So you’ve just bought your ticket, and already you’re dreaming about your vacation. There’s lots to look forward to: the climate, the people, the culture, and (if you’re like me) the food. I always eat local when travelling and I’ve never regretted it. Trying local food isn’t just for those with stomachs of steel; pizza in Italy, couscous in Morocco, curry in Thailand, salsa in Mexico, sushi in Japan… Eating these iconic foods is a traveller’s right.
Local food is convenient, fun, and an important part of travelling. First, because it’s great for conversation: people will ask you what foods you’ve tried (and you should have an answer). Second, because food is a way for you to get to know a culture. Third, local food is almost always tastier than tourist fare (an exception for me was Cuba, where the local food was truly unappetizing).
Of course you’ve started planning your trip by now (if you haven’t check Planning Your Next Vacation is Easy), but remember to leave space for finding food once you’ve arrived. You’re an adventurous person: forget the guidebook, and discover something on your own. And I don’t mean the nearest McDonalds, I’m talking food stalls, grocery stores, cafes, and markets. Don’t overlook these places, that’s where people buy food. People just like you.
It sounds too good to be true, but I admit isn’t all good. Foraging off of the tourist trail is rewarding, but it can also punish you. Here are some of the reasons to try (or not) local food.
Why You Should Get Personal With Local Food:
Restaurants for tourists are expensive no matter where you are. The food that everyday people eat is abundant, and hene, costs less. Tourist restaurants will cut into your budget like a machete through the jungle, leaving your short when you want to go zip lining. Sucks to be you.
Finding something you like
Different can be scary, but how else will you find out what you like? Say you’ve never tried frog’s legs before and, once you get past the fact that they’re actual frog’s legs, you like them. Win!
Buying food directly from the people who make or sell it, and you get a smile or a question about where you’re from or where you’re headed. Trying local food makes you an instant expert in local cuisine, and when you meet other travellers, they’ll appreciate your recommendations. Every person in the world needs food, and plenty of conversations start from there.
See something unique
Getting off of the main drag in search of sustenance, gives you a different view of a place. You might find a garden, a building, or a statue you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. These are things the guidebook won’t tell you, things that you would have missed out on.
You can eat whenever you want when you’re not limiting yourself to familiar foods. You’ll have more choices, and find food faster when you’re hungry. Dietary restrictions aside, the limits of what you eat shouldn’t depend on you, it should depend on the culture you’re visiting. Imagine going to Japan and only eating hamburgers. You’d be frustrated and hungry the whole trip, which is no fun.
Forks, knives, and spoons not required
It can fun trying a new way to eat. Chow down on Zambian nshima with your hands, make Korean BBQ at your table with lettuce wraps, properly unwrap a Japanese onigiri… Eating becomes fun again, just like when you were three years old.
Try something you won’t be able to try anywhere else
Familiar foods seem ho-hum when perusing a foreign menu. I bet your hometown menus don’t have horse sashimi, dog stew, or crocodile steak. You’ve got to travel to find these delicacies, and if you don’t, you might not get another chance. Don’t miss out.
Practice a language
Ordering in a restaurant requires speaking, interpretive hand signals, or both. Tourist restaurants will likely have an English menu (boring), and English-speaking staff (boring). Ordering in another language is a challenge: one that you’re ready to take on. All you need is a few key phrases and the bravery to try. If you want a restaurant just like home, why are you travelling?
Eating local food could be one of your greatest experiences (like the croissant I had in a Cambodian village) …or maybe one of your most embarrassing (like when I accidentally ordered a whole pie instead of a piece of pie in Cuba). Either way, it’s something that makes your trip unique. It’s your vacation, and your chance to make memories.
Local Food Could Make You Pack Up and Leave:
You stomach might not thank you
No matter what you call it (Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi belly, the scoots), stomach issues are a risk. Eat one ‘risky’ meal, see if you can handle it, then increase from there. If you go all-in right from the beginning of your trip, you’ll regret it.
Eating things that taste terrible
So you’ve never had frog’s legs and you decide to try them. Instead of loving them, they’re the most disgusting things you’ve ever eaten. Now you can’t finish your lunch, and you’re back on the hunt for something else. If this happens a few times, you’ll probably give up and run to the nearest KFC. Can’t say I blame you.
Yes, you can easily make an ass of yourself. You’re a traveller and there’s no way you can know exactly how everything works in a foreign country, but the shame of doing something embarrassing could ruin your day. My advice is get ready, I guarantee you’re going to make an ass of yourself one way or another.
You don’t speak the local language, which means ordering a meal is going to be awkward, and you’re at risk of not getting what you want. When you’re hungry frustration can easily put you over the edge where things get ugly.
Finding it isn’t always as easy as it sounds
Guidebooks were written to show you where restaurants are, and provide recommendations so you don’t have to wander the streets aimlessly in the hottest part of the day, hungry, thirsty, and tired. Admittedly, ‘wandering aimlessly’ isn’t much of a ‘strategy’, and doesn’t always add up to success.
“But wait!” I hear you say, “I’m still not convinced local food is for me.” To that I say, if you don’t try, you won’t know what you’re missing. Do you want to come back from Mexico without having tried a single handmade tortilla? That’s no way to live.
Proven Strategies for Local Food Tasting:
Find the most crowded place
It’s probably got delicious food, and if the local people aren’t dropping dead, there’s a good chance it won’t kill you either.
Leave the neat-freak in you at the airport
Just because people don’t spritz every surface with Chlorox, doesn’t mean the food they prepare will destroy your intestines. Of course you shouldn’t eat anything that will obviously make you sick, but don’t turn up your nose if everything isn’t starched white.
Get in line even if you don’t know what for (time for a surprise!)
Nobody lines up for the worst hot dog in the world, they line up for the best (which if you are curious, is apparently in Iceland).
Locate the bathroom on the way in, you might need it in half an hour
Head off the number one (or number two) disadvantage of local food, that’s smart preparation, people.
Practice your language and smile, and if language eludes you try body language and hope for the best
In Morocco I pointed to what everybody else had and it worked out great; in Mexico, I recognized two words on the menu ‘taco’ and ‘meat’ and managed to order a delicious meal.
Get off the tourist track (obviously)
That nice-looking curry restaurant in Thailand might seem authentic, but wait! If it’s full of white people, the dishes they serve are Westernized. Unless you want to eat the same stuff you do at home, leave the tourists behind and try a place with a name that isn’t in English.
Find the smallest place you can
You’ll know from eating at home that the biggest places don’t always have the best food. If the food’s good, who cares if it’s smaller than your university dorm room?
Eat outside at a food stall/cart/hole in the wall
You’ve eaten from a food truck at home, so why wouldn’t you buy from a cart in Laos? Of course keep cleanliness in mind and a sharp eye for the public bathroom, but don’t rule it out just because it’s on the street corner.
Have plenty of water on hand
Water is easy to find, and usually inexpensive. Keep it handy for washing down your local cuisine, or choking it down depending what you’ve got yourself into.
Pack some pills
You can try Dukoral, but it’s expensive and not always effective, so I don’t use it. I’ve have better luck addressing stomach issues with Immodium. Seriously. I take it on every trip.
Your tuk tuk driver, the hostel manager, and any local person you meet and trust will be able to recommend a place to eat. What if you get a biased opinion and end up at their friend/brother/mother/cousin’s restaurant? As long as the food is good, who cares?
Have small change in local currency, or small USD bills
Shockingly, Visa and MasterCard are not as widely accepted as they would like you to believe. Eating local food requires local currency. You’re giving all of us a bad rep when you’re the foreigner who can’t pay for a meal.
Locate your backup plan
When all else fails, make haste to the tourist road. You still might be able to try something adventurous like Halal McNuggets, or a Teriyaki burger.
As a visitor in a foreign land, you’ve got a responsibility to respect the local culture, a chance to be an ambassador for your home country, and the opportunity to stuff your face. Try a little, or try a lot, and the memories will be as unforgettable as the food. Excited about the food on your next trip, learn how to tell people about it without boring them, check out Stop Being a Jerk: 5 Rules for Talking About Travel.