Our featured contributor Ben Groundwater never used to travel solely for food. But now he counts tucking into the local delicacies of a destination as a primary motivation for traveling. He shares some pointers for anyone else who’s dead-set on hitting the road in search of flavors.
Eating: It’s one of life’s great pleasures. And for travelers, it’s even more than that. When you’re traveling, food isn’t just about sustenance or even enjoyment. It’s culture, authenticity and experience. It’s interaction with locals. It’s life at its simplest and its most exciting.
When I first started traveling, I didn’t know much about cuisine: Where to eat, what to eat, or even what to ask to find it. You learn these things as time goes by. Still, I wish someone had clued me up on the ins and outs of traveling for food before I took my first culinary plunge.
Your travel doctor will inevitably give you a set of rules to live by when it comes to eating safely: If you can’t peel it, boil it, or cook it, forget it. These guidelines are handy. However, they will also stop you from enjoying some of the best food around, and should therefore be judiciously ignored. Beer poured over ice in Bangkok? Do it. San choy bau (minced pork wrapped in a lettuce leaf) off a street cart in Beijing? Do it. A raw egg white coffee in Hanoi? Do it!
There’s an idea among some foodies that the only way to eat well when you travel is to aim for restaurants with three Michelin stars, the celebrity chef-run places that make the World’s 50 Best. But that’s not even close to true.
You can have a great food experience in a rundown bar in Barcelona. You can have the best meal of your life at a street food stand in Bangkok. Those of us traveling on a budget don’t have to miss out on amazing food experiences. It’s just a case of seeking out memorable, affordable cuisine and rolling the dice.
This is the flip side to my previous point. It’s easy to feel bad about visiting a high-end restaurant when you’re traveling and spending an entire week’s budget on a single meal. In a sense, it’s outrageous, and people who don’t love food will shame you for it.
But here’s the thing: If you love sport, you’ll pay a lot of money to see Real Madrid or the Cleveland Cavaliers. If you love music, you’ll splash out on Springsteen tickets or going to Glasto. And if you love food, it’s 100 per cent fine to save up a lot of money and spank it all on one truly incredible meal. Lima’s Central restaurant, for example, will set you back a pretty penny, but it’s #4 on the World’s 50 Best. You know that’s going to be a memorable meal.
You can take all the precautions you like when you travel, but if you’re really going to do this right, if you’re going to take chances on dishes you’ve never seen before, if you’re going to wander into restaurants that look a little dodgy, if you’re going to sample street food and eat everything you can get your hands on, then at some point, food poisoning will come knocking. It pays to accept this as a drawback of your passion, prepare yourself accordingly, and move on.
It doesn’t matter how truly weird or inedible the local food looks—there’s a fair chance it’s safer to eat than any local attempts at Western fare.
I traveled through Laos once with an English guy who wasn’t very adventurous and insisted on eating ham sandwiches every day instead of the noodle soups and stir-fries the rest of us were eating. We got through the whole trip pretty much unscathed. My mate was constantly sick.
If you want to get the best food when you’re traveling, you need to know what to look for. Do your research before the trip to find the local specialties, the dishes that are unique to each region, and the ingredients that will be in season when you’re there.
It’s also worth seeking out local food bloggers in your destination to get tips on restaurants and markets—though keep in mind some are paid by local tourism boards or restaurants to do just that.
A local food market may not seem like a worthwhile tourist attraction, but it’s a window into the local gastronomic culture, a way to see what everyone’s buying, and, in the surrounding restaurants, how—and what—they’re cooking.
And don’t forget local supermarkets, too, which can be endlessly interesting for the food-obsessed. Korea, in particular, is a goldmine for this. From lotus root to live octopus and a thousand different packet varieties of ramen, kimchi, and dried meat snacks—every aisle of a Korean supermarket is a brave new world.
When you’re traveling, it’s a good idea to ask the locals for advice on where and what to eat. But bear in mind the fact that not all locals actually know what they’re talking about. Some people just aren’t that into food. And even if they are into food, their palette could vary enormously from yours. What’s normal for them might not be normal for you.
So while local advice is handy, it’s also worth doing your own research to make sure the tips you glean fit with the experience you’re after. Sri Lankans might tell you to tuck into a durian and Filipinos might encourage you to crack open a balut. And if you take this advice without doing your research, you’ll soon find yourself chomping on a fruit that tastes like a foot or an egg that’s home to—surprise!— a fertilized duck embryo, beak and all. Yum.
The above in mind, it’s still important to try food you’ve never seen before. You have to walk into that Chinese restaurant and point blindly at the menu. You have to go into that market and choose the strangest thing there. You have to put aside all notions of what’s acceptable as food and what isn’t and just try, try, try.
It won’t always work out well but—remember—you don’t have to eat it all. The glory of foodie travel is the discovery of something delicious and new. There’s even a bit of glory in trying something you know is going to be gross, just for the fun of it. All it takes is one little bite.
Back in the day, I didn’t even realize that you could travel just for food. It never crossed my mind. Eating was something you just did while you were on the road, a pleasure and yet still a sideshow, an unexpected bonus rather than a planned highlight.
It was only later that I realized that it’s OK to travel to a place solely for the food, and that cuisine can be just as important to you as art, history or architecture is to someone else. And it’s been one big gloriously delicious journey since then.