Some people claim that food is the best part of traveling. This may be true, or it may be that the act of eating and drinking grounds you in your new experience more than anything else could. After all, what’s the real difference between looking at a strange new place on Google Street View and being there in real life? The ground beneath your feet, the sun on your face… and the scents in the air. The spices, the aromas, the drink you bought at the corner cafe even though you can’t pronounce it…
If you’re not sure where to get started with a new cuisine, I have compiled a list of food goals which should be adaptable to any country. Some of them will need a little extra legwork, but I promise it will all be worth it.
How Do You Take Your Coffee?
Black? Cream and sugar? (Half cold because you keep forgetting it’s there and the microwave is just such a long walk…?) All right, now how would you take your coffee if you lived in the country you are visiting? Most cultures around the world have their own version of coffee. If tea is more your thing, then I’m sure you’ll be able to find a version of this as well. A version of your usual beverage can be nice, easy stepping stone from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Whether it’s the norm to mix the coffee with condensed milk, crushed ice, or drink it as a straight espresso, you should be able to find something interesting to try.
The National Dish
Even if you can’t find any record of an official national dish, there is bound to be an unofficial one. This will be the country’s version of “classic”, and should have more traditional ingredients and cooking styles than some more modernized “international” versions of things. For this, try to find the most authentic restaurant you can, maybe somewhere really fancy if that looks like the best option. It’s a bonus if they have an authentic setting, or some kind of traditional entertainment.
This is another item that every country seems to have its own special version of. Just in case there is some strange, soupless country that I am not currently aware of, I will extend the rules to include stew, but… it really should be soup. There might be some crazy, wild variety that you have never heard of before. Or, at the very least, you should be able to find the national version of chicken or vegetable soup. It’s often something that people learn to cook at home, following family heirloom recipes. This can be something really authentic if you find the right place. Try somewhere small and family-owned.
An Unusual Fruit or Vegetable
Let’s remember to stay healthy! (So we can eat unhealthy things without worrying about it.) The joy of this is not only the fact that fruits and vegetables can get pretty weird (they really, really can) but that you have to go shopping. Head to a grocery store, food market or just a big ol’ supermarket. Then pace the produce section until you find something that makes you go “what the – !?” Strange shape, strange color, strange aroma, anything that catches your attention. It’s easiest to look for something that you can potentially eat raw, unless you have access to a kitchen. Else you can make friends with your hotel’s kitchen staff and wait for a quiet moment when they would be willing to cook it for you (make sure to tip generously).
What Do You Have For Lunch?
This comes with an extra challenge: talking to people. It’s often something we can regret not doing more after we finish a visit to a place. Of course, trying to talk in an unfamiliar language can be daunting. You can learn a few phrases to help you, or try to find something who already knows English. Maybe they’d like to practise! The goal is to find out what a typical lunch would be (maybe ask a few people to get an idea) and where it would be eaten. Then you go there, order it, and eat it.
This is another ubiquitous cuisine element found in every country. These will often be the end-of-the-day foods which people grab on their way home, or after a night out. In my experience they tend to be starchy, salty, greasy… hmmm… wait, sorry, what were we talking about…? It’s worth doing some research to check what you’re ordering, as there might not be a translated menu. However! You are not allowed to order some version of the street food from a cafe or restaurant. It has to be from a vendor on the street. I don’t make the rules. (I do. Shh.) The added bonus to this is that you get out into the city or town where you are staying.
In fact, all of these goals should be chased with the idea of learning and exploration. Food is one thing, eating it in a new environment with new friends is another.
It is also one of my cardinal rules of safe travel that you should get to know the place where you will be staying as soon as possible. Use your search for cafes and markets to lead you to a new understanding of which streets intersect where, and which routes lead you home.