One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a culture is through the food. Local cuisine not only nourishes you, but it also provides insight into the history, landscape, and way of life of a destination's people. What many people may not realize is that exploring local culinary culture extends farther than simply eating at a restaurant. To help you plan a culinary-immersive trip, here are 8 ways to immerse yourself in local culinary culture.
One way to go beyond just eating the local food is understanding how it's prepared. Most destinations offer local cooking classes, and if you're not sure where to find one, your hotel should be able to help you. Certain cooking classes also offer very local experiences, with opportunities to cook in a local home or source ingredients yourself at a local market. To make the most of your course, ask as many questions as possible about why the dish is special to local people, when it's typically made, and its origins. Bonus: this educational experience allows you to eat what you learn!
Instead of heading to a restaurant for lunch, why not explore some specialty shops? Artisan shops allow you to go hyper-local and get one-on-one time with the producers to learn more about where your food comes from. Artisanal eats are typically all-natural and feature locally-sourced ingredients, so it's also an ethical option. Typical foods made by artisans include but are not limited to cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and bread.
If you can't find artisanal shops, another place to look is the local markets. Here, you can peruse farm-fresh and locally made eats. Hint: if you're the type who doesn't think kale or apples sound exciting, a good farmer's market could change your mind. Another reason to visit is they're often budget-friendly, especially as free samples are not uncommon. Often, markets don't just feature food, but also handicrafts for a more all-encompassing experience.
Travel is all about trying new things. Make sure you incorporate that mindset into your eating. If you love pizza and burgers at home, try to steer away from these dishes when traveling and opt for things you've never tried - better yet, that you've never heard of. Even when something may not sound as appealing as spaghetti carbonara or grilled cheese, try it. Morcilla (blood sausage) in Colombia, Poke (raw cubed fish) in Hawaii, Nasi Lemak (coconut milk-cooked rice with anchovies, peanuts and boiled egg) in Malaysia, and tandoori (meats cooked in a hot clay 900-degree Fahrenheit oven) in India are just a few examples. And if you don't like the taste, you'll still be gaining insight into the local culture.
On your global food journey, start by researching the national or regional food or drink. Bandeja Paisa (a platter of local eats like chorizo and beans) in Colombia, Feijoada (a meat and bean stew) in Brazil, and Keshi Yena (meat-stuffed cheese) in Aruba are some examples, as are Pisco Sours in Peru, Sangria in Spain, and Limoncello in Italy. Once you learn what the national dish is (and sample it), ask around to find out exactly how this meal or drink came to be so special to the destination.
TGI Fridays, Burger King, and Subway should all be avoided when traveling. As far as English menus go, even at non-chains these places should be frequented as little as possible (unless, of course, you're in an English-speaking country). Instead, head to mom and pop eateries and restaurants frequented by locals to truly understand the flavors of the place you're visiting. If you're unsure where these are, you can ask your taxi drivers, tour guides, and those who serve your food and coffee. Once there, practice your language skills by asking the waiter questions about the menu, or give yourself a culinary adventure and order blindly to see what you get.
Giving yourself a food-focused mission can help you truly understand a culinary facet of the destination you're visiting. Maybe you want to discover the best empanadas in Argentina so you visit five different eateries and compare. Or maybe you want to learn to make homemade pasta in Italy, so you take a cooking class and work to perfect your technique. Missions like these can help you hone in on what part of the culinary culture interests you and become an expert in it.
EatWith is a community that allows travelers to eat with locals in their home. Simply log onto the website and browse the options, which range from sake suppers in San Francisco to gourmet picnics in Rio de Janeiro, and choose which one interests you that fits your price range. It's a great way to have a truly authentic local experience.
How do you learn more about local foods when you travel?
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Jessica Festa is a full-time travel writer who is always up for an adventure. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia and doing orphanage work in Ghana. You can follow her adventures on her travel websites, Epicure & Culture and Jessie On A Journey. You can also connect with Jessica directly on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, or follow her epicurean adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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