Let’s face it, traveling just isn’t as fun without good food. Learning about a cuisine is as vital to experiencing a new culture as the act of traveling itself. As a culinary explorer, you should always find yourself asking, “What do the locals eat?” By exploring the places you visit through local food, you help preserve the traditions and histories of regional cuisines.
With Culture Swap, you get a real taste of the places you visit by eating with locals in their homes. Finding great food and genuine hospitality, be it at a restaurant or stopping by a vendor on the street, can be difficult. So to help, we’ve put together a list of simple tips you can use to make the most out of every meal you have while traveling.
Even for adventurous eaters, it’s natural to be drawn to things you recognize. The unseasoned traveler might be hesitant to try something unfamiliar, but many restaurants in tourist-trodden towns know this and exploit it to their advantage. We challenge you to look for family run establishments and places that are inspired by foods that have been made in that country for centuries. Great food has a sense of place. Food doesn’t have to be traditional to be authentic, but it should have some sort of history. Seek out places where they cook with heart and you won’t be disappointed in what you eat.
There has been a lot of discussion lately over what it means to be a traveler, not a tourist. A tourist takes a passive approach to travel, not getting a true feel for the places they are visiting. Travelers engage. Don’t forget to engage with what you are eating! Pay attention to when, where and how the locals eat and emulate what they are doing. Think about the flavors you are experiencing. Do you notice the frequent use of certain ingredients? How does that inform your understanding of the flavors of that country? You can learn a lot about a place from what the people there eat. Indulge in local foods that bring richness to their communities and you will inevitably learn more about that culture’s story.
When we talk about food, we often think about the finished product, but we should also be thinking about where the ingredients that go into that food come from. Many iconic dishes from around the world evolved out of necessity, making use of ingredients that were grown, and therefore available, locally. Places that still buy local have a different type of tie to their communities. While it’s often very difficult to know where a restaurant gets their ingredients, an easy way to judge how likely or unlikely they are to source locally is to pay attention to their menu’s seasonality. Are the dishes they serve made with ingredients that come from the area around where you are eating? Does the produce on their menu seem to follow seasonable availability?
No matter how neutral you try to be, what you experience abroad is always filtered through your personal history and beliefs. It’s easy to let preconceptions you might not even realize you have influence the choices you make while traveling. Acknowledge your preexisting beliefs and keep your eye out for contradictions; challenge your own way of thinking. Even if you’ve already tried something, the same food can taste completely different depending on its preparation, origin and quality. Keep an open mind and you’re sure to make some delicious discoveries.
When you are visiting a new place, consider why the food you encounter might have been created or how it came about as a staple of the local gastronomy. This is particularly important when it comes to food that you might automatically dismiss as “disgusting”. Try to think of this type of local food simply as something you aren’t comfortable eating. We know how difficult it can be to realign your thinking, but if you take a chance and try some of the things you find intimidating, you might be surprised to discover that you actually enjoy what you’ve decided to eat.
When you come from a place that has access to an abundance of food, both in quantity and variety, it’s easy to forget that having a choice to eat or not eat something is a privilege, and by many standards, a luxury. No matter what you might normally abstain from eating, it’s important to respect someone who has gone out of their way to present you with a meal. When you turn down food, you aren’t just turning down something to eat, you are turning down someone else’s culture. If you really won’t eat something, educate yourself in advance, try to avoid putting yourself in a position where you have to refuse something, and in the case that you do, make sure to be polite and decline the food respectfully.
As many seasoned travelers know, the gastronomy you encounter abroad can be drastically different than anything you would typically eat at home. Trying new local foods is one of the most fantastic parts of traveling! So get out there, learn what you can about how the locals live and eat, and show them you care about the preservation of their cultural and culinary history.