Eating local cuisine (whether it be traditional or modern) is a sure fire way to experience and connect with a culture whilst traveling. Not only does it tell us a story about the heritage of a certain place but it helps us to understand how the local people attach meaning to the daily ritual of food consumption. Throughout time food has been used as a means of trade (cocoa beans, salt, beer), a symbol of age, status, gender and taste as well as a link to religion. Therefore food is not only important nutritionally but symbolically, not only biologically but culturally and not only individually but collectively as a form of identity engagement. Eating local food is like a key, one that unlocks a distinct part of the world, one that you’d miss if you didn’t try that piping hot bowl of beef soup (Pho), that buttery flaky pastry (croissant oui oui) or that fat roll stuffed with about 100 (hyperbole people) ingredients (Poppiah). Wah, i’m hungry already! Just in case you need further convincing here’s some reasons to eat local while in a foreign place.
1. It’s usually cheaper and fresher – using local and seasonal ingredients tends to be a lot cheaper than buying comfort food! For example when I was living in Milan I was really craving avocado on toast (i’m a simple gal!) but avocados aren’t grown locally (usually imported from South America) and at €5 a pop I wasn’t going to be buying them any time soon. Instead I opted for fresh radicchio, vine-ripened tomatoes, wild ruccola, zucchini and green beans. You’ll also notice that in Italy just how expensive McDonalds is, for example (depending on where you are) a bowl of fresh pasta from a local trattoria is €5 compared to a meal from Macca’s comes close to €9. Nonna would be happy!
2. It supports the local economy – street vendors, hawker stalls and small restaurants are great places to eat because they help to directly support the local economy. At night markets in Thailand there are countless vendors selling delicious specialities such as papaya salad, tom yam, green curry, khao tom mat and phat thai and not only is the food incredible but what you buy will help sustain the livelihood of each stall owner. So don’t be afraid to talk to them, learn about their methods and preparation as well as hear their story. It’s a great way to enrich your perspective on life both on the plate and off.
3. Change those taste buds – sure, not every local dish you try will be something you like but until you try it you’ll never know! Eating new foods helps you expand your taste buds, for example I never thought I would like seafood but having eaten countless local seafood pastas in Cinque Terre (filled to the brim with mussels, razor clams, fish and prawns) I realised just how incredible it is, i really was missing out! On the other hand in Porto I tried a very local famous dish called francesinha and honestly I didn’t like it at all (really heavy, too much meat – artery attack), despite a lot of my friends polishing up the entire plate. So yes you’ll love some stuff and perhaps not love other things but it’s all part of the experience, and that’s what you’re traveling for isn’t it?
4. Be smart – now some savoury advice that might seem a little antithetical to what i’ve been saying! Be careful about what you eat if you’re buying food from a stall or street market. I personally wouldn’t eat street food when I was in India as it was monsoon season and I wasn’t 100% comfortable with the level of hygiene used to prepare the food (i.e. seeing veggies being washed in unfiltered tap water). So just use your own personal judgement, if it looks ok to you go for it, if you’re not sure it’s not going to end well (you getting sick) then give it a pass.
Well that’s my spiel over, hope it’s inspired more of you to eat local whilst you travel abroad! I’d also love to hear from you, what’s been your favourite local dish from your travels… perhaps something that you didn’t expect to like?
Ciao ciao amici!