This week I got quoted in a USA Today article on how to find authentic local food when you travel. What we eat is important always, but it takes on a whole other level of importance when you’re traveling, especially internationally.
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 and I returned to the states for a while.
I’ve done plenty from the other side of the transaction though, taking local food tours or participating in cooking classes. My family has done three of them in Mexico alone. In San Miguel de Allende (where the USA Today photo is from), 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!
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:
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!”
My favorite place to eat though when I travel is the local market. There you can see what the true locals eat, the ones who are shopping or working—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. If you can do it with a good guide, as I did when getting that pickled peppers Budapest shot at the top, and recently in Istanbul, it’s even better.
How do you learn about local food when you travel?