By Kristi Willis
Illustration by Hillary Weber-Gale
One of the joys of traveling is discovering the tastes that are unique to a specific place. Whether it’s stumbling upon a bounty of crisp, sweet apples at a fall farmers market in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or being greeted by grilled Pacific oysters on the docks of San Juan Island, Washington, there is true pleasure in being able to savor the indigenous flavors of that place at that moment.
Of course, getting past the chain restaurants and tourist traps to find the true local gems can take a little work; a bit of research before the trip can mean the difference between a meal to remember for years and a forgettable plate in the hotel restaurant.
Travel sites often provide a list of places that cater to tourists and may not have the authentic quality desired. Instead, search the local newspaper’s website for favored dining spots that might be out of the main tourist districts and for upcoming food festivals—a convenient way to taste a variety of local food in one place.
If the city is one of approximately 65 with an Edible Communities publication, search their website for local markets, restaurants and food artisans. Perusing a few back issues online provides a quick introduction to food trends in that area as well as background about the restaurants and food artisans who are working with area farms.
Websites like eatwellguide.org curate information about local, sustainable and organic markets, restaurants and food artisans in the U.S. and Canada—making it easy to find off-the-beaten-path recommendations. The site also offers a searchable database, as well as featured guides for states, high-profile cities and key regions. Users can also create their own personal guides by adding their picks to online notebooks that can be downloaded as pdf files.
And before heading out for international travel, explore the native cuisine online to help demystify unfamiliar dishes. Austin veteran bloggers Rachel and Logan Cooper documented their recent fourteen-month trip exploring the food cultures of South America, Africa and Asia for Go Find Food, an iPhone app due out in early 2013, on their blog, bootsintheoven.com.
Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, travels the globe to learn about different food cultures. He suggests trusting your gut, being curious and forcing yourself to explore by renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel.
“When you get out of the hotel, it forces you to learn the city and discover new things,” says Zimmern. “That’s how you find the neighborhood bistro and practice the language. It forces you to ask questions.”
Exploring the markets is another good way to learn about the local food culture. Zimmern suggests looking for the markets frequented by locals, not the larger tourist markets—opting for the Sant Antoni market in Barcelona over La Boqueria, for example, or the University District Farmers Market in Seattle rather than Pike Place.
While shopping, don’t hesitate to ask about unfamiliar ingredients, how to cook things or for other food and restaurant recommendations. While buying lamb at the market in Paris, Zimmern learned from the butcher where to get the best roasted potatoes to make a perfect pairing for dinner.
If you do opt for the hotel or resort, don’t settle for hotel fare, which is often a limited example of local cuisine or an expensive version of American food. Zimmern suggests asking the hotel staff for advice on where to dine. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, he asked the driver to take him where he would go with his family on a Sunday night and says, “It was the best meal we had that trip.”
On the last night of the same trip, Zimmern asked the chefs at his resort if they would be willing to cook a local meal rather than the standard resort menu, which was surprisingly lacking in local dishes. “The chefs at the restaurant were so excited,” Zimmern says, but they also questioned whether Zimmern’s family really wanted to eat what the locals eat. “That’s exactly what we wanted,” Zimmern says, and his family shared a lovely meal of roasted baby pig, yucca and avocado salad with a few other families they’d met during their trip—all for the same price as a standard meal at the hotel.
Of course, being a TV celebrity isn’t necessary to have an amazing food journey. Armed with a healthy curiosity and a willingness to stumble a little on the way, anyone can create enduring food memories that rival that breathtaking hike through the forest or the stunning view from the Eiffel Tower.