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Finding Authentic Food When You Travel

I recently got a question from a reader on how to find authentic food from the place she was traveling to and I pointed back to an old article I got quoted in with some good advice. In some places it’s easier than others—last summer I found it super-easy everywhere in Greece and Bulgaria for instance—but in destinations where the local food gets crowded out by international options, it’s tougher to find authentic cuisine.

authentic Budapest food

That original article is still up on USA Today, even though it’s from eight years ago, but it has aged well because this is an evergreen topic really. No matter how many apps you have and how many times you look at Google Maps, but the best ways to eat what’s local are still very physical and old-school. 

Food is a window into a culture and as outsiders, it’s often the one that is the most accessible. We learn by eating in restaurants, by watching how people consume snack foods, by seeing what the street stalls are serving, or by shopping in the local markets. I think this is such a big deal that when there was no food tour in my sometime home of Guanajuato, Mexico, I set up a tour company myself to offer one. I guided all the tours for the first year then hired others to take over as it grew. Last year I sold it to my head guide and stepped down, but it’s still going strong: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.  

Take a Local Food Tour

I’ve let people guide me from the other side of the transaction plenty, taking local food tours or participating in cooking classes. My family has done three of them in Mexico alone. In San Miguel de Allende, in Puebla, and in Oaxaca. That’s our chef for the last one pictured below, buying some squash blossoms that we would later stuff with Oaxacan cheese, bread with corn meal, and fry. Yum!

Oaxaca cooking class

For the Puebla one, we learned how to make salsa (very useful) and how to make mole (too much of a pain to do again after that). It was fun to find out what ingredients go into the things we eat and in the case of mole, it’s a lot of ingredients. The main thing my wife got out of it was how to properly use a blender to keep from burning out the motor.

Here’s my daughter and I slaving over a comal on a hot stove:

Puebla cooking class

Twice I’ve taken cooking classes in Thailand, the first with my family and then last year on my own. I did a whole post on that one: Learning how to make Thai food right. I have a new appreciation and a deeper understanding of Thai ingredients after that, plus I think I figured out why bad Thai restaurants are much rarer than bad Chinese ones.

In the end, I got to point to this plate and say, “I made that!”

pla sam rod fish dish

I also took a great cooking class in Lima, Peru, a city regarded as one of the best in South America for your taste buds. 

I have done food tours all over where I’m just eating instead of cooking and I still learned a lot about what’s authentic food and what people eat locally. I had a great one in Athens with EatWith and in Malaga, Spain with a local company.

I feel like my ones in the USA have been more varied and it was harder to pin down what really came from there, like in Greenville (SC), St. Augustine (FL), and Savannah (GA). The Brooklyn food tour I did recently had more of a sense of place. New York Pizza and bagels! 

EatWith also offers the option to dine in someone’s home, where you’re almost sure to get the local touch and you can ask a lot of questions while you’re there. 

Search food tours and local dining options with EatWith

Eat at the Local Market

My favorite place to find what’s really local when I travel is the central market. There you can see what the working class locals eat (along with a few chefs)—not the people interacting with tourists all the time. Some of the best food we had in food-centric Oaxaca was some of the cheapest, in the local market there.

I’ve had great luck with that from such far-flung places as Peru, Argentina, Cambodia, and India. In the latter, it’s best to avoid the meat though. Go a few aisles over to where it’s hanging in the heat and you’ll see why. The first time I visited I was a vegetarian for a month and a half—a historically long stretch for this carnivore.

Markets can tell you a lot about a place though and they’re great fun to walk through. Sometimes they’re drastically different, other times you can see the threads of conquest, migration, and the travels of the colonists hundreds of years earlier.

market stand in Bishkek

If you can do it with a good guide, as I did when getting that pickled peppers Budapest shot at the top, it’s even better.

In the USA, where community markets aren’t so prevalent, you might have better luck at the local barbecue joint on the side of the road or in Louisiana, at a gas station even. If there’s some kind of festival going on, a county fair, or a church picnic you get invited too, those can be interesting windows into what people are eating too. 

Get Out of the Tourist Zone

Want to be sure that you’re getting the worst version of a city’s food? Go where you see the most tourists gathered. It’ll be doubly bad if those tourists are wearing numbers or there’s a guide with a megaphone.

This is true from Venice to New York to Puerto Vallarta and in most of the world’s most popular places. There are a few exceptions here and there, like Michelin-starred restaurants that are famous but great, institutions that have been there 50 years but are still maintaining their quality.

Most of the time, however, your best bet for authentic food is to get out of the tourist zone and head to a real neighborhood where people live or work. Street food stalls are a good place to start in some countries, but not others. Hole-in-the-wall places where nobody speaks English are often a good bet and you’re not going to find them rated highly on Google Maps or Yelp because the people who live there don’t leave reviews.  

lunch when touring Europe on a budget

How do you find these places? Wandering works well, as does asking random people of normal means where they like to eat. “What’s a good place to eat that’s not too expensive?” is a good way to frame it because otherwise they might look at you, think “rich foreigner,” and send you to the fanciest spot around.

“Where can I get typical food from your country?” is another good way to ask it so they don’t send you out for sushi, Italian, or burgers in countries where none of those originated. 

How about you? How do you learn about local cuisine and find authentic food when you travel? Let us know in the comments! 

Search food tours and local dining options with EatWith


Friday 12th of July 2024

I'm with you on the markets and street stalls. And you're right, they are never going to be on Google Maps, so going there to find "the best taco stand" is just a waste of time. You'll get results of where all the tourists went and posted a review.