¨The gentle art of gastronomy is a friendly one. It hurdles the language barrier, makes friends among civilized people, and warms the heart¨.
Trying new foods is one of the top reasons why I love traveling. I enjoy eating in every type of restaurants from small market kiosks to five-star venues with renowned chefs. I like all kinds of tastes-spicy, sweet, sour, and savory-and am willing to try almost any type of dish. (Many of my favorite plates feature ¨exotic¨ ingredient like beef cheek, horse, eel, etc.). I think that trying different meals is an essential part of learning about and enjoying a destination. I particularly love discovering unexpected foods and culinary destinations.
Unlike many other parts of travel, I enjoy spontaneity when choosing my food experiences. I do not make reservations in advance and often select a restaurant simply because I have a craving for a particular type of food, the food smells or looks good, or I like the ambiance. That said, many of my best food experiences came from recommendations from guidebooks, blogs, TV shows, and websites.
- Excellent Food Related Resources
- Food Safety Tips
- Top Tips for a Fun Food Experiences
- Top Food Travel Tips
- Budget Food Tips
Excellent Food Related Resources
¨Food is our common ground, a universal experience¨.
- Kindle book. Jodi Ettenberg’s The Food Traveler’s Handbook: How to Find Cheap, Safe and Delicious Food Anywhere in the World is well written and offers loads of excellent tips regarding food.
- Claim Compass and Happy Belly Fish provide an excellent directory of food blogs. (Check out their food pages for details)
- People’s Guide to Mexico after forty years remains the best guidebook in my opinion to any country in the world. I reread their sections on food every chance I get. Lonely Planet has many excellent food-related guides. Unfortunately, they have stopped publishing their excellent guides to the cuisine in different countries around the world. (They now offer cookbooks instead). However, their comprehensive Ultimate Eat List is still worthwhile and fun to read.
- TV shows. I enjoyed watching all the shows with Anthony Bourdain before he died. He had a very fresh, often incredibly insightful take on the places and the foods in the places he visited. He also visited more countries than anyone else. I usually make a point of going on I-Tunes to download one of his No Reservations or Parts Unknown episodes before I visit a new country. (The episodes typically cost around $1.95-$3.95 on I-Tunes). I also have seen two Netflix series that I love: The Chef´s Table and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. (I was delighted that Samin Nosrat, the host, chose my adopted home state of the Yucatan in Mexico for her episode on acidic foods).
Food Safety Tips
¨I am not a glutton- I am an explorer of food¨.
After spending almost twelve years on the road, my stomach seems to have absorbed so many different microbes that I rarely get diarrhea or other food-borne illnesses. I used to, however, have numerous bouts of Delhi Belly or Montezuma’s Revenge. There is nothing more frustrating on the road. (I once threw up and had nasty diarrhea simultaneously in the back seat of a cab in Mumbai). Therefore, I highly recommend that Fifty-Plus Nomads do their best to ensure that their food is safe. Here are some of my best (and other travel experts) tips for avoiding food safety issues:
- Eat in a busy place, at the same time that locals eat. Otherwise, you may be eating food that is not fresh.
- Exercise caution when eating at buffets, even at higher-end restaurants. The food at buffets is often left out for hours which can attract all kinds of unpleasant microbes.
- Don’t be afraid to send back food if it is only lukewarm. Heat kills the most dangerous microbes.
- Street food can be safe if there is a line of people. The line means that food moves fast and that lots of others have not had problems with the food. It is a particularly good sign if there are a lot of families or seniors in line. If the food is safe for children and seniors, it is safe for everyone.
- Avoid ice and water in cheaper, local-oriented restaurants, unless it is typically safe in your destination. To find out if the water is safe in your destination, ask around, check internet advice or consult the Can I Drink the Water website.
- At a restaurant or food kiosk check to make sure that: (1) food is handled separately from money and ingredients are separate from each other (i.e., raw meat next to tortillas), (2) the tables, silverware, plates. The food workers themselves, etc. are clean and (3) if you can see the kitchen prep area, check if they use gloves/tongs and that the food looks fresh.
- In Emerging Countries, check to see if a packaged food is altered. Occasionally vendors add water to drinks. You can tell if it is altered if the bottle opens too quickly or is loose. (Much less common than 20 years ago). Also, check to see if the food is expired. Watch out, occasionally the date on the package reflects when the food was packaged rather than the best by date.
- Avoid fruit that cannot be peeled if the water is not usually safe. Please note that a lot of places like Mexico use bottled water often to clean fruit etc. Eat fruit in season. It is fresher, safer, and better tasting.
- If you get diarrhea, eat bread and use oral rehydration salts. Drink lots of bottled water, sports drinks, and decaffeinated tea.
- If you are dehydrated, place water with ice (as cold as possible) in a pitcher and pour it over yourself. (Note: Alcohol is dehydrating. Always, in a tropical climate, drink water along with alcoholic drinks).
Top Tips for a Fun Food Experience
¨Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture¨
- Visit places where food and drinks are made. Like vineyard, breweries, cheese making factories and distilleries. Check out seasonal food happenings in your destination such as the cabane a sucre (sugar shack) where maple syrup is made in Quebec. Sometimes you can have a great time visiting these food manufacturers in unexpected places. I enjoyed my visit to the food and drink manufacturers, for example, in Bolivia and Peru. (Fruto de Leche Cheese factory/restaurant in Achacolla, Bolivia; the Matahualpa Coffee Plantation in Coroico Bolivia; and Museo de Cocoa: Chocolate Making Workshop in Cuzco, Peru).
- Obsession with food can be a great way to connect with locals and other travelers. Some of my, and other travel experts, favorite ways to share our love of food with locals include:
- Asking people where you can find the best local delicacies.
- Eating in a market and talking to other diners about what they like.
- Requesting recipes. Most people will gladly oblige if they think there is some benefit for them such as a future client or a tip.
- Talking to fellow dinners about condiments. In Mexico and much of Southeast Asia, condiments dishes arrive with many spices. Asking locals about which sauces to use can be fun. If you can tolerate spicy food, locals will be impressed by your fortitude.
- Asking waiters for their recommendations can be a great way to break the ice with seemingly fussy waiters in France and Italy. Several times, waiters warmed to me when I ordered dishes that most tourists did not try including andouille (stomach) and joue (beef cheeks).
- One of my great joys of traveling is trying different drinks. I particularly love drinking enjoy fizzy, Lambrusco wine (from the Emilia-Romagna area of Italy), amaro (bitters), prosecco (champagne), spritz (aperol), and limoncello in Italy. I adore Mexican juices (usually called agua) like tamarind, jamaica (dried hibiscus leaves), Chaya (a type of spinach in the Yucatan). I also love most tequila drinks especially margaritas. I sometimes dream about the fabulous Pisco (a type of Brandy) sours in Peru.
- Look for unexpected flavors of familiar foods. One of my favorite things to do is try unexpected flavors of ice cream. Some of my favorite flavors include green apple, grapefruit, and lemon gelatos in Italy; fig, tequila, guanabana (guava), and corn nieves (ices) in Mexico; and sour cream ice cream in Poland. My heart skips a beat whenever I see an outlet of Tepoznieves in Mexico. (Their main outlet in Tepoztlan has over 100 delicious flavors including some with chile)! My love for wonderful flavors does not end with ice cream. Some of my favorite Mexican dishes include sweet tamales (with raisins and cinnamon- my mouth waters just writing about it) and tacos de seso (brain).
- Staying with locals can be an excellent way to get some good food. As I talk about in other parts of this blog, I have stayed with many families around the world as part of my efforts to learn other languages. Some of the families were fantastic cooks. One of the families in Oaxaca, Mexico even prepared many different types of mole so that I could try them all.
- If you do not like something, play with condiments. At first, I did not like much spice in my food. Now, whenever I eat Mexican food in the USA or Canada, I find myself asking for some hot sauce. I always apply a couple of drops of salsa on my hand and lick it to see how hot it is before adding it to my dish. Be aware, some plates in different countries vary a lot depending on the spices that the cook chooses (i.e., Indian curry and Mexican mole).
- Foods can vary a lot by region. Many of the foods we in the US associate with a particular cuisine come from one region of the featured country. (Mexican food in the US is from near the US-Mexican border; Chinese food is from Canton; Italian food from Naples; Indian food from the Punjab and North). Many travelers are surprised by how different food can be in other regions of the same country. The Yucatan has a very different diet than the rest of Mexico (a lot of turkey, duck, chaya, and sour oranges). Sichuan Chinese food is much spicier than Cantonese food. Northern Italian cuisine, to me, has a lot more similarities with French food than its more tomato-based Neapolitan cousin. (Sicilian food even has an Arabic touch). Southern Indian cuisine is spicier and has a lot more vegetables and legumes than Northern Indian food. While I like the food in Spain, the Basque region (I can wax poetic about the pintxos) has some of the best food in Europe. I love learning about these regional differences and encourage all Fifty-Plus Nomads to explore these cuisines, too.
- Food is a fascinating way to learn about history and culture. In recent years there has been a spate of books that talk about the origins and dispersion of different foods. I have read books about vanilla, coffee, cod, chocolate, and sugar. Learning about these foods can provide a background to your travels, particularly if you are going to visit the origin of a particular ingredient. (Mexico is home to chocolate, corn, and vanilla. Ethiopia is the origin of coffee. Potatoes come from Peru).
- Take a multi-day, culinary tour. I had a great time on a week-long tour in Oaxaca, Mexico with Season of My Heart Cooking School founder, Susana Trilling. She arranged for us to eat with some excellent home cooks in small villages throughout Oaxaca. We even ate a delicious gourmet meal in the middle of a chile de arbol field and prepared one of the best meals I have ever eaten at her school.
- I enjoy cooking classes even though I do not cook very much. Many of the tours feature cooking demonstrations and market visits. Some (usually more expensive) are more active cooking classes. I find that either way cooking classes are a fun way to get up and close with the ingredients, smells, and colors of food. If you want to cook during the course and have a limited budget, I would suggest that you go to schools in Thailand. Chiang Mai has many cooking schools for around $50 for a whole day of activities.
- I love going to places with unexpectedly great food. While I loved the food in France and Italy, I cannot think about Copenhagen, Denmark or Cuzco, Peru without reflecting on the outstanding restaurants in both cities. (In fact, I never had anything other than an exceptional meal in either city)! I also have had some extremely tasty meals in Haiti, Chile, and Kerala. India.
- Learning about food also challenges us to consider different ways of living. Almost every rule that we consider essential, probably somewhere in the world is done entirely differently, for example:
- Almost every country eat different types of food during their meals than we are accustomed to eating. Take breakfast, for example. In Arab countries, they eat salad and vegetables. In many Asian countries, breakfasts are similar to our lunch or dinner. In Europe and the Southern end of South America, breakfast is light- just coffee and pastry. (While I love a traditional American or British breakfast, my favorite breakfasts are in Mexico and India. I like a little spice early in the morning)! In many countries (including Mexico), their main meal is lunch, and they only eat dinner (usually at a restaurant) on special occasions like a birthday. In much of the Southern part of South America, people eat dinner at around 10 p.m. The Chinese eat ample banquets with a large group of friends. In Italy, pasta is an appetizer. Many upper-end restaurants in France have a cheese course and eat salad before dessert. Some countries, like Spain, Turkey, and Russia, often eat multiple, small plates instead of the main dish. Even the name of a meal differs between countries. An entrée in France is the appetizer, not the main course.
- People also eat in many different ways. Many countries eat with their hands; others eat with chopsticks. Often, people roll their food in tortillas, roti, pita, or wraps.
- Meal etiquette also varies a lot from country to country. In some countries, if you leave food, you do not want more. In others, leftover food means you want more. Many countries consider it good manners to leave your elbows (several Latin American countries) on the table. Some countries (particularly in Asia) consider slurping soup a sign that the soup is delicious.
- Take food tours. I have been on these tours in approximately twenty different cities worldwide. I have always found them to be a fun way to try different foods, learn about the market and food culture, and get to know my fellow travelers. I have taken over 12 tours just in Montreal. (Round Table Tours in Montreal is my favorite food tour company anywhere. I particularly recommend their tea and chocolate tours).
- l like to eat at restaurants primarily because I enjoy relaxing and be served when I eat. I also like to be in a clean and comfortable place. I often linger for a while. If you, like me, do not like crowds, check for places that are full during the busiest period of the day and visit them when things are slower. Busyness is a good sign that the food is safe and tasty.
- Some meals are well-suited to restaurants and others to street vendors. Restaurants are great places to try European foods. Southeast Asia and Mexico are perfect places for street food. The kiosks usually have very clean, simple, and tasty foods. Who can resist a delicious Mexican taco stand? Singapore has the best street food in the world. Singaporeans are ardent foodies, and the health and safety standards are very high. Middle Eastern countries have some dishes that street vendors do well (tagines) and others that, because they are complex to prepare (like B’stilla in Morocco), are mostly available in restaurants.
- Eat at least one or two fancy restaurants in a new destination. I like to have a multiple course extravaganza to see the creative efforts of well-known chefs. Some of my favorite fancy restaurants include La Toque (Montreal), Ku’uk (Merida, Mexico), the Chanteclair at Hotel Negresco (Nice, France) and any restaurant by Gaston Acuario in Cuzco, Peru. If you need to save money, wait until you visit smaller towns, suburbs, or out of the way, inner-city neighborhoods. One of the best gourmet meals I ever ate was a seven-course extravaganza in Blois, France. While it was certainly not cheap (over $100 for three people in 1990), it would have cost $150 in a similar quality restaurant in Paris
- I enjoy visiting McDonald’s worldwide to see how they integrate local tastes and cultural values into their restaurants. In Bangkok, I have seen statues of Ronald McDonald wai’ing (a wai is a form of respect in which people gently place the palms of their hands together while making a slight bow to another person). I have ordered shrimp congee (a type of Chinese porridge) at McDonald’s in Hong Kong, gallo pinto (rice and beans) for breakfast in Costa Rica, wine with my Greekburger in France, pork burgers with buns made from rice in Thailand, McLobster rolls in the Canadian Maritimes, and spicy chicken curry burgers in India. (In India, no hamburgers were even available).
Top Food Travel Tips
¨Life is too short, and I’m Italian. I’d much rather drink wine and eat pasta than be a size zero¨.
- You need to ask for the bill in most of the world. I usually look at the waiter and make a gesture like I am signing a bill. Eating out, in many countries, is a special event. Most people take waiters bringing the bill to the table as a sign that the waiters want the customer to leave. (Waiters do not bring the bill because they don’t want to seem like they are rushing their clients). With time, I have come to like this tradition and sometimes am a bit bothered when waiters in the US bring the bill to the table before I want to leave.
- Don’t expect separate bills in most of the world. If you ask for separate bills, the waiters may (this is the case in Latin America) say Ok and then bring you just one bill. If you insist that they prepare separate bills, be prepared to wait for a long time and to have a bill filled with mistakes. I am amazed at how often I have had problems with this while dining with my fellow Americans in Mexico.
- Avoid eating where a lot of tourists congregate. Yes, you will find multilingual menus and waiters. However, you will usually also find either high cost, mediocre food or poor quality, lower-cost grub. Go a few blocks away, and the food choices will be a better value. Or better yet seek out restaurants listed in guidebooks, walk around looking for busy restaurants with many locals, or ask any locals you meet for suggestions. (Note: in many of these restaurants, you’ll see a professionally prepared sign with pictures of dishes outside a restaurant. Usually, this means that the plates in the photographs are probably mass-produced, frozen meals. Keep in mind, however, that this often doesn’t apply to Asian restaurants. Many of these restaurants have photos inside their menu to help foreigner visitors identify and order food.)
- Ask the price of drinks before you order and check your bill carefully. Occasionally, particularly in Southeast Asia, waiters will try to tack an expensive foreign cocktail that you did not order onto your bill. Other times, they will ask you if you want to order water, for example, and then add a gigantic charge for the water to your bill. I have frequently in Europe paid more for a bottle of water in a restaurant than a bottle of local wine or beer.
- Make sure ahead of time if you have to pay extra for rice, bread, or a cover charge before your order. Once at a Chinese restaurant in Gdansk, Poland I spent more on rice than the rest of the meal (including soup and dessert)! Also, in many countries, you have to pay a cover charge (in Italy and Portugal, for example, you typically have to pay a two to three Euros cover charge (coperto in Italy) at most restaurants).
- Find out what the local tipping traditions are like in your destination. In some countries, like Costa Rica, if tips are not included on the bill, you are still expected to provide one, unless the service is terrible. In other countries, like Italy, tips are usually not expected, though some tourist restaurants do add a service charge. Most guidebooks indicate the local traditions. Another way to find out if tips are included in a bill is to pay with a credit card. If there is a separate space for a tip, this usually means that tips are not included. In addition, locals will often be able to tell you about tipping traditions in your location. (In most countries without tipping, you still should leave a small amount if you like the service. Usually, this extra tip is equivalent to 2-5% of the bill. Most commonly people “round up” the tip. In other words, if the bill was $19.00, they’ll leave a $20 bill and let the waiter/waitress keep the extra $1.) For more information, also read this article from Conde Nast Traveler. (Note: the article is from 2008, some of the advice may be a bit outdated).
- Check to make sure that tips are not included in the bill even if you are in a country where it is not common to include tips in the bill. After New York City passed laws requiring restaurants to pay their waiters a living wage, many restaurants started to add the tips onto the bills. In some places in Latin America, waiters will add a tip to the bill if they think the diners are from Europe. (Many European countries do not have a tradition of tipping).
- In a few countries, like Nicaragua, taxes are sometimes extra, like in the US. In most countries, however, taxes are not included in the bill. (In Mexico, some restaurants include taxes in the prices on the menu, called IVA; others, do not. You will usually see a note about this on the menu).
- In much of the world, a menu in a restaurant is merely a list of what the cook and the owner think that they can prepare. If you are outside of the tourist areas, ask the waiter “what is there, today?” (in Spanish, que hay?). Don’t be afraid to ask them, “what do you recommend?” Many times, they will answer honestly. Often, you’ll find wonderful dishes that aren’t even on the menu.
- Try table d’hote style meals whenever possible. In France, most restaurants have a menu (appetizer or soup, main course, dessert) for lunch. (What we in the US call a menu, the French call la carte). In much of Latin America, busy lunch places offer a comida corrida (a running lunch). The food is quickly prepared and presented and thus usually quite safe to eat. Even if you visit a fancy restaurant, you’ll find these meals for less than the price of a typical entrée. The Costa Rican equivalent – called a “Casado” or married man special – features rice, beans, vegetables, fried plantains, and stewed meats.
- Go where people of the nationality featured in the restaurant hang out. Almost anywhere you find Chinese people (they are obsessed with good food) will have the best Chinese food in town. One of the best Mexican restaurants I ever ate at was a small Mexican fish restaurant in Chicago. I went there after a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood (an area that in the 1900s was all Czech, but today is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican) with a group of college students. I knew it would be great when we got there and discovered that no one spoke English and the place did not even have an English language menu!
- Don´t be afraid to try food from outside your destination. Some of the best restaurants where I ate in India featured Chinese-Indian fusion food.
Budget Food Tips
¨One of the nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating¨.
- Happy hours and bars are a blessing for dedicated budget travelers. While I was in Bologna, Italy, I noticed that students from the university would walk around the town searching for the bar with the best happy hour spread, so I followed them. I ate some delicious risottos, cold cuts, and pasta dishes for the cost of a single drink (usually about $5). No one seemed to care how much I ate. In Mexico, there are many cantinas (bars) that offer tasty snacks free along with the alcoholic drinks. Most are quite friendly and you can easily make a meal out of the snacks.
- Check out supermarkets (often at the bottom of department stores) and large, membership, big box stores (like Price Club and Costco) for cheap, quick (and tasty) eats. In the US, you can get a hot dog, and soft drink at Costco for less than most fast food restaurants charge for a beverage. Many extreme budget travelers even prowl these stores for free samples of food. I have met some people who make whole meals out of these samples. I once read a story of a man who traveled around Japan for a month and ate all of his dinners and lunches from samples!
- Avoid eating in places where you are a captive consumer. You’ll always pay a premium to eat food at a game, festival, or other special events and you’ll usually pay more to eat on a train. I even spent $10 for a simple sandwich on a train in Italy. That said, this practice is rare in Emerging Countries. I’ve had some tasty sandwiches, fruit, and snack on board buses (and at roadside stops) and at special events in Latin America for reasonable prices.
- Fast food is also an excellent tool in the budget traveler’s arsenal. Most Americans think of fast food as McDonald and other chain restaurants. There are dozens of other fast food places, some are chains, but most are local places. Often this fast food can be quite delicious. In Italy, for example, most fast food pizza parlors have excellent fare prepared with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Northern Europe has many Turkish fast food joints serving good quality doner-kebab (pressed lamb with vegetable and yogurt sauce placed in pita bread) and falafel (a chickpea patty) sandwiches. In Poland, look for milk bars (small cafeterias) which serve good, inexpensive cabbage rolls and other local specialties. The US has many great fast food places. I think the best part about eating in Chicago and Los Angeles are these city’s fantastic selections of fast food dives.
- Watch where locals eat within a restaurant. In some countries, like Italy, you’ll notice that a lot of people eat standing up at a bar. Why do they do that? Quite simply, you pay half standing up for food and drink at many establishments there than if you sit down. You may also pay more to sit outside in a plaza with a view than inside the same restaurant!.