Immersing oneself in the local culture is one of the biggest reasons for travel. And the more doors the internet opens to us, the more critical authenticity of the experience becomes.
We can walk through museums and galleries virtually and look at the videos and pictures of local landmarks. So it becomes even more important to participate in it all hands-on: walk through small hidden streets, soak up the local colors, talk to local people - or eat local food.
Even those who wouldn’t call themselves epicureans will frequently name local food as one of the most critical aspects of their travels. And can you blame them? Food may not matter to you past the satisfaction of having something tasty. Still, it is one of the easiest ways to immerse yourself in local culture, and having a bad food experience tends to dampen any other pleasures you may be experiencing.
But if you are a foodie and food matters to you, then it goes past eating well. It’s an independent adventure similar to walking through the city’s main museum: if you don’t experience it, you might not have experienced the city at all.
And to experience the local food culture to the fullest, especially when you have limited time on hand, requires both a commitment and a battle plan you’re willing to see through.
We’ve broken down our tips into four different sections:
Which Flavors from Abroad Do You Need to Try?
For most of us, trips abroad are limited in time. If you have a month to do nothing but roam the streets and dig into every hole-in-the-wall restaurant that comes across your way, then that is something you can do. But if you only have a few days and you’d like to visit the local landmarks, go sightseeing, and enjoy a lifetime, then you have to work within constraints that don’t lend themselves well to spontaneity.
- Do The Research
Every similar list starts with this advice, and that’s, well, because there’s no way around it: you need to be equipped with information before you go on your trip to save yourself both time and money.
Start by researching the food customs of the country you’ll be visiting: the most common breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, how the ingredients tend to be paired, how and when a dish is eaten, and what signs set quality food from the lower-quality ones, etc.
You can even do some pre-emptive planning and start marking the eating establishments around your itinerary that seem exciting and well-regarded. Maybe they’re not the most optimal choice for tasting local delicacies, but you’ll at least have a plan B to fall onto if your quest for a more authentic experience fails.
- Focus On Things You’ll Have the Least Chance of Finding Outside the Country
Try to dig deeper into the regional specialties (both ingredients and dishes) of the places you’ll be visiting. For example, if you’re visiting Italy, finding high-quality pasta or pizza isn’t likely going to be the problem, even if you visit more tourist-oriented establishments. Instead, focus on traditional Italian food you don’t expect to find at an Italian restaurant back home.
- Take Advantage of Social Media
Social Media can be a wealth of information (as long as you avoid all the sponsored posts, and trust me, that’s going to be hard once the search engine catches you being interested in something). Ideally, look for a local food blogger and scroll through their posts, marking the exciting spots with dishes that seem appealing. But if a local foodie isn’t available, a travel blogger sharing your interest in immersing themselves in the local culture could also help.
- What Do You Want to Try? Have a List Ready to Go
Keep a notebook nearby when doing your research, and write up every item you’re interested in trying. Knowing exactly what you’re looking for will make it much easier to find.
- Learn How to Ask for it in a Local Language
Another thing that’ll make the things you’re looking for easier to ask is learning how to ask for them in the local language. It doesn’t matter if it’s a few broken phrases you’ve strung together with the help of Duolingo or is using Google Translates jumbled (and often incorrect) translation. Locals seeing you putting some effort in and trying to communicate with them will make them more eager to help you. And having a local keen to help you is a powerful tool.
Where to Get The Local Flavors:
Now that you’ve got your list of things you’d like to try, it’s time to decide where you’ll be trying them. Finding the right spots to get good food is even more important if you’re still undecided and only want to immerse yourself in local food culture without direction.
- Ask the Locals
Put out a call for help on your social media (foodies love sharing their favorite spots). Ask your Airbnb owner or a receptionist at the hotel where you should go (and emphasize that you’re not interested in the best establishments but the simplest that offer local cuisine). Ask a bartender where to get this or that when he’s mixing your drink. Why not? Even if it feels awkward, you’re unlikely to meet these people again. Be awkward and get your prize.
- Step Outside Tourist Zones
If adventure is on your mind and you want to try your chances, check Google Maps for the least touristy routes (no important landmarks or famous gathering spots nearby) and go off the beaten path. It will take your time, and you will need to free up a day from sightseeing - but the results may be well worth it, especially if the local food experience is essential to you.
- Small Establishments and Native Language
It’s something most epicureans know, but it’s worth repeating: small establishments with monolingual menus are often the most likely suspects of serving good local dishes. It means their target group is the local population, and they’re managing to maintain a steady enough customer influx that they don’t require to revamp anything to attract additional clientele. These establishments are either excellent, or they’re an excellent local experience. Either way, visiting one is a win-win.
- Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open
That said, simply being a hole-in-the-wall with a monolingual menu doesn’t automatically turn an establishment into something worth visiting. First of all, pay attention to how busy it is and who they’re serving: if it’s full of people and they’re mostly speaking in a native tongue, then it’s worth sitting down, for dining with the locals if nothing else. If they’re empty and people are skipping it for other establishments nearby, you’re probably better off finding something else. I know I wouldn’t risk it unless there’s a chance specific circumstances might be at fault. For example, if I’m trying to find a good spot during summer siesta in Spain, expecting a lot of people there would be unreasonable.
- Find Establishments that Specialize in Specific Items
The fewer things the establishment specializes in, the higher the chances that it knows how to deliver them best. It’s particularly true in Asia, where locals often dine at small food stalls on streets or at markets. You have a better chance of getting the best popular traditional Japanese food like takoyaki (fried octopus snack), yakitori (skewered grilled meat), or okonomiyaki at food stalls dotting the streets instead of high-end restaurants. Similarly, you’d get the best Korean tteokbokki, mandu dumplings, and tteok pancakes at food markets, where they’re served in paper cups, with not much else on the menu.
- Assess the Risks
Eating like a local may come with certain risks in certain areas. Both in a monetary sense (you may have trouble paying, you may be tricked into overpaying, etc.) and for health if the establishment isn’t adhering to proper standards. These risks are particularly prevalent with street food (I, myself, have been warned by more than one person to avoid Indian street food when asking for advice for an upcoming trip). You’re the only one who can decide how far you’re willing to go for an authentic local eating experience, but keep the risks in mind.
Local =/= Traditional
Many confuse traditional food with food locals like to eat all the time. Unfortunately, that is not so. Many locally popular establishments may have nothing at all to do with native cuisine. It’s why so important to ask not only about the local establishments people would recommend but what exactly they’re recommending it for.
- Be Open to New Interpretations
Sometimes the interpretation of a traditional dish at a locally famous establishment may be different from what you expect. It may be prepared with alternate ingredients, it may be a vegetarian or a vegan version of the dish, or a Chef may have utilized a new technique. Take it in stride and enjoy it: it’ll probably bring you closer to local epicures than the general population, but hey, they’re locals too!
- Locals Like McDonald’s Too
Back on my first trip to Spain, I was pretty surprised to go into McDonald’s and find it full of locals instead of confused tourists like myself. And same goes for other chain restaurants like KFC and Burger King. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
Whether we like it or not, fast food is a prevalent part of food culture. Finding a local fast food chain to try local fast food can be a very satisfying experience (and sometimes, I’d argue, a necessity! You have to try Korean fried chicken from one of the large chains if you want to behave like a local. That’s what they love!). Even a McDonald’s might carry something unique on the menu, depending on where you are. If you miss something familiar, don’t feel guilty about suddenly changing the course: just visit Mcdonald’s! It won’t make your experience any less local.
- Artisans vs. Supermarkets
That said, sometimes what the locals do en masse may not be the best choice for you with your limited time and resources. For example, if you have a chance to get traditional Spanish food from small artisans (quality chorizo and jamón from a butcher, manchego directly from a cheesemaker, etc.), then take it without a second thought!
Frankly speaking, that’s not what locals do, at least not most of the time. Do you get American cheese slices at a local supermarket or an artisan shop? Most locals shop at markets (and I don’t mean farmers’ markets) because it’s cheaper and more accessible, with artisan products as an occasional treat.
Better be a tourist than a local in this case if you ask me. And yes, I have had a professional butcher vacuum-seal 2.5lbs of jamón for me to take it home as a souvenir, paying double what I’d pay at a supermarket. It was worth it!
- Book a Food Tour or Take a Cooking Class
Okay, this is not exactly a local way of doing things. Food tours and cooking classes are 99% of the time a tourist experience. But, if you find a trustworthy company to book with, it’ll bring you closer to the local and traditional cuisine of the country much quicker and easier than you’d be able to do yourselves. People responsible for them know that authentic experience is what their clients are looking for, and if they’re good at what they do, they find the establishments that specialize in exactly what you’re looking for: simple, fair locals enjoy. And, really, does it get more local than enjoying pasta that Italian nonna rolled out for you?
Locals Aren’t Always Right
And last, but not least, you must keep in mind that taking a gamble at local establishments means being ready for disappointment. You can always check on TripAdvisor or Google Reviews if the establishment a local is recommending you is well-reviewed, but most of us would be tempted to try it out anyway. And you can’t always expect it to be good.
- Nostalgia Effect and Rose-tinted Glasses
First of all, if the establishment has a long history, locals are bound to view it through rose-tinted glasses. It may have long become mediocre or even bad, but if people in the community have a strong emotional connection to it, they’re bound to perceive it as being better than it is. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to things we used to enjoy in our childhoods (when our palates were less refined).
- Don’t Let Disappointment Discourage You
If a recommendation from a local didn’t work out for you, it’s not a reason to discard recommendations from others. The urge may be strong, especially with small and unremarkable establishments. Too bad that the first one didn’t work out, but now it’s time to try the next!
- Value Experience Above All Else
Wherever you may be, finding good food will always be simpler than finding an immersive experience. If you’re sitting down with the locals, trying a new dish you wouldn’t likely try back in your home country, then that’s already a win. We, epicures, love good food, it’s true. But we also love a good food experience, do we not? Even if sometimes the experience is a miss and not a hit, value it. Now, you can say there’s one more thing that you’ve tried and know how it is (even if you don’t particularly like it).