How to Eat Like a Local Anywhere in the World
October 17, 2014
How to Eat Like a Local Anywhere in the World
Tips from a culinary tourism expert on skipping the tourist traps and really experiencing your destination gastronomy from the inside.
Do Your Research.
The Internet has changed the way we do a lot of things in our lives, and travel and dining are no exceptions. Before you head for the airport, spend some time online. Look at maps, read restaurant reviews, and track down information on traditional cuisine. When planning my trips, I always check Lonely Planet, Chowhound, The New York Times Dining & Wine and Travel sections, and TripAdvisor, to name just a few.
Learn Your Manners.
Did you know that in Japan, it’s a huge faux pas to prop your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl? In France, it’s the height of rudeness to ask to split a restaurant bill. In China, belching is sign of respect to your host and satisfaction with your meal. No matter where in the world you end up, arrive there armed with a working knowledge of local etiquette, and you’ll find that your hosts will embrace you into their culture that much more quickly.
Make Friends Wherever You Go.
Even if there’s a language barrier between you and the local population, I’ve found that people everywhere are almost always excited to introduce newcomers into their world, especially if they demonstrate open-mindedness and genuine interest. Be outwardly curious. Talk to everyone you can. Allow for spontaneity. Everyone everywhere has a favorite dish, restaurant, or recipe. It’s amazing what you’ll discover about a place by just asking a friendly stranger what they like to eat.
Step Out of Your Culinary Comfort Zone.
The secret to enjoying local cuisine is easier said than done, for some: you must eliminate the idea that there are any foods out there that you hate. Saying out of habit that you just “don’t like” something — like Brussels sprouts, maybe, or chicken liver pâté — cuts you off from the potential for an illuminating experience. It passes implicit judgment on your hosts’ taste. And who knows? Maybe you’ve never had Brussels sprouts prepared properly. Maybe you actually love chicken liver pâté when done right. You’ll never know unless you try.
Find the Local Farmers Markets.
I have been known to lose entire afternoons wandering the local markets of any given city. The best ones go on for miles; rows and rows of produce, meat, fish, and local delicacies. Often, markets will offer food stalls serving simple fare made with fresh ingredients, in traditional preparations. These markets will usually be my first stop after landing in a new place, as they showcase a wide spectrum of what’s delicious in my new, temporary home.
Don’t Be Afraid of Street Food.
Despite the recent food truck revolution, the United States is somewhat of a latecomer to the modern street food game. In many places around the world, the best meals aren't being served at traditional sit-down restaurants, but rather from sidewalk food vendors who specialize in one or two favorite dishes. Americans are often put off by the idea of street food, a notion fueled perhaps by a bad experience at a gross hotdog cart or pretzel stand. Elsewhere in the world, street food is as local and authentic as eating can get.
Explore Outside the Tourist Areas.
This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get trapped by convenience, especially if you’re staying in the heart of a tourist district. This is what taxis and busses are for. Having done your research, try and find your way out of the realm of laminated picture menus, whose overpriced and poorly prepared food is meant to satisfy the lowest common denominator. Seek out the neighborhoods where people actually live. Find their favorite hole-in-the-wall spots. Discover the food that the locals eat and love every day.
Pay Attention to a Restaurant’s Clientele.
When choosing where to eat, take a close look at who’s already dining there. The best way to spot a tourist trap is by spotting the tourists. If you’re in Milan, but everyone in the café is speaking English, it’s probably a bad sign. If you’re at a restaurant in Buenos Aires and half the tables are populated with folks wearing Manchester United jerseys, you’re going to want to pick another dinner spot. This is the one area in which I think it’s totally okay to judge a book by its cover.
Score a Home-Cooked Meal.
In a lot of places, there are people who open their homes and their kitchens to paying customers. It might take a little digging to find, but if you can get someone’s grandmother to make you Sunday supper, you’re almost guaranteed to have an authentic culinary experience. Beyond the possibility of a delicious and unique meal, you may also luck out and become a surrogate family member for the night. Just be sure to offer to help with the dishes once the meal is over.
Ask Your Bartender.
Or your taxi driver, or your bellhop. No matter where you are, the best dining advice often comes from people who work in the service industry. Ask them where, when they get off their shift, they like to go hang out and eat. Where does the taxi driver drop the most folks on a Friday night? People who work with and around good food are the ones who know the most about their town’s best dining, and you’re likely to end up at a spot you might never have found otherwise.
Let an Expert be Your Guide.
While the Internet has given a whole lot of agency to travelers wanting to plan their own trips, there remains a flourishing industry of experts out there to help you on your way. Culinary tourism is exploding all around the globe, with local outfits in nearly every city in the world to point you in the right direction, get you a good reservation, or take you on a tour of the best spots for local cuisine.