One of best things about traveling anywhere is the food! Not only do I not have to plan, cook or clean up in the kitchen whenever I’m traveling, but depending on where I’m going I not only get to savor old favorites but try new dishes as well. I’m one of those people who searches for restaurant recommendations, checks out menus, and finds out all I can about what there is to eat before I go somewhere, whether it’s Disney World or China or the Grand Canyon. I definitely don’t plan all my meals, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want to try or eat wherever I go.
Food is one of the most important cultural experiences you can have anywhere you go, and there is a lot you can discover about a country or place based on their food and cooking traditions. Is presentation highlighted? Portion size? What are primary sources of protein? Carbohydrates? Where do people buy their food? How do they store it? Is there a street food tradition? What’s acceptable to eat outside versus at home? When and where do people eat? What utensils do they use? How long do they take to eat? With whom do they eat? and so forth.
Besides figuring out some of the above, here are some tips for enjoying the food part of your journey wherever you go in the world:
- Do some research before you go. This can be anything from learning about popular or famous dishes or restaurants, to checking out menus and prices. TripAdvisor is a good source for restaurant recommendations almost any place in the world, and Yelp and other review sites can help determine great places to eat. I always take these reviews with a grain of salt though as everyone as personal preferences and expectations, but you can generally get a feel for whether someplace is worth checking out or not. I’m a big fan of eating at small, local food joints but it takes sometimes takes some research to find out which ones are worth going to (I’m still learning about places on Kaua’i). I also love to find out about grocery stores or markets before I travel and stop in or visit some of those if I have the time.
- Yes, try the big, famous places if you can afford it. Meals at well-known restaurants are usually as wonderful as they’re reputed to be, and there are good reasons why they’ve become famous and/or exclusive. You can be disappointed though, especially after you’ve spent a ton of money to eat there. Do your research carefully, and have a good idea about what you want to order. We had an amazing meal at the top Peking Duck restaurant when we were in Beijing, worth every penny, but another highly recommended restaurant we ate at fell far short of expectations and we regretted the money we spent there.
- Ask locals where they like to eat versus just asking for a recommendation. If you’re at a hotel, ask employees where they like to go out to eat with family and friends. Rather than being directed to the restaurant down the street, you’ll often learn of someplace you might never have heard of or tried otherwise, and have some pretty terrific food. If you’re in a new place for work, or to visit family, ask your local co-workers or your family about their favorite places for lunch, snacks or dinner. Again, you may find out about some places that don’t show up in the guidebooks or on the web, but that serve some pretty terrific food. Some of my fondest memories of living in Japan were meals we had at three little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood restaurants and bars that had been discovered by other navy families and that we probably would have passed over otherwise.
- Have a sense of adventure. Travel to a new place is the time to step out of your culinary comfort zone and try something new. We all know our limits (no insects or grubs for me, thank you) but there’s otherwise no way of knowing whether you’ll like something unless you try it. When I went to Japan as a college student I didn’t especially care for rice, soy sauce, or fish but came home loving all three as well as sweet red bean filling, mochi, noodles, sushi and lots of other Japanese foods that I never would have considered before.
- Give street food a try. Some of the best things you’ll ever eat will come from a street food stall or food cart. I guarantee it. It’s also an inexpensive way to try out different foods, or things you might not find in a restaurant.
- Know when to step back into your comfort zone, if necessary. On one visit to Hong Kong, Brett and I decided we were going to eat nothing but Chinese food the entire time we were there, and had created a list of several different restaurants and dishes to try. We gave up after three days, and found a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. It was enough of a break though to go back to Chinese, although not as intensely. Sometimes giving yourself a chance to eat familiar foods, like a burger or a Frappuchino at Starbucks, can help you “get back on the wagon” and enjoy eating local for the rest of your stay.
- If you have time during your journey, try a cooking class. If you’ve enjoyed a particular cuisine at home, and are traveling to visit the area, try a cooking class. For example, you can learn to make macarons in Paris, pesto, pasta or gnocchi in Italy, or mole in Mexico. There are tours and classes that allow you to cook “backstage” at some of the top restaurants in Las Vegas. Cooking classes can help you learn more about local ingredients, new techniques, and increase your appreciation for what goes into making some of your favorite dishes. Wine, sake, beer or other spirited beverage tastings can also be included in this category.
As always, travel is much more than seeing the sites. Travel gives us a chance to briefly observe and participate in a different culture, and learn more about ourselves in the process. Immersing yourself into the local food scene is one of the quickest and easiest ways to do that, no matter where you land, and another way to create memories to last a lifetime.