How to plug into a local food scene when you travel
One of the biggest motivators to get on a plane and travel across the world is the food you’ll eat when you get there. Whether it’s sushi in Japan, pasta in Italy, or patisserie in France, the dishes we’ve tried and tasted at home can taste entirely different when consumed in the place of their provenance.
However, one of the challenges of landing in a new city without much local knowledge is that it can be harder to eat as well as you’re able to at home. In the absence of knowing what’s good, what’s overrated, and what’s in season you can end up relying on the kind of cliche advice that’s designed for tourists, not foodies. After all, if a restaurant has a sign boasting “Authentic Paella” or “Grandmother’s spaghetti,” chances are that locals wouldn’t eat there. And if you’re interested not just in eating well but in getting to know about the local ingredients, agro-ecology, growing season, food culture, and terroir of a place, it can be even harder to find advice that goes beyond the obvious.
Whether you’re aiming to eat cuisine cooked with local ingredients or simply eat as a local would, there are various ways that you can plug into a local food scene when you arrive in a city, whether it’s just for a weekend or a couple of weeks.
- Cook yourself from a market: A visit to a farmers’ market or open air market can be one of the best ways to find out what’s in season and what locals are eating. If you’re able to speak the language, ask vendors what they recommend this time of year. Seek out markets that feature local farmers’ produce and/or organic food. While it can be a little extra work to cook in your rented apartment or accommodation, it can be one of the cheapest and most direct ways to taste the kinds of flavours you’d never come across at home.
- Eat with a local: There are several ways to do this, including asking your host if you can take them out to dinner or meeting up with a friend of a friend who happens to live in a city. But if you’re lucky enough to make dinner plans with someone who knows what’s what, don’t ruin it by having expectations or preferences. Simply ask your dining companion where they’d like to eat, and allow them to order if they seem to know what’s good. Letting go of your food preferences a bit when you travel is essential if you want to have an experience you wouldn’t otherwise have at home.
- Take a cooking class: If you’re not just interested in the food on your plate, but the process it went through to get there as well, then taking a local cooking class is a fantastic way to learn about local ingredients and cooking techniques. Try and find a class with a local chef or culinary enthusiast who can walk you through not only the ingredients and method of a dish but its history and cultural importance as well.
- Eat street food: If you’re in a city or region where street food is king, don’t be afraid to dig in. Often, tourists will shy away from street food for fear that health and safety standards won’t be up to par. However, this fear is often unfounded. Look for food vendors with high turnover and locally sourced ingredients; after all, if they’re popular, you can be pretty sure they’re not making people sick. Ask any veteran traveller—often, food-borne travel illnesses come from eating something that’s familiar to you but not locally popular (salad in India, for example) than eating what the locals do.
- Book a farm-stay or home-stay: If you want to try a wider range of local dishes, particularly simple, everyday dishes, staying with a local family or on a working farm can be a great way to deepen your culinary experience. Offering to help with farm chores or kitchen tasks can also be a great way to enrich your understanding of local food and be of service to your hosts in the process.
- Use social media: Instead of relying on guidebooks published a few years ago, use social media to get the most up-to-date insight on popular restaurants, markets, chefs, pop-ups and food trends. Seeking out popular bloggers or Instagrammers and see what they’ve recommended recently can be a great way to take a break from the classics and get an inside look into innovations and popular trends in the food scene of the place you’re visiting.
- Book a food tour: If you only have a limited amount of time in a city, a food tour can be a quick and efficient way to get a sense of the local food scene. Try and choose one that’s small scale and led by an independent local, rather than a large tour company, as well as a tour that focuses on local producers and ingredients. One of the best ways to support the sustainability of a place is to invest in their local food system
You might also be interested in our other post about shopping local!