Trying different cuisines and dishes is a large part of our holidays. Sometimes it may as well be the highlight of our travels. Would you ever forget the taste of Pici Pasta – a delicious hand-rolled Tuscany delight that you had on your travels to Italy? Or how you relished Hainanese Chicken Rice from a humble hawker centre in Singapore?
Trying different foods helps us discover a country and its people. It also helps stock our pantries with diverse ingredients and our recipe books are richer with a multitude of new and exciting recipes to try out. But how can you get the best out of your eating adventures? How do you know where to go and what to avoid?
If you are driven by the desire to eat like a local and steer clear of overtly touristy eateries, we’ve some tips on hand. These will certainly help in getting you more authentic experiences.
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A little research goes a long way in ensuring that you get to eat like a local. It helps you get the inside scoop on where the locals go when they want a sweet treat or a good roast. So where do you start? If you have the time, indulge in some quick Internet research. Many food bloggers or even bloggers who live locally have great posts and suggestions on their favourite places to eat and drink in the region. They will not only have a handy list of restaurants, cafes, street foods and food trucks but there may also be more. A bit about the local cuisine, festivals and feasts. So if you see something you like, save it for your journey. A lot of bloggers also reply to emails, so if you have a query, do send mail to them or leave a comment on their post! And if you’re more into reading non-fiction books, they are a good resource as well, including city/destination guides that provide listings of restaurants and cafes.
Ask your host and the hotel staff
It always helps to ask. Most people are more than happy to recommend their favourite restaurant or bakery – be it your Airbnb host or the hotel staff. The way I’d frame my questions is: ‘If you had to take your family out for a good meal, where’d you go?’ Or ‘I feel like a good snack, something that I can carry with me. Is there a bakery nearby that you recommend?/ What dish would you have at this time of the year and where?’ It has always led me to interesting and authentic places. Once on an all-girls trip, our driver took us to a really quaint (and sans any frills) place in Coorg, Karnataka. It served one of the softest and most delicious steamed rice balls (called Kadumbuttu in the local parlance). This eatery, located in the basement of a nondescript-looking building was a great find.
The steamed rice balls came paired with a fiery curry, and I have never forgotten how flavoursome they were. I know for a fact that we’d have never found the place on our own. However, asking our driver, and being open to eating where he suggested really led us to an culinary experience we’d never forget. On that trip to Coorg, we certainly ate as locals do!
Follow the crowds and the queues
This tip is tried and tested and has been put to good use on several of our trips. Let me give you an example. In Malta, we were resting our tired feet on a bench in Rabat when we came upon a serpentine queue. Made up of people on their lunch break, men and women with wizened, kindly face, schoolchildren and young people, it snaked its way to a modest-looking bakery. This was our clue. We joined the line. It led us to our best Pastizzi in Malta. Piping hot from a multi-tiered oven, and filled with ricotta, peas and chicken, it was an absolute treat!
We would have certainly missed this modest little bakery known as Crystal Palace if we hadn’t joined the queue of people out on their lunch break! So do join the queue or make a beeline for a place that is crowded with locals. If the locals trust a place and its fare, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Take a food tour or a cooking class
Food tours are a really fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon or a few hours in a new city. You get to sample a variety of food and drink, meet the people behind these dishes, and maybe even a renowned chef! Food tours can also offer a pub crawl or a discovery of the best coffee haunts. You just need to find something that ignites your curiosity.
You can also take a cooking class, eat homemade food and get access to an heirloom recipe if that’s something you rather fancy.
Visit farmers’ markets, bazaars, food fairs
Sometimes you may get lucky and be in a city when its Friday food market is being held, or its annual food feast is on. A lot of hotels and resorts also celebrate food festivals that are centered around a local custom or ingredient. For example, if you were in Antalya in September, you could’ve made some time for the ‘International Food Fest Antalya’. If you’re planning to go to Portugal in January, you could make time for the Pork Sausage Festival. Known locally as Festa das Chouriças, it’s one of the most popular Portuguese food festivals. Located in the Algarve region in Querença, this festival honors St. Luís, patron of the animals and includes homemade sausage, musical performances, religious celebrations and a procession.
Then there are the local markets. No matter what time of the year, you visit a country, there’s always a market that you could explore. When you go to a local market, it’s a win-win. Not only do you get to eat a variety of foods and treats that are authentic, but you can also shop for goodies to bring back with you! A little taste of Italy, Majorca, India or Portugal to spice up your pantry or sweeten your evening tea!
There’s always something going on – you just need to find it, and chase your culinary travel dreams. Did you enjoy our tips on how to eat like a local? If you’ve some of your own, we are all ears.