain introduced his show A Cook’s Tour with the words “I’ll try anything, I’ll risk anything, I’ve got nothing to lose,” like eating foreign food might kill you. In his third episode, he tried hột vịt lộn, fetal duck egg, a Vietnamese breakfast food, and after telling us about the “feathery, furry bits,” concluded by quipping, “I don’t think I’ll be adding that to a little Special K, milk, bacon and, heh, fetal duck egg.”
That’s exactly the guy you don’t want to be, exoticizing difference, pulling faces, and falling into easy jibes that rely on parochial notions of normal to dismiss what’s in front of you. Be like Old Anthony. Old Anthony figured some things out, like the fact that the human palate doesn’t vary much, and that if a food is popular in one part of the world, it means it tastes good to the taste buds in your mouth. Old Anthony realized that a big part of eating your way around the world is mental, and realizing you’re probably in a rut, thinking lobster and shrimp are fine, while crickets and grasshoppers are gross, despite the fact that they’re all essentially insects. Eating while travelling is not a stunt.
5: Don’t crowdsource, ask a local instead
The problem with crowds is that they’re average, and you don’t want to be average while you’re travelling. Zomato may be useful at home, but when you’re abroad, it’s best to nix it in favour of just asking someone. And remember, the person you ask is at home. So don’t ask for a recommendation to an authentic spot. Imagine what your answer would be if someone asked you that at home. Ask for her favourite chicken spot, instead.
6: Street food is fine, better than fine
North Americans are highly suspicious of any street food that’s not a hot dog or served out of a truck. But the streets are where so much of the world’s best food originates. Satay started out as street food, as did tacos and pad Thai, oysters and ramen. And those foods didn’t become popular, and travel all over the world, because they made people sick. Most street food vendors set up their carts, kiosks, or tables in the same place every day, and if any of them made a habit of making people sick, they’d go out of business fast. And though people’s stomach flora do differ from place to place, just follow one simple rule: see the heat. If you make sure your food has come right off the flame, you’ll have about the same chance of getting sick as you do at home. Heat kills pretty much anything in food that can make you sick. Lucky for you, most of the street food you’d be interested in eating is cooked and served this way, for just this reason. Enjoy!
Article originally published November 28, 2018 and recently updated.