Traveling Abroad Soon? Here Are 7 Tips on How to Eat Like a Local in the Country You’re Visiting
Words: JJ Yulo/Illustration: Monica Esquivel
First published in August 18 2014 issue Pepper.PH
When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do….or the Japanese do, or the French do.
When travelling, everyone wants to be a “local” these days. Why go where all the (ugh) throngs of tourists go to when everyone knows the best stuff is always where the locals hang out? Since this is a food blog, this adage holds especially true for eats.
Nowadays, when I travel, I always do loads of research, maybe even too much sometimes. I get so engrossed on this task, and lean so much on it, that I stress out when I’m about to board a plane without sufficient notes (yes, I have a notebook! What a nerd!) It’s like going to a major exam unprepared. (Well, I did that all the time, actually.) Suffice to say, its good to have something to lean on when you go somewhere you’re not familiar with.
So how do you eat like a local? Here are a few tips!
1. Dial a Friend
Before I leave for a place, I fire up the laptop and ask any friends who’ve been there what their more memorable meals were. These days, everyone has a friend or 12 who are obsessed with food—those are the ones you want to approach. Put them on speed dial even! This is usually my first line of research. There are some epic restaurant lists circulating amongst my circles, actually—and it’s funny how far beyond the original writer’s circle these lists reach!
2. Go Online
Well, duh. We live in an age where whole research papers are culled from online info. When searching for joints to grub on, researching is actually fun—check out websites like Eater (although this is very US-centric) and, if you don’t mind trawling through tons of information, Chowhound, which is also US centric, but they do have boards for tips for areas around the world. Chowhound is an incredible resource – you’ll see some names pop up quite frequently, and if you research them you’ll find they’re some of the top gourmands and bloggers around—especially in the Asian boards. Remember, of course, that food is subjective, and tips are meant to be guides, and not the end all and be all. In other words, one can get burned by relying too much on these, too. Trust your instincts.
3. The Fastest Way from Point A to Point B is a Straight Line
One of the things I forget to do these days when I travel is to ditch all my preparedness and just get lost in the moment. It sounds funny, I know, but when was the last time you just let go and freewheeled it in a foreign country? I know it’s been awhile for me. Sometimes all you have to do is take a walk in a great neighborhood, and look for the locals queuing up. Usually that means good eats, no matter how dodgy the place may look. According to a book I read, one of the hottest street food sources in Iceland is this non-descript shack selling the most incredible hot dog sandwiches done the Icelandic way. I’ll take that over heading to a TGI Friday’s any day.
4. Unshackle the Chains
Speaking of TGI Friday’s, I would do my best to try and stay away from big chain restaurants. I mean, they are what they are—and some of them are actually guilty pleasures of mine—but unless you’re bleary, jet lagged and in no mood to explore the terrain, there is no need to spend some cash on the all too familiar. Life is, after all, an adventure. Be adventurous!
5. Local is as Local Does
I do food tours to Hong Kong every so often, and people always talk to me about the places I take my guests to. My general rule—everything we eat should be Chinese in one way or another, because that’s the strength of Hong Kong. Sure you can get some Michelin starred French food, or Italian, or whatever—but I’ll save my limited tummy space for Chinese stuff. It can be the corner street food stall, selling giant fish balls dipped in satay sauce, or that shop selling all Chinese desserts, or the noodle maker to the stars—Chinese food can go in so many directions…as can other cuisines as well (I’m talking to you, Japan).
6. Play House
This is a great way to learn how to eat like a local—try to score an invite to someone’s home, especially in places where home cooking has a lot of soul. I’ve been told the most incredible meals to be had, say, in Iloilo or Bicol, is at some family’s humble abode. Here you will be plied with local specialties proudly cooked, good old fashioned hospitality, and quite often a history lesson to boot. If it all works out, you make new friends too. That’s a whole lot of win if you ask me.
7. The Nose Knows
Sounds stupid, I know, but using your schnozz as a food radar is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If it smells divine, chances are it’ll taste divine too. I noticed that in Japan, a lot of places point their exhaust right out the front door—so anyone walking past it will get a good whiff for sure. That kind of trickery wreaks havoc on your stomach when you’re hungry—smart of them, if you ask me.
The world is your oyster! Go out there and search for the pearl! Safe travels!