I love eating like a local when I travel. Well, okay. I’m not as dedicated as Andrew Zimmern, whom I adore for his cheerful and ardent pursuit of unique morsels the world over. I haven’t yet found myself in a desert sampling the local insect cuisine, but I did earn a compliment from a Singaporean when I ordered fish ball soup at a hawker center (or open-air food court) during my recent travels.
She smiled broadly and said, “Ah, you are brave! Good job!”
I beamed and then headed to the beer stand where I chatted with the proprietor about his variety of locally made brews. (As they say, you can take the girl of out of Brooklyn…)
I wasn’t always a versatile eater. I grew up in the landlocked American Midwest long before ingredients like quinoa and kale made way into the U.S. food dialogue. A typical dinner was baked chicken or breaded cube steak with mashed potatoes and corn or peas. My exposure to seafood was limited to the occasional freshwater fish from Lake Michigan and frozen fish sticks. Subsequently, I thought it was weird to eat things like shrimp, which I deemed as giant bugs from the sea.
My palate expanded greatly after I moved to New York where I exercised a zealous indulgence in the city’s abundant gastronomic offerings. (See my past blog Urban Gastronomy as evidence.) New York also primed my appetite for fare from far-off locations, but I never thought much about “food culture” beyond the idea of Chicago pizza or New York bagels.
Then in 2007, I traveled to Thailand, and one small bite of curry led to a gustatory epiphany. The curries I had eaten previously in the U.S. were shadowy imposters compared to that intricately orchestrated dish, which was written from longstanding cultivation and cooking traditions and filled with fresh herbs and spices. Those same spices have to travel thousands of flavor-sapping miles to make it into a curry pot in the U.S.
Later during that trip, my friend V. and I were treated to a communal meal of Thai suki. The host of our homestay explained the process of dipping vegetables and meat in pots of flavorful boiling broth placed in the center of the table. It was a meal that we shared with warmth and enthusiasm.
Those food memories brought me back to Thailand this past June. I booked my return to the States after eight months of travel through Bangkok just so I could eat Thai food in Thailand.
Food is integral to experiencing a place and a culture, and it has the power to create spontaneous community and belonging among strangers. Eating is more than sustenance, and there is enjoyment and pride in sharing our food cultures with others. Like the woman in Singapore and our host family in Thailand years ago, it makes people happy to see visitors trying regional dishes and learning about local food. I have only had positive experiences on the road when I ask people about food. “What do you like to eat?” “Is there a place in town where they serve that dish?” “What is your favorite meal at home?”
And, it can be so much fun to immerse yourself and explore. In any given destination, it’s likely that my day bag holds a small collection of snacks from the local market and street vendors I’ve passed along the way. I ask locals for dinner recommendations or walk around and choose a crowded bar, restaurant or food stand.
Cracking the local food culture, however, isn’t always easy, especially in heavily trafficked tourist destinations where the choices may be overwhelming or the chefs may be trained to cater to less-adventurous foreign taste buds. Language can also be a challenge both for ordering and for navigating food allergies or other restrictions.
Food tours and cooking classes are a fantastic solution, especially in larger cities, because:
- You can sample a lot of delicious food and drinks in a half or full day.
- Many tours provide interesting information about local history.
- The guides are almost always interesting, and you can learn a little about what it’s like to live in that city from their experiences.
- It can help you learn your way around for more exploration on your own later.
- You can usually solicit additional recommendations for not-to-miss sights, bars or other hotspots.
- You can ask a lot of questions about the food and/or the chef that language barriers might otherwise prevent.
I had a lovely time with Bangkok Food Tours on their historic Bangrak tour during my June visit. As a result, I’ve added a new favorite dish to my Thai roster: gai tod ta krai (fried chicken topped with crispy fried lemongrass). Delicious! And I learned about Thai variations of fishball noodle soup, including sen yai yen ta foo tom yum. The name may sound long, but you must choose your noodle (sen yai yen or flat rice noodle), then your sauce (ta foo is a red sauce made from tomatoes and fermented soy) and your heat level (tom yum or spicy).
Our guide also introduced me to a curry that was so good I was running around Bangkok on the day of my departure trying to find the restaurant again for one last meal. My sense of direction is terrible, and after a trip on the Sky Train and a lot of walking, sweating and fretting about missing my flight, I finally found it. Ironically it was only minutes from my hotel. The meal of papaya salad and green curry was worth every ounce of angst and is still on my mind today. I’m sure it will be bring me back to Thailand sometime in the future!
Eat Like a Local will be a periodically recurring series on SaylorAway. Stay tuned for info on more great food tours and other food-related adventures!